Five ways to get a better signal for your cell phone

by Ian Black

Are you suffering from too few bars on your cell phone signal? As we increasingly rely on our cell phones to manage daily responsibilities, it becomes more critical to maintain a proper connection.

While standing near a window, turning our phones upside down, and even hopping around in circles on one leg are all things we resort to in hopes of getting a stronger signal, there are several more reliable ways to get better reception on our cell phones.

Here are the five best ways to get a better signal.

1) Keep your batteries charged throughout the day

The easiest and most obvious solution is also the cheapest and most reliable place to start. Our cell phones - particularly smartphones that can access the Internet, video and applications - consume a lot of power when connecting a call. Even if your phone has enough juice to initiate a call, additional power is required to transmit and maintain a reliable signal. While it can vary according to device and carrier, don't be surprised if you experience more dropped calls with a battery that is less than 10 percent full. So before buying expensive equipment, switching carriers or having all of your indoor cell phone conversations under a skylight, try keeping your battery charged throughout the day and see if there is a noticeable improvement.

Gently used extra power cords can be purchased on eBay and other sites for literally a few bucks. So if you don’t want to travel with an extra cord, you can maintain multiple charging centers in areas where you spend the most time on your phone. In your office, plug your phone into a wall socket or through USB to your computer. For the car, purchase an adapter for your cigarette lighter or power socket (also very inexpensive) that will charge your phone as you drive.

Finally, if you like to run a lot of applications on your smartphone, make sure they are fully turned off or at least using the minimal amount of power while in use. Fittingly, there are plenty of apps to help you monitor and preserve battery life available to iPhone and Android smartphone owners.

2) Adjust your grip

While Apple famously had to acknowledge a year ago that some iPhone 4 users were encountering reception issues due to how they were holding their devices, the so-called “Death Grip” is increasingly becoming a problem for many newer phones across all the different carrier networks. How can this be?

Unlike the old days, most cell phones now house their antennas inside the main case so you won’t see any knob or post jutting from the top of your device. Unfortunately, this means if you’re grasping your phone just where the antenna is integrated along the edge, you may be weakening the signal strength with your own hand.

Figure out if your grip is choking your cell signal by experimenting with different holds. Watch the signal strength indicator and see if you can lower or raise the bars by adjusting your fingers and palm. If you find this is a problem, scope out a cell phone case or bumpers (the solution that Apple offered frustrated iPhone 4 customers) for your phone. These cases will keep your hands away from the antenna and boost your signal as a result.

Deeper problems call for more expensive solutions

If these simple and virtually free solutions aren’t working for you, the next step is to identify the underlying cause of your reception problems. It may be the strength of your network in your area, a particular building or environment that kills a signal, or simply that your phone doesn’t work the way it is supposed to.

After checking the coverage map of your cellular service provider to make sure you are in range, determine if you need to invest in or investigate the following solutions.

3) Purchase a network extender device (this will run you at least $100)

If your location or environment is not receiving a proper signal, chances are a Network Extender device will do the trick. Those offered by the big carriers act as mini-cell towers in your home or office. They attach to your high-speed Internet connection and let you manage which phone numbers can connect so you don’t have to share your stronger signal with your neighbors. Look for carrier products like the AT&T 3G MicroCell, Sprint AIRAVE, and the Verizon Network Extender or third-party products like Wireless Extenders zBoost line.

These all range in price between $100 to $300. While your carrier will be happy to sell you one, don’t expect them to knock anything off the price of your monthly phone bill!

Alternative equipment you can purchase to boost your signal include a cellular repeater, which uses an antenna to improve areas that already receive about two bars, and a new antenna for your handset. Note that new handset antennas can be cumbersome and often provide minimal benefit.

4) Go Wi-Fi

Still have fewer bars than cars in your driveway? Consider alternatives that allow you to use your mobile phone but not the cellular network. T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi for Android service lets their network’s Android smartphone owners make voice calls over Wi-Fi hotspots like those in your home, office, or local café. Another option would be to use mobile applications like Skype (for iPhone and Android) that run on many phones and platforms and provide voice and video calling without using any cellular network. With a little effort, you can recover from the cell bar blues and say hello to the world again over your mobile phone.

Of course, the downside here is that going Wi-Fi requires you to invest in a wireless router if you don’t already have one. As well, outside of the home and office, chances are you will be traveling to areas that don’t have accessible wireless Internet access. In those cases, without a reliable network connection you are still out of luck.

5) Change carriers (and upgrade your phone in the process)

If all else fails and the methods described above aren’t improving your signal, it may be time to bite the bullet and switch carriers. If your contract is up with your incumbent provider, there is no penalty to cancel and move to a network that has better coverage in your area. If you are still under contract, there are still options to pursue beyond paying a $200+ penalty fee.

You can downgrade to the most basic monthly service (for emergency calls only, for instance), and that would cost you about $10 per month for the duration of the contract. Also check out services like Cell Trade USA that allow you to sell your phone and the remainder of your plan to qualified buyers.

The upside of changing carriers is that you will be eligible for a free or deeply discounted new phone in exchange for signing-up for a new contract. If a new phone on a new carrier still doesn’t do the trick, you can always revert back to landlines and place calls the old-fashioned way.