In a perfect world I wouldn't even be reviewing a cell phone signal booster. That's because in an ideal world, there would be no reason for them.
Sadly, though, carrier networks are far from perfect and a lot of people can't get the service they need on the road, at home, or at work. A cell phone signal booster is an obvious solution for those folks, but choosing one is just as important as buying the right phone. Some products, like the metal stickers you can find online for a few dollars, are nothing but snake oil. A device from Wilson Electronics, however, is a much safer bet. Yes, you'll have to spend more than pocket change, but Wilson's products deliver results instead of just vague promises. As long as your phone gets some signal (even if it's negligible) and you can handle the sometimes cumbersome setup, your handset will go from useless to useful.
The latest product from the company is the Wilson Sleek 4G-V, which debuted in January at CES. It's Wilson's first cell phone signal booster to boost Verizon's LTE network in the 700MHz band while also supporting all GSM and CDMA networks (so, Verizon and its carrier rivals) at the 2G and 3G levels. A companion product is the Sleek 4G, which supports AT&T's LTE. Of course, that means the products aren't completely interchangeable.
The primary part is the sturdy phone cradle that's partially covered in an all-black, soft-touch material. You get three pairs of plastic arms for securing your phone, but there's barely any size difference between them and they only adjust to three positions. Though that will satisfy anyone with a thicker smartphone, the cradle isn't really built for basic flip handsets like the Samsung Gusto 2. When I knocked the cradle even slightly (picture yourself going over a bump in the road), for example, the Gusto 2 tended to slip out. I had this problem with the previous Sleek, so again I'm hopeful that Wilson will adjust the design in future products.
Setup begins when you secure the cradle to your dashboard with the provided clip. That's easy enough, but you'll need to be creative for the next step of running the cable out of your car window and attaching the stubby antenna to your car roof. The arrangement can be awkward and even a little unsightly. On the upside, the long cable connecting the antenna to the cradle will leave you plenty of slack, and the strong magnetic base should ensure that the antenna won't blow off in inclement weather. The last step is to plug in the cradle with the included car adapter. A nice feature is the second Mini-USB port on the side of the cradle for charging your phone via another cable (you'll have to provide it, though).
Setup with the home/home office accessory kit is about the same. Instead of your dashboard, you attach the cradle to a sturdy base that you can rest on a flat surface. Thanks to a couple of adjustable joints, you can swivel the cradle up and down and in a full circle. In the box come a standard wall plug on a long cable and a window mount on suction cups for positioning the antenna. Wilson sells more-powerful antennas for both home and car use, some of which don't require a magnetic mount.
Wherever you install the Sleek, you'll need to follow a few important guidelines. In the car, Wilson advises that you place the antenna at least 12 inches away from other antennas and at least 6 inches from the sunroof and the rear or side windows. The center of your roof is the ideal location, but drivers with smaller cars may struggle to find a position that matches the guidelines. Also, though the metal roof of a car is supposed to act as a barrier between the antenna and the Sleek cradle, you may experience some feedback if the parts are too close together. If that happens, you'll have to move the antenna again. What's more, Wilson advises that you install the cradle at least 8 inches from any passengers. That may be tricky if you drive a
Keep in mind that you'll need to keep your phone in the cradle if you want to get the boosted signal. That means you'll have to either use the speakerphone or invest in a wired or Bluetooth headset. Given the suggested 8-inch separation distance between your body and the cradle, you should not hold the cradle to your ear when in use. But if you're driving, you shouldn't be holding a phone to your ear anyway.
As with all cell phone signal boosters, the Sleek 4G-V is only as good as the base signal you receive. Remember that it's not a cell tower, so it can't create a signal from your carrier if one isn't available. It can, however, take a marginal or barely-there signal and make it usable. Indeed, that's how it worked when I tested the Sleek 4G-V in Guerneville, a rural area of Sonoma County, Calif. In the first test area, Verizon's LTE network was not available. Its 3G network only showed two bars on an iPhone 4S, whereas a T-Mobile
Fortunately, though, the Sleek 4G-V made a big difference. Moments after each phone was inserted into the cradle, it jumped to a full five bars. The T-Mobile Nokia still topped out at 2G (T-Mobile's 3G coverage doesn't quite reach where I was), but the Verizon and AT&T phones found their respective 3G networks. There was no change in text-message service, but data speeds increased to usable levels on the 3G devices. Naturally, data on the 2G T-Mobile phone was slow, but it was fine for sending e-mail or viewing mobile Web sites. Like I said before, the Sleek 4G-V is only as good as the base signal it finds.
Call quality varied by phone. I had no problem connecting on the AT&T iPhone 4S, but I still heard a fair amount of static and interference. It was suitable for touching base with a friend about meeting for dinner, but not ideal for a long conversation with my dad. Audio quality on the T-Mobile handset was somewhat better, but I had more trouble connecting and keeping the call once I had it. The Verizon phone was the best of three. It still wasn't spectacular, but it was enough.
In the second test area, I was just at the fringe of Big Red's 4G network near Petaluma, Calif. Like before, the Sleek 4G-V boosted the LTE signal to a usable level, and it maintained the connection through the trial period. Data speeds were slower than what I'm accustomed to in the middle of San Francisco, but they were an improvement over the 3G speeds I got earlier.
The Wilson Sleek 4G-V is not a miracle worker, so don't expect it to be. If you get no signal, it can't help you. It can, however, take a minimal signal of one or two bars and turn it into something useful. Even if your phone still isn't in top form (as I found), at least you'll be able to make calls, use most data features, and send and receive text messages. Of course, your exact experience will vary by device and by carrier, and you'll need to remember the product's design limitations. But if you're a trucker, you live in a rural area, or you just get crappy service in your inner-city apartment, then the Wilson Sleek 4G-V may be just what you need.