One of the greatest pitfalls to bedevil a cell phone is a weak signal in your home or office. Not only is it a pain to have dropped calls when you're trading the dish with your best friend, but it also pretty much negates the point of having a mobile phone if you can only make calls near your front window. But in the past couple of years, a variety of companies have identified the need for a real cell phone signal-booster. Unlike the foil decals you see in SkyMall, signal boosters like the Wi-Ex zBoost YX510-PCS-CEL cell phone signal extender actually improve your cell phone's reception by significant levels. And, unlike the previous two products we've reviewed, Wilson Electronics SignalBoost and the Arc Freedom Antenna, the zBoost uses a wireless connection to your phone. On the whole, it's one of our top choices for a cell phone signal booster, though it is expensive at $399. Just make sure it works with your phone before you commit.
While the Arc Freedom Antenna looks like a loudspeaker from the starship Enterprise, the zBoost has a more inspiring design (at least as signal boosters go). With a prominent pair of antenna and its flashing lights, it certainly looks like it has the potential to do something useful. The zBoost's main component is a squat rectangular base unit, which looks a little like an answering machine. Measuring 6 inches long by 4.5 inches wide by 1.75 inches thick and weighing a slight 10.88 ounces, the base fits easily on a small shelf, while the white-and-gray color scheme is relatively unobtrusive. Three indicator lights sit on top of the device, while ports for the base antenna, the coaxial cable, and the power cord are on either end.
The signal antenna is a white cylinder measuring 1.3 feet. Since it's designed for catching the cellular signal, its large size is necessary, but it also means it's pretty conspicuous in almost any setting. The antenna is connected to the zBoost's base via a 35-foot standard coaxial cable. That should be long enough for anyone, especially considering the rather complicated placement restrictions (more on that later). The second antenna transmits the boosted signal from the base throughout your home. At 6.75 inches it's not exactly small, but the white color doesn't call too much attention to itself. Rounding out the parts are a power cord and AC adapter.
Though connecting the zBoost's various parts is easy, it's worth noting that Wi-Ex has several restrictions regarding where to place everything. For example, you're not to place the signal antenna too close to metal, nor are you supposed to drape the coaxial cable nearby (that can be difficult to avoid if you have a lot of slack). And of course, it's also essential that you position the signal antenna in a place where you get an adequate cellular signal. While this can be as simple as placing it inside your home near a window, you might have to place it on an exterior wall, in your attic, or on the roof. For that reason, be sure to use your phone to find the area with the strongest signal before you install anything. Wi-Ex conveniently includes a mounting bracket for the signal antenna in the box. That said, an exterior installation may take a bit of handiwork on your part.
As for the zBoost's base unit, you must place it at least 15 feet from the signal antenna. Indeed, when we tried to place it any closer, the zBoost didn't work as expected. Also, the base unit can't be within two feet of any metal and it should be placed near the center of the room, at least 15 feet above the floor. While we get that the various restrictions are necessary for the optimum performance, it also means it can be difficult to find the ideal location for the base and antenna. But on the positive side, the zBoost's wireless connection to your phone is a much more ideal arrangement than the previous products we reviewed, which require your phone to be tethered to one place.
After connecting the cable, power cord, and antenna, the zBoost kicks into action almost immediately. The trio of lights indicates the status of your signal signal. For example, they'll show if the zBoost is receiving a signal, if it's receiving a signal for your particular phone, if the signal is too weak, if there is interference, or if the signal is too strong. Since a different pattern of lights indicates each status level, their meaning can be difficult to decipher at first. Fortunately, the manual has a complete list for easy reference.
We tested the zBoost in two places, the first being a residence with notoriously bad cell phone reception. As previously mentioned, the various setup limitations required us to search thoroughly for an appropriate location to install everything. And since we weren't able to install the signal antenna outside, we had to find a room large enough to put the required 15 feet of cable between the signal antenna and the base unit.
Though we didn't place the base unit near the center of the room, it boosted our signal significantly--even when placed near a wall. We shot up from just one bar to a full five and the signal stayed constant. The audio was also clearer and we experienced almost no static or distortion. Wi-Ex promises that the zBoost has a range of up to 3,000 square feet (or even more with an optional antenna), but we presume that's only under the best conditions. And, in any case, we didn't have a big enough house to even test such a range. Yet we noticed an improvement in almost every room of the two-level home.
When we tested the zBoost in another home with good cell phone reception, the indicator lights told us immediately that the signal was too strong. As such, the device made no difference in audio quality or reception.
The zBoost works with both CDMA and GSM phones and operates on both the 800 and 1900 frequencies, so all major carriers and most U.S. cell phones are supported. Yet reception for your particular phone can vary by area. Carriers switch frequencies across different geographic regions, so it's important to check that the zBoost you buy will be compatible with your phone. If you happen to purchase the wrong model, Wi-Ex will exchange it for free.