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Update! The iOS 4.0.1 Report

When someone predicted Apple would release that highly-anticipated fixer-upper Thursday for at least some antenna-related issues on the latest and greatest iPhone, I was skeptical. How could anyone outside of Apple possibly know. Yet a Greek-language site, iPhone Hellas, had it right on, all the way.

Now unless I’m missing something, the only advertised fix is for the overly-optimistic cellular signal strength display. Before, you might have a marginal signal and see five bars. No doubt AT&T used that hyped reading as evidence in its long-ago promise of more bars. Of course they also promised fewer dropped calls, a claim that most everyone outside of the company and its ad agency knows is a total fantasy.

With lowered expectations, I updated an iPhone 3GS to 4.0.1. As usual, the process was uneventful. I was actually otherwise occupied doing post-production work on my radio shows, so I really didn’t pay much attention to the progress displays in iTunes. I do know that, typical of previous iOS updates, Apple doesn’t just send down a patch. You get the entire operating system each and every time, a download weighing in at hundreds of megabytes. Pity the customer with a slow broadband connection or, perish forbid, dial-up.

In addition to promising a more accurate signal strength display, the sizes of the bars representing poorer signals are larger, to make it more obvious when you’re in an area where you’re apt to drop calls.

During my travels across the Phoenix area after the update, I noticed that I was getting between three and five bars in areas where it was always stuck at the highest signal reading. One locale in the western part of the city displayed but a single bar, compared to three previously. I also encountered the only dropped call of the day there, which is to be expected. But a redial delivered a clean connection despite the marginal reading.

However, the real issue is whether Apple was, a day before its fateful press conference on the subject, capable of delivering an update that would resolve the so-called “Antennagate” dilemma. There, I said the “A” word, but it does have a ring to it.

Without an iPhone 4 to test, I contacted a friend, a Linux systems administrator who lives in Houston, and was one of the early adopters.

His experience is summed up in a short paragraph:

“The iOS 4.0.1 update seems to have made the iPhone 4 more honest about the signal it is now reporting. Since I received the phone on launch day, the phone has always reported 4-5 bars in my apartment, where I’ve had signal issues for all my phones, including those on Verizon’s network. With the new iOS 4.0.1 update the phone now reports 2-4 bars on 3G as it probably should, based on my previous experience over a 3 year period.”

Alas, the “Vulcan Death Grip” effect still exists for him. When he holds his iPhone in the prescribed fashion, the signal strength drops to but a single bar. He sent a screenshot, but I don’t think it’s necessary; you know the score.

My friend’s conclusion: “While I think this move was a good one on Apple’s part to be more honest about AT&T’s fairly poor network (as far as being oversaturated), I believe the more important fixes they should release are ones to address the proximity sensor issue, and the horrendous Bluetooth problems introduced with iOS 4.”

Most revealing is a piece of information he provided in an earlier communication, which appears to go a long way towards refuting the impression conveyed in that controversial Consumer Reports article that the death grip problem is largely confined to the newest iPhone.

“On a footnote, I have a friend who blogs for Android devices, and he received a Samsung Vibrate that experiences issues with a ‘death grip’ down to 1 bar when he holds it from the back. So it doesn’t appear to be isolated to iPhone.”

Of course that conclusion is nothing unique. Other bloggers have already demonstrated that you can cause similar symptoms on other smartphones one way or the other. The vulnerable region will vary, but it will always occur somewhere around the base of the unit, where the antennas are typically installed.

However the media reacts to Apple’s press conference, it’s a sure thing that loads of people will be far more aware of the vagaries of cell phone reception and how the position of your hand and even moving your phone a few inches can seriously alter your ability to make and receive phone calls, particularly in marginal signal areas. And forget about an elevator.

It would be nice if you could go most anywhere and be assured of getting a genuine five bars all the time. It would be just as nice for mobile handsets to deliver audio quality on a par with an ordinary landline phone. But these two wishes are just pipe dreams right now. Cellular technology is still far too imperfect when it comes to the carriers and the people who make the phones. That’s a significant lesson we’ve all learned from Antennagate.

In the meantime, now that Apple has confirmed other smartphones suffer from the same attenuation issue when touched in a specific way, will Consumer Reports consider retesting and withdrawing its harsh criticisms about the iPhone’s performance. I’m not betting on it.

So get your iPhone 4 bumpers while you can — Apple doesn’t have enough to go around, and I’m not enamored of many of the third-party cases that are available.