Bugs & Fixes: How Widespread Are IPad Wi-Fi Problems?

The iPad arrived last Saturday to overall glowing reviews. Inevitably, this was quickly followed by reports of problems with the iPad. The most publicized problem so far has been with Wi-Fi reception. You could hardly browse the Web this past week without seeing an article on the topic (such as this one from USA Today). Trying to disentangle reality from exaggeration has not been easy.

• Many people have reported some sort of Wi-Fi-related symptom when using an iPad. To confirm this, all you need to do is go to the iPad -> Wi-Fi section of Apple's Discussions Boards. You'll find numerous threads on the topic, including one thread with an astonishing 390 replies and almost 55,000 views (and counting).

• If you read these threads, you'll note that there is more than one primary symptom. There are at least three: (1) Failure to rejoin a known network when waking up from sleep; (2) Unusually weak signal (or complete Wi-Fi disconnect) at distances from the router where other Wi-Fi devices work without trouble; and (3) Jerky or disrupted streaming video, even when signal strength appears strong and other Internet activities on the iPad are working well.

It may well be that these three problems are independent, having separate causes and solutions. It may even be that one or more of them are not specifically due to the iPad, but are instead due to other hardware, such as the Wi-Fi router. It's still too early to tell.

• For the "failure to rejoin" symptom, Apple has posted a Knowledge Base article describing the symptom and suggesting fixes, such as resetting your iPad's Network Settings.

Most news stories have cited this Apple article as evidence that Apple has "acknowledged" or "confirmed" or "admitted" that there is a Wi-Fi problem with the iPad. If you only casually scan these stories, it's easy to conclude that Apple has admitted to a serious problem affecting every iPad out there. Not so.

The Knowledge Base article actually admits very little, citing that the rejoin problem should only occur with a small subset of routers and only under "certain" unspecified conditions. It says nothing about the other Wi-Fi symptoms. Apple releases articles like this all the time. They usually get almost no press coverage. This one is getting an unusual level of attention primarily because anything iPad-related is getting close scrutiny right now.

• Postings to forums offer several unexpected potential workarounds. For example, turning off the "Ask to Join Networks" option (in Settings -> Wi-Fi) may remedy video streaming or weak signal problems. In one thread, several users agreed that increasing the screen brightness prevents the failure to reconnect after waking from sleep!

• It's hard to estimate exactly how many people have any problem at all here. For what it's worth, my iPad's Wi-Fi connection has been nearly flawless. I have had occasional problems with streaming video when I am in a different room from the router. But these are intermittent; a hour later all will be well. To be fair, I have had similar problems with my MacBook Pro.

On Thursday, I asked my Twitter followers to let me know if they've had any of the reported symptoms. The number of people who confirmed having a problem? Zero.

Bear in mind that more than 450,00 iPads have been sold. Compare that to the 300 or so people reporting a problem on Apple's Discussions Boards. For the sake of argument, let's guess that the real number of people having a problem is more like 50X the 300 number. That's 15,000 problem iPads (which is probably a worst case scenario). Admittedly, this is a number you wouldn't want to ignore. But it's also only a little more than 3 percent of all iPad owners. And this assumes that all of these people have correctly diagnosed the iPad as the primary cause of the problem.

Bottom line: If you buy an iPad, there's a risk you'll have a Wi-Fi related problem. That's true. But at least for now, it appears that the risk is small, easy-to-implement workarounds exist, and a true fix should not require any hardware modifications.

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