AT&T. Nothing inspires more conversation among iPhone owners than those few letters. AT&T has benefitted from their exclusive contract with Apple, but their coverage has been an easy target for competitors and late night comics. What is an iPhone road warrior to do?
I had the chance to try the Sleek from Wilson Electronics, Inc. ($130; wilsonelectronics.com/sleek). The Sleek is a signal enhancer/cradle that installs in your vehicle and improves cell phone reception and broadcast in weak signal areas. The cradle ships with a magnetic roof-mounted antenna that connects to the cradle via a cable. The antenna receives cell tower signals and sends them to an amplifier built into the cradle. It boosts the signal between the cellular provider's antenna and your cell phone. True to the name, the Sleek is smaller than Wilson's previous models and more portable than models that had to be hardwired into your car.
The Sleek piqued my interest because it works with any cell phone and can be moved relatively easily from one vehicle to another. Wilson also offers the iBooster ($280), specifically for the iPhone. The iBooster is a combination charger, cradle, and antenna so you don't even need to mount an external antenna. With either of these two accessories, you might have to remove your phone from its case for it to fit in the cradle, depending on the bulk of your case.
On the road with Sleek
Styling, pricing, and packaging are irrelevant if a product doesn't work. I wanted to see if Sleek actually improved my cell phone reception. Initially, I took a road trip to some areas around Rochester, NY to see how it performed. I went to the airport, downtown, suburbs, and the highway where I've occasionally experienced dropped calls. I was able to make and receive calls successfully, but I wanted a more exhaustive test, so I decided to push the limit!
With the help of DeadCellZones.com, I located some dead zones within driving distance and spent a half a tank of gas testing these spots. From Rochester, I drove to the northern border of New York, and without using Sleek watched the bars on my iPhone diminish and then disappear completely as I reached Lake Ontario. I plugged in the Sleek and… nothing! Unfortunately, dead means dead—Sleek can't boost a non-existent signal. I drove around for a minute or two, and as soon as I could get a signal, I measured the results both with and without the Sleek; the results were significant.
I didn't want to rely on the "bars" graphic as an indicator; too imprecise. Fortunately, the iPhone provides a mechanism to test signal strength. Simply enter the following phone number *3001#12345#* and tap "Call." Instead of making a phone call, the iPhone launches its Field Test function, which displays the signal strength in decibels. (Decibels are listed as a negative number and the closer to zero, the stronger the signal. For example, a -70 is stronger than a -90. Here are my results:
Minor suggestions for improvement
As the table shows, Sleek substantially improved reception in four of the areas and even enhanced it in the downtown area of Rochester where reception was already pretty good. Overall, I was impressed with the product. But I did have some minor suggestions for improvement:
Offer vent clips for the cradle instead of, or in addition to, the permanent adhesive mounting. The Sleek is somewhat portable, but by making the mount permanent, it's harder to move from car to car. Wilson could sell such clips separately on their Web site. Of course, you could buy a Sleek for each car, but at $130 a pop, that's an expensive proposition.
I would also like to see a dual port USB charger so I could charge my iPhone while the Sleek is plugged in, without requiring a second cigarette adaptor. For long trips, this is important. Fortunately, my SUV has a lot of cigarette adaptors, and I don't smoke! The Sleek does include an accessory USB port but it is mini-USB, which would require a special mini-USB to 30-pin iPod dock cable to power an iPhone.
A no-brainer for road warriors
Wilson's Sleek is a no brainer for road warriors, especially if they spend a lot of time doing highway driving. As always, please use a hands-free device if you must make or take calls, or pull over to a safe spot. But if you must stay in touch, the Sleek is a great way to do so.