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The reception bars on your handset show EC/I0 values, (pronounced “ee-see-over-eye-naught”) and it refers to the amount of the signal which is usable. The bars that are actually present on your cellphone don’t show the true value of EC/I0 because it isn’t stable. It could go from zero to four bars and back to zero again in just a few seconds and would terrify users, so they display the signal strength, which at least has the virtue of being stable, though it doesn’t really mean much.
In CDMA you can have strong signal (4 bars) and lousy EC/I0 and not be able to carry a call, and you can have low signal (zero bars) and excellent EC/I0 and carry a call fine.