If you live or work in an area with poor cell phone reception or you drive through too many dead zones during your commute, you know how frustrating it can be to place a simple call. And though you might think a cell phone signal booster is the answer to your problems, it's important to think carefully about your options. Those tiny metal decals that you've seen on television may look great, but there's a good reason you're paying just a few dollars--they hardly work at all.
There are better performing, and more expensive, options such as the SignalBoost Cellular Amplifier from Wilson Electronics. Like the Spotwave Zen that we reviewed last year, the SignalBoost successfully improved our cell phone signal in previously patchy areas. It's also easy to use both in buildings and in cars, even though we didn't love using a wired connection to our phone. Like the Spotwave Zen, the SignalBoost doesn't come cheap (between $150 and $200), but if all else has failed and you still can't find reception, it could be money well spent. Just be sure it works with your phone (Nextel handsets are not supported).
The SignalBoost consists of four parts: the main amplifier, a power cable, an antenna for catching the cell phone signal, and the cable that transfers the signal to your phone. The blue amplifier is relatively small, measuring 5x3.5x2 inches, so it can fit rather unobtrusively in the corner of a room or under a car seat or dashboard. On the other hand, it's a tad heavy (1.02 pounds). Since it grows quite hot after extended use, make sure you put it in an area with adequate ventilation. If you're going to use the SignalBoost in a car, you can use the included cigarette lighter adapter, but for home or office use the gargantuan AC adapter (not included). Note that when used inside a building, the mass of wires wasn't a problem, but the arrangement was somewhat cumbersome in a car.
The universal cell phone connector is a cable that attaches directly to your cell phone. As we said earlier, the SignalBoost uses a wired connection for delivering the amplified signal to your phone. We didn't care for the arrangement, as the 7.5 foot cable limits your mobility when having a conversation outside of your car. Fortunately, Wilson Electronics makes a wireless version of the device, which would be a better fit if you're on the go constantly.
The final part is the antenna for catching the cell phone signal. For building use, there's a 4-inch antenna with a magnetic base, which you can position discreetly on a windowsill. Alternatively, you can use an optional bracket that attaches with suction cups to a window. The cable connecting it to the amplifier is quite long (10 feet), so you have a lot of freedom as to where to position everything--yet it's worth noting that Wilson advises that you place the antenna at least 11 inches from all people. While that makes us wonder if our brains will fry if we violate the perimeter, we had no problem maintaining our space with such a lengthy cable. The small antenna also works for car use, but if you're in a really remote area, Wilson offers a larger 12-inch antenna (sold separately for $34.95). The strong magnetic base ensures that it will stick to your car securely and though you have to run the connecting cable through a crack in your window or under the door seal, the cable is rather long (10 feet).
Setting up the SignalBoost could scarcely be easier. After installing the antenna and plugging it into the amplifier, you need only insert the universal connector into the amplifier and then attach the other end to your phone using the adhesive Velcro patch. You'll need to find a space on your handset near the antenna that measures about one inch by half an inch and apply. That much room can be hard to find on smaller handsets, but we had no trouble using a Motorola Razr V3xx, Nokia 6133, or Samsung SCH-U740. Your final step is to connect the power cable and turn on the amplifier.
The amplifier takes no time to warm up, though it can take a few seconds for the change in signal to register. We tested the SignalBoost in a building where our T-Mobile Nokia 6133 and Cingular Motorola Razr V3xx received only one to two bars of signal. On the whole, it made a noticeable difference in reception; we shot up to four bars on both phones and enjoyed clear audio on our end with no dropped calls. At times, we got a full five bars, but four was the norm. Callers said we sounded loud and clear, though they said they encountered more patchiness than we did, particularly on the Razr V3xx. That could be due to the phone, however. The SignalBoost also enhanced data speeds on the 3G Motorola phone, but the improvement wasn't quite as strong as it was with voice calls. When we tested the SCH-U740 inside, the SignalBoost didn't make as much of a difference, mostly because we received strong Verizon Wireless coverage to begin with. As previously mentioned, the SignalBoost doesn't work with Nextel's iDEN phones at the time of this writing, but Wilson Electronics told us they are developing a compatible model.
We were able to better test the SCH-U740 on a stretch of Bay Area road that gets weak reception from all carriers. When using the small antenna reception on the Verizon phone, reception was quite a bit better but still not perfect. We still had a dropped call and we encountered a bit of static. The larger antenna performed better, however, so we recommend making the investment if you're not satisfied on the first try. The larger antenna also was superior with the Nokia and Motorola handsets. Keep in mind that individual results will vary, but in our experience, the SignalBoost made a big difference in areas with poor reception.
From what we could see, the SignalBoost didn't interfere with other electronic signals. Our in-home Wi-Fi didn't suffer nor did car radio reception. Wilson promises that the device can boost cell phone signal strength up to 10 times, but we had no way of verifying that claim accurately. We were hoping for an indicator on the amplifier to indicate signal strength; instead there's only a light that shows whether the power is on. That shouldn't be a problem for most users, but it's still an important caveat.