Review: Mobile Phone Signal Amplifier and Bluetooth Gateway

No matter where I live, it always seems that I don’t have good mobile phone reception. All I want is to be able to take calls that ring in on my mobile, which is my main business line, without having to stand in the corner, on tiptoes, and have to apologize to clients when they can’t hear me or the call is dropped. Is that so much to ask? Hey, why don’t I get those calls to ring through on my landline handset? That would be a great solution. Not so fast!Why can’t I make a phone call in peace? Partly it’s because mobile carriers have a harder time placing towers in residential areas. Partly it’s because it’s harder for the signal to penetrate walls, and if your home or office is in a basement, in a thick building, or in an area with poor line of sight to towers, you’re just asking for trouble. Now, my current house is in a narrow canyon, with no line of sight to the tower, so the earth is just in the way. And I don’t know if any of the electrical interference in my house, with wireless networks, cordless phones, fluorescent lights, electric motors, and all the other spectrum use in a modern geek’s household is making it worse, but it’s certainly not helping.

The long and the short of it is this: if I keep my phone in my pocket, half the time it won’t ring, and if it does, I’ll get cut off from the call unless I run to the corner of my house with a decent signal. If I leave the phone in the corner of the house with good service, I have to get up off my lazy butt when it rings, if I hear it ring at all. Plus, if I remove my phone from my person, I’m likely to forget it when I leave. What’s a lazy and forgetful geek with spotty coverage to do?

One technological solution I tried was the zBoost from Wireless Extenders. It’s a signal amplifier with an antenna you cab mount outside the building up high and a base unit that repeats the signal indoors. It really does work. I go from barely one “bar” of service to a full-strength signal. Unfortunately, I have not been able to get the product to work as promised in that if I stray more than a few feet from the indoor unit, it loses the signal. It’s supposed to have much wider coverage. After working with the manufacturer’s very responsive tech support people (who didn’t know I was reviewing it) I wasn’t able to get it to work any better. They even provided me with a more powerful directional antenna for the exterior, stating that the stronger the signal the external antenna can pick up, the stronger the internal signal will be. I noticed that they’ve added some optional antennas that might have some effect.

Even with the short indoor range, though, it makes a huge difference, because even when perched in the corner of my house with the best reception, I still suffer from dropped calls. With the range extender, I can at least locate one small hotspot of good service in an area of my choice, like my desk.

This still leaves me with the laziness and convenience problem. I can leave my phone in my chosen hotspot, but I have to go running to it when it rings, if I hear it at all. This is where my latest discovery comes in. The XLink Cellular Bluetooth Gateway from Grace digital is a small box that connects to my home phone, and allows phone calls coming in on my mobile to ring on my home phone, and allows me to use my home phone to originate calls through my cell phone. This isn’t a new idea. There have been wired and Bluetooth variations in this idea for several years. This one’s primary advantage is that, unlike others, it’s currently being marketed and supported and it works reliably and intuitively.

I now have an area in my kitchen where my wife and I can set our Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones in their chargers (mine an iPhone and hers a Sony Ericsson Walkman phone). This area is in the effective radius of the repeater, so it gets a strong signal. The XLink supports up to three cell phones connected at once. As soon as one of the paired phones enters Bluetooth range, a blue light indicates readiness. Any call that comes in rings on both the mobile and the home phone. Likewise, if I want to call out in the mobile, either to take advantage of free long distance on my mobile plan, or because my landline is being used, I hit “flash” and either 1, 2, or 3 on my keypad (corresponding with the three available paired mobile phones), and the call will be routed through the mobile phone I chose. I can even use call waiting between the various lines.

It’s a good solution because it only requires me to get in the habit of plugging my phone in at its spot when I come home and retrieving it when I leave. I have to remember to plug it in anyway, unfortunately. Everything else happens automatically. I also have the advantage of having what amounts to a second and third home phone line, without having to pay the phone company any more than I already am. If I use a service like many VoIP services or Google’s Grand Central, which gives me a central phone number that can be set to ring simultaneously or roll over from one line to another if the first one is busy or not answering, you can have the features of a fancy business PBX system while having nothing more than a regular home phone and a couple of cell phones, like most modern families.

One of the drawbacks of the XLink is that it’s yet another little gizmo in a box with a bunch more wires and another space and energy-hogging wall wart. It’s also $169 that I’d rather not spend. It would be much more efficient if this functionality were built into my phone system. In fact, Plantronics, AT&T, Vtech, Panasonic, Uniden, and others have Bluetooth-capable phones and phone systems on the market. One of these systems was actually my first choice, but I couldn’t find one of theses systems that had the features and quality that I needed.

My biggest problem was that I wanted support for two landlines, and though Panasonic used to make two-line expandable system with Bluetooth comparability built-in, but it’s discontinued, and hard to find. I also found that in reading reviews of this phone, and many others, users reported having problems with support for various cell phone models, and consumer electronics companies are not usually known for providing ongoing updates, patches, or even decent tech support, so you’re looking at spending a lot of money on a system that may not work with your new cellphone. The most obvious problem with buying one of these systems is that if you’ve already spent several hundred dollars on a fancy phone system and six accessory handsets (or you don’t need a fancy system at all), it’s annoying to have to buy a whole new system. I ended up going with the XLink because of these issues, and its capability of firmware updates and support for most mobiles.

One thing that’s annoying about my whole conundrum is that for the most part, my problem could be solved in software. I have an iPhone, with AT&T service. My mobile plan includes free call forwarding. Other carriers charge a punitive call forwarding fee, but in my case it’s free to me to set my phone to forward its calls to my home phone line whenever I’m home and am likely to have coverage problems. This just doesn’t work for me, though, because I’d never remember to set it to forward, and when I did remember, I’d forget to change it back. Either way, I’d miss calls. The stupid thing about this is that my iPhone has Bluetooth and wifi, and it would be quite a simple thing for Apple to create a feature that specified that whenever my phone was in range of a particular wifi network or Bluetooth pair, it would automatically set the phone to forward calls, and change it back automatically when I leave range. Why doesn’t the iPhone have this feature? Am I the only one who’s thought about it or would find it useful?

Of course, the iPhone’s Bluetooth is completely crippled, so this is just one of its many deficiencies in this regard. See my iPhone review for more details.

You wouldn’t even need to have a sophisticated handset like the iPhone for something like this to work. Phone carriers could easily create software for any Bluetooth-equipped computer that would recognize when your cell phone was in-range and automatically trigger certain features, whether it be call forwarding, simultaneous ring, send call to voicemail, etc. They could even sell the software or charge a monthly fee for the service. A third party could even make this software with no cooperation from the carriers by logging into the carrier’s web site automatically and changing the settings. If anyone reading this would like to write this software, please contact me. I’ll pay you to write it.

In conclusion, I have a simple problem and I have brought together some very sophisticated gadgets and spent a long time creating a very complex solution that only mostly solves it. Isn’t that just a perfect microcosm of the world of high tech that we live in? Perhaps someday this mishmash of gadget makers and service providers will all work in harmony and make it easy for us to communicate the way we want to. In the mean time, there’s always hacking and ingenuity.

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  1. 2008-04-08 6:25 pm
  2. 2008-04-08 7:33 pm
  3. 2008-04-09 1:44 am
  4. 2008-04-11 6:58 pm