Cellular signal boosters use large antennas to improve the coverage of homes and cars. These are the best boosters for large houses, small houses, apartments and vehicles.
Now that many of us work from home, the cellular dead zone is not only annoying but also mission-critical. If the cellular signal in your home is weak or there is no cellular signal, a cellular signal booster can really help.
The basic principle behind the signal booster is simple: a large antenna is better than a small antenna. They don't rely on the tiny antennas in the mobile phones, but use the windows or the large antennas outside the house (or car) to capture the cellular signal, then pass the signal through a device that cleans and amplifies it, and then outputs it to your home through the internal broadcaster.
At least, this is the basic plan. Booster manufacturers must add various tricks to detect the best signals from various surrounding towers, and then amplify the signals especially without messing up the operator's own system. This is why you need to stick to the boosters of the four major companies: Cel-Fi, HiBoost, SureCall, and weBoost. Cheaper boosters sold on Amazon are usually not FCC certified, which means they may cause trouble to surrounding base stations and networks.
Boosters are most helpful when your signal is weak, but it is not absolutely no signal. Where your mobile phone displays bars, people in the wireless industry measure the signal in units of -dBm. Numbers higher than about -90dBm (such as -80 or -70) are strong signals. Below -110dBm, this is definitely a weak signal; below -120dBm, you will not be able to maintain any signal. Applications such as CellMapper can show you the signals you receive on your phone.
Before investing in a home booster, you can try a key trick. All wireless carriers now have Wi-Fi calling capabilities, so you can connect your phone to your home Wi-Fi network and make calls. Unfortunately, we noticed that T-Mobile has big problems with sending picture messages and group chats via Wi-Fi.
A booster usually has three main components: an external antenna outside your home; the booster itself, which cleans and amplifies the signal; and an antenna in your home. They are all connected by coaxial cables.
Some SureCall products combine boosters and indoor antennas into one. This makes SureCall's booster easier to install and place, which is part of the reason why SureCall Flare 3.0 has become our editor's choice for home boosters. However, if you have a larger home and you are willing to use some coaxial cables, then you can greatly expand the range of boosters throughout your home by getting a three-part solution, some splitters, and multiple panel antennas . This can become complicated, so you may need a professional installer to set up the system at this time (especially to reduce interference between multiple home antennas.)
Recently, weBoost launched the first two-piece booster for small homes and apartments, weBoost Home Studio. It is small and convenient, but it can only cover one or two rooms in your home.
Most boosters handle frequency bands 2/4/66, 5, 12, 13, and 17. These include the basic coverage frequency bands of AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. The important missing band is 71, T-Mobile's 600MHz rural coverage band. Since it takes a while for TV stations to get rid of this band, the FCC has not approved any consumer enhancers for band 71; you just won't find one.
Most home boosters can also boost the signal by 64 to 71dB. Again, this is due to FCC regulations. If you need more boost, you need to use Cel-Fi's single carrier boost line, which can achieve 100dB by boosting the frequency used by only one wireless carrier at a time.
The booster store Waveform has a comprehensive guide on how boosters work on their website.
Your car booster is similar to a home booster, with one exception: you can get a car holder booster for a single device. They are much weaker than home boosters (the booster we tested improves by 23dB instead of 65-75dB), but is cheaper, takes only a few seconds to install and remove, and the radiation does not exceed the phone holder. We like to use weBoost Drive Sleek as a single device booster.
Motorhome owners and those who need to enhance multiple devices in the car can get an on-board booster with a small radiating antenna that can handle multiple devices. However, these can be tricky because of how close the output antenna is to the input antenna.
All retail cellular boosters can be installed on their own without any drilling, but ideally, you need to hide the cables in the skirting board, and you need to find a way to place the antenna correctly outside of your home.
Both SureCall and weBoost have options that allow you to rely on professional installers to complete tricky tasks, such as sticking the antenna to the roof and positioning it correctly. SureCall cooperates with OnTech, a subsidiary of Dish, to install any of its boosters at an additional cost. WeBoost has a specific product, Installed Home Complete, which is provided with the OnTech installation. The installation cost of weBoost products is $200 (SureCall products will vary), so whether it is worth it really depends on your budget and DIY capabilities.
Cellular boosters generally cannot enhance the "good parts" of 5G networks. AT&T and Verizon transmit a small amount of 5G signals on the old cellular band b5. The booster will handle this problem, so the booster may summon you with a 5G icon, but the signal will not provide you with a different experience than 4G. Verizon's faster 5G network is currently on the n261 band and will soon be running on the n77 band. Any consumer booster does not support these networks. AT&T will activate band n77 in 2022. No booster can handle any 5G network currently in the n41 and n71 bands by T-Mobile.
There is a sneaky way to solve this problem. Although these bands do not have power boosters, passive antennas will still improve the signals on bands 41 and 71. They may only give you 10dB of gain instead of 70dB, but this is not trivial (even just the antenna outside will help). There is currently no consumer antenna for the n77 band, but there may be after AT&T and Verizon launch the network. Connect the outdoor cellular antenna to a Wi-Fi hotspot with TS9 connector, such as Netgear Nighthawk M5, which can convert outdoor cellular signals into indoor Wi-Fi signals.
In other words, the following are our top choices for 4G boosters for homes, apartments, and cars:
Our choice of home cellular booster SureCall Flare 3.0 is affordable, priced at $299.99; supports AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon; and uses directional antennas on the outside and omnidirectional antennas on the inside. This allows you to fiddle with the external antenna to get the strongest signal, but it also allows you to place the internal antenna wherever you want and still get coverage. In our test, it covered three indoor rooms.
Our choice of car booster weBoost Drive Sleek ($199.99) has an excellent and safe base, suitable for almost any type of mobile phone, with a USB-A port, so you can charge and boost your phone. In the test, we got about 17-18dB improvement on T-Mobile and Verizon, which is enough to allow our car navigation to continue to run the extra mileage we need.
weBoost Home Studio ($349.99) is a two-piece booster with a particularly small, low-key indoor transmitter, so it will not fill an already crowded room. Like other weBoost products, it uses directional antennas installed on outdoor poles or roofs to capture the best signal. In the room it covers, its improvement potential is roughly the same as that of the larger SureCall Flare 3.0. But as a small device, its range in the house is smaller than Flare, and much smaller than a whole-house system like weBoost Home Multiroom.
SureCall EZ-4G ($299.99) is a full-carrier solution suitable for apartments or other places where external antennas cannot be installed. The booster promises the same 72dB improvement as devices that use external antennas. You won't get the same performance because an antenna placed in a window may not be able to capture the signal as clearly as an antenna placed on a roof. However, if you cannot place something on the outside of the building, this may provide the motivation you need.
Most home boosters claim that the signal has improved by about 70dB. If you need more because you are far away from the tower you want to reach, you need to get a booster specially adjusted by Cel-Fi. Cel-Fi's product line promises to improve the signal by 100dB, but it only does so by increasing the frequency used by one carrier, so you cannot switch carriers without switching the booster. The company's first home booster, Go /Go X, is also priced at US$900, much higher than most consumer home boosters.
Most home boosters require some DIY work to place external antennas. If this scares you, WeBoost will provide you with a professionally installed solution at a price of $1,199.99. Installed Home Complete has the same directional antenna and 72dB signal improvement as many other boosters, but if you go this way, you can ensure the absolute best indoor and outdoor antenna placement.
For apartment residents who need a very aggressive booster solution, Cel-Fi Pro ($699.99) can boost the signal to 100dB instead of 72dB, and does not need to install an external antenna, far more than SureCall EZ-4G. You install the antenna unit in a window facing the right direction, and you should be very happy. Of course there are disadvantages. Cel-Fi's solution only supports one operator instead of all operators, and the cost of this booster is much higher than SureCall's $299.99 product.
The RV booster is between the car booster and the home booster. SureCall's Fusion2Go 3.0 RV ($449.99) uses an omnidirectional outdoor antenna-useful because your RV is always moving around-and provides two antenna options inside. It is not as powerful as a home booster, with a gain of 50dB, but it is more powerful than a small car booster. The trick is to properly place indoor and outdoor antennas, which can be challenging because they need to be as far away as possible.
Most consumer signal boosters cover a few thousand square feet at most. HiBoost 15K Smart Link, priced at $899.99, covers an area of 15,000 square feet and is the widest range of consumer boosters we can find. The HiBoost lineup also has a unique and cool feature: LCD on the front of the booster displays the signal strength of each covered frequency band. For large home installations, you may need to use a splitter and additional panel antennas; a panel will not cut it into 15,000 square feet.
No consumer booster can boost T-Mobile's 71 band, which is the 600MHz low-frequency band that really extends T-Mobile's coverage. Because traditional TV stations took time to clean it up, the FCC has not yet approved any consumer boosters in this band. If you really need to enhance Band 71, you need to use $7,000(!) SureCall Force8, which needs to be set up by a professional installer licensed by T-Mobile.
Cellular signals are not the only ones that can benefit from enhancement. Check out these quick tips to improve the wireless signal from your router, extend and optimize your Wi-Fi coverage, and speed up surfing. Or check out our roundup of the best USB Wi-Fi adapters and best range extenders directly.
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Sascha Segan, chief mobile analyst at PCMag.com, has reviewed more than 1,100 smartphones, tablets and other gadgets through PCMag for more than 15 years. He is the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project in the United States and Canada. He is in charge of our Race to 5G tracker and writes opinions on technology and society. Segan is also an award-winning travel writer. Apart from his hometown of New York, his favorite cities are Barcelona and Hong Kong. Although he is a fourth-generation Manhattanite, he now lives in Queens with his wife and daughter.
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