Since a cell phone is practically useless without good signal strength, a signal booster is sometimes required to boost it. We've seen plenty signal boosters here at CNET, from the Wi-Ex zBoost YX510-PCS-CEL to the ARC Freedom Antenna. However, Sprint has decided to release device to boost the signal of Sprint phones, and it's called the Airave, made by Samsung. This CDMA femtocell uses your existing broadband Internet connection to help with the signal strength, similar to how the T-Mobile HotSpot @Home service works. We found that it worked as promised. The Airave costs $99.99, while the service will cost you an additional $4.99 a month.
Out of the box, the Airave looks like an ordinary wireless router. It measures 6.9 inches long by 5.7 inches wide by 2.1 inches thick and weighs about 14 ounces. On the front are four LED indicators for Power, System, GPS, and WAN status. On the back are an Ethernet jack, a charger jack, the power switch, a GPS socket, and an antenna that can rotate up to 180 degrees for better performance. As for the GPS, the Airave requires a GPS signal to maintain exact network timing updates and it helps provide E911 services with your accurate location. If the built-in GPS is insufficient, Sprint has included an external GPS antenna that attaches to the GPS socket.
Setup was pretty easy. The Airave comes preactivated from Sprint, so all we did was connect the cables and power it on. Note that you'll require a router for the broadband connection. At this point, you'll have to be patient--it takes a long time before the Airave is able to find a GPS signal, and after that, it takes awhile before it can find coverage. Sprint advises you to wait for an hour; it took up about an hour and 15 minutes. Do note that if you are using the external GPS antenna, be sure to place it near a window at an elevated position for the best signal strength. You'll know everything is ready to go once all four LEDs glow blue.
We tested the Airave with the Sanyo Katana Eclipse in San Francisco. We already had pretty decent reception, about three bars, so we didn't know if it would make that much of a difference. To our surprise, the signal strength went up to a full five bars almost immediately. When making calls while the Airave is connected, you will hear two short beeps prior to ringing, so that you know the Airave is functioning. If you have the Airave unlimited calling plan, all calls made while connected to Airave won't be deducted from your minutes.
Sprint claims that the Airave supports multiple active callers, depending on available bandwidth. One active caller requires 40Kbps of upstream and downstream bandwidth, two active callers require 80Kbps up and down, and three active callers require 120Kbps up and down. Extra calls will be directed to a cell tower instead. Also, if you leave the house while connected the Airave, the call will automatically redirect to the nearest cell tower without dropping the call. We tried this by leaving the house while on a call, and indeed, we didn't experience any difference in the call quality. That said, the Sanyo Katana Eclipse already has pretty good quality, so we'll test this out with other Sprint phones.
If you're a Sprint customer, you want to get rid of your landline, and you happen to live in an area with poor cell coverage, we would definitely recommend getting the Airave. We're a little disappointed that it costs a monthly fee, but it's certainly a lot cheaper than most landline fees.