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What do the bars on your phone really mean?

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What do the bars on your phone really mean?

We all know what the bars graphic on the home screen of our mobile phones is supposed to mean. It indicates signal strength, right? As in how strong the signal is that our phone is receiving right now.

And in a very general sense, that’s what the bars (or dots, depending on your phone model) do. They generally indicate the relative strength of the available signal.

The key word here is ‘relative.’

What I mean is this: if your mobile phone displays from one to five bars (dots) indicating signal strength, then a display of four bars indicates a stronger available signal than three bars, and three a stronger signal than two, etc.

But that’s all your phone’s bars (dots) graphic can tell you.

You don’t know by viewing the bars graphic how strong the available signal actually is, nor how much stronger a four-bar signal is than a three-bar signal, etc.

You may even have had this experience – your phone shows four bars, but when you try to text or download you can’t do it because you have no service despite the four big bars you see.

The truth is, there are no standards for signal strength bars.

Each mobile phone manufacturer uses an algorithm they’ve developed to sense the strength level of available signal. And then they show you however many or few bars they choose.

Of course that means it’s impossible to compare signal strength bars between different phone models. My phone’s three bars may well represent a stronger signal than your phone’s four bars. But there’s no way to know that by viewing the respective bars graphics.

The only reliable ways to determine how strong a signal is available for your phone is to take a reading in decibels, or dBm, or simply try placing a call. Decibels are a standard unit of measure, so when you take a dBm reading you know the absolute strength of the available signal.

dBm is typically expressed as a negative number, -88 for example. The closer to zero the reading is, the stronger the cell phone signal. So a reading of -79 dBm is a stronger signal than -88 dBm.

A reading of -50 is one of the strongest signals you will see. When a signal is weaker than -100 dBm, that’s a pretty weak signal. If the signal gets much weaker than that, you likely won’t have service. The instructions below will help you determine how to read your signal in decibels rather than bars.



Most Android phone models allow the user to view signal strength readings by navigating the device's menu tree. Finding the right menu screen varies across phone manufacturers, models and versions of Android OS. A typical navigation sequence is Settings – About Phone – Status or Network – Signal Strength or Network Type and Strength.

An alternate nav sequence for some Android phones is Settings – More Options or More Settings – About Phone – Mobile Networks – Signal Strength. Some experimenting with the menus on your Android phone should get you to the dBm reading.

If, after following the instructions above, you still can't see your phone's signal strength reading, check the operations guide that came with your device. Alternatively, there are apps you can download from the Play Store, such as SignalCheck Lite, which may allow you to read your signal strength as well. *Hint: look for the 1x or 3G signal for accurate signal information.*



iPhone models require the user to access the phone's 'Field Test Mode' in order to view a signal strength reading. NOTE: If using an iPhone 5 or newer, you will need to go into your Settings, then Cellular, and turn OFF the LTE. The reason for this is that a reading taken through a 4G/LTE reading may appear worse than your actual signal may be; disabling the LTE allows the phone to read a more accurate signal. Once disabled, perform the following:

  1. Dial *3001#12345#*
  2. Press CALL
  3. Hold the power button for about 5-7 seconds until you see the “slide to power off” screen.
  4. Do NOT power off the phone!
  5. Hold the home button (round button at the bottom) for about 5-7 seconds.
  6. It will return you to the home screen and the negative decibel reading will be at the top of your screen.

*If you do not wish for the negative number to be there permanently, you can dial the sequence again and just hit “back to phone” and it’ll return your phone to the dots/bars again.*


weBoost, along with another third party, has put together a list of test mode instructions for older phones (not smart phones). To find a possible test mode for your older-style phone, visit the following link: https://www.weboost.com/us/uploads/docs/FieldTestModes06142010%20wilson004.pdf


For additional informative weBoost videos, visit our YouTube channel here http://bit.ly/1JlmQ89.


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