06 March 2007
Coaxing More Bars Out of That Cellphone
The Freedom Antenna® is the world’s first portable personal antenna
Garbled conversations and dropped calls are the bane of cellphone users — not to mention the dead zones where calls cannot go through to begin with. But some recent products are designed to overcome these annoyances, improve cellular reception, and, in some cases, even extend coverage.
The simplest and least expensive option is to use a passive antenna. Like the antennas installed in cars at the dawn of the cellphone revolution, these devices work like rabbit ears on a TV or an FM aerial. Their increased size and sensitivity make it easier to pick up a signal, improving reception. They do not amplify or boost the signal, but they can help connect a call in otherwise difficult areas.
A portable model from Arc Wireless Solutions, the Freedom Antenna ($34.95), stands a little taller than a deck of cards and about half the thickness. It uses a cable to attach to the antenna test port of a cellphone. The test port is usually hidden under a tiny round rubber plug that is easily pried off to make the connection.
In a test on the road, the Freedom Antenna did indeed improve signal strength and the quality of cellular calls, particularly in troublesome areas. In spots where I typically receive only two signal bars, the antenna managed to more than double the signal strength. And while the unit looked suspiciously like a radar detector on my dashboard, it was worth the aesthetic compromise.
The Freedom Antenna covers a broad spectrum of signals, from 800 MHz to 2.5 GHz, so it will work with any cellular service in the United States. It is also compatible with over 200 models of wireless handsets, although Nokia and BlackBerry owners are out of luck.
If no signal at all is available, the solution may be a powered signal amplifier.
Known as repeaters or boosters, such equipment is now available to consumers. Basically, these devices use a sensitive antenna that is connected by cable to an amplified base station that must be at least 15 feet away from the antenna. The base station in turn uses its own antenna to beam a signal throughout an office or home.
Professional systems installed by cellular services on large corporate campuses have been used for years to improve coverage, but smaller models for consumers are relatively new.
The first repeater I tried was the $299 Spotwave Z1900 indoor wireless coverage system. The Z1900 works only with 1900 MHz wireless services, which include Sprint and T-Mobile and some Cingular coverage areas. (Buyers can see if their areas are covered by entering their ZIP codes on Spotwave’s Web site, www.spotwave.com.)
Setting up the Z1900 is relatively easy. The directional antenna box must be pointed toward the source of your cellular signal. I found the strongest signal near a front window using my phone (only two bars) and then positioned the antenna until its blue light indicated a signal was being received. I then situated the indoor coverage unit about 25 feet away from the antenna.
Initially, the Spotwave delivered solid coverage within the entire room in which it was installed — a big improvement. But when I tried to place a call from my office on the other side of the house, I still could not receive a signal on my Motorola Razr.
Juggling various test phones, I was able to get reception on a newer Samsung Blackjack smart phone from Cingular, which proved to be more sensitive. I was also able to place a call from my office using a T-Mobile BlackBerry Pearl. Neither smart phone yielded crystal-clear reception, but it was better than no reception at all.
For comparison, I tested a repeater from Wi-Ex, the zBoost. At $399, it is more expensive than the Spotwave, but because it operates in both the 800 MHz and 1900 MHz bands, the zBoost works with nearly all the major wireless carriers in the United States, including Verizon Wireless, Alltel and Cingular nationwide. Like the Spotwave, it will not work with Nextel’s service.
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