What do cell phone bars mean?

Absolutely nothing.

The problem with the bar display on your cell phone is that it just doesn’t tell you enough to figure out if you’re going to be able to make a call or get online. In fact, they do nothing but confuse people. Let me go into detail.

They are just flat out meaningless.

First of all, if you look around online you will find a bunch of articles that claim to “decode” the bar displays for one phone or another. But it’s already been proven that this varies not only from phone to phone, but from operating system to operating system. Your iPhone may have three bars, your friend’s Galaxy may have four, but does that mean the Galaxy gets better reception? Absolutely not. It’s probably just that at that particular moment, Samsung shows that “-65dBm” is 4 bars, while Apple chooses to show them as 3. And there’s no oversight, there’s no standard, nothing. It could all change overnight.

Your phone has about 6 radios. What does the bar measurement show?

Chances are, the bar measurement shows one of the bands that the phone can receive, but not necessarily the one you want to see. Is it showing voice? Is it showing data? You’ll never know. You can turn off cellular data but then you don’t even know which voice band is shown. Not that you should necessarily care, because if you can hear the other person then you can hear the other person. Period.

A cell booster may make things worse, at least for the bar situation.

A cellular signal booster might cause your phone to show the same number of bars, even though you have better reception. The booster may not be amplifying one of the bands you’re using, either because it was good to begin with or because it’s too weak. At that point the display on your phone might not change but you might have fewer dropped calls and better data. It does make it hard to sell boosters, I’ll tell you that. “I promise, your phone doesn’t show it but you are getting better reception…” that tends not to fly with customers.

If you have an iPhone or iPad, there’s no way to know.

Apple used to let you see true signal strength in its hidden test mode but that doesn’t work anymore. So if you have an iPhone you really don’t have any option there. It got to the point where I had to buy a cheap Android just to test signal, using a free app. Even so you don’t get the complete answer but at least you get numbers not bars that don’t mean anything.

And in the end it doesn’t matter, at least not for voice.

Your signal strength is going to be a good indicator of how fast you can download and stream, but for voice, it’s more like “Can I make a call, or not?” If you can make a call you should not care how many bars you have, as long as the call goes through and everyone can hear everyone. Looking at bars is just going to make you cranky.

A better option

I think bar displays should be replaced by two circles. Phones have enough resolution now to render these pretty well, but even if you can’t tell what the little pictures mean, one means voice and one means data. If they are both green then you probably have enough signal to make a call or download. If one turns red, you probably don’t. What else do you need to know?

This would also let phone manufacturers get rid of the “LTE” letters at the top of the phone because, it’s 2018 and everyone has LTE, so get over yourself.

I understand these would not “seem” as precise as a bar display but since the bars don’t mean anything, this would allow you to look at your phone and know you either could use it, or you couldn’t. Simple as that.

And then, I would hope that both Apple and Google would allow for apps that show you true signal strength on all bands. I don’t understand how access to this information shouldn’t be readily available. So, if you’re putting in a cell booster or you’re just curious, you could look at the signal strengths on each band your phone supports. It seems to me this is the sort of thing that would have been required by law back when the FCC was a lot more aggressive about stuff like that.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.