Understanding & Optimizing Your Cellular Data Performance

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Further, faster.

Connectivity challenged nomads are constantly wishing for just a bit more range, or just a bit more speed.

But seeking to understand all the things that can impact your cellular signal can quickly becoming overwhelming - and optimizing effectively is often anything but simple.

It is little wonder that people end up focused on the simplest indicator they can find - the signal strength bars.

One bar bad, five bars good - right?

But bars are only the tip of the iceberg - and when it comes to actual performance it is not at all unusual for a one bar signal to outperform five.

And sometimes the simplest tweaks can make a huge difference in your real-world performance, even though the bars may not change a bit.

Boosters or Antennas?

But before we get into the nitty gritty of understanding your signal performance, we're often asked one basic question - are boosters or antennas better for enhancing your signal and thus your performance?

In our testing, there's a place for both - but it really comes down to the gear you're using for your cellular data access.

We have separate guides going over the advantages of each, but here's the basics:

 

Price Range
# of Devices Supported
Antenna Ports
Works Best For
Power Required

Cellular Boosters

Price Range : $179 - 650
# of Devices Supported : Multiple
Antenna Ports : Not Required
Works Best For : Smartphones & MiFis
Power Required: Power source required

Antenna Only

Price Range : $15 - 300
# of Devices Supported : One at a Time
Antenna Ports : Required
Works Best For : MiFis & Embedded Routers
Power Required: No power needed

Regardless of which you're using (or none at all), there's still a lot to understand about how to understand the signal you're getting and how to best optimize it. Here's what the rest of this guide covers:

Table of Contents

Parts of this guide are member exclusive:


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Measuring Mobile Internet Performance

The Ookla Speedtest app is our favorite tool for checking performance.

Bars are relatively meaningless in the effort to determine your actual cellular data performance. To truly optimize your connectivity, you need to learn how to measure your real-world performance.

Here's how to do it - and how to understand the results.

Speed Testing Services

There are numerous speed testing services and apps – these are the ones we regularly use:

For most of our testing we use the Speedtest app on our phones and tablets, though we often compare results with other services - especially if we are getting odd or otherwise inconsistent results.

Understanding Raw Signal Strength

Speed is everything. But sometimes it helps to pay attention to the raw signal strength too, particularly when you are trying to optimize your connection.

But first you need to understand what you are looking at.

Signal Bars & Dots

Everyone knows that more bars (or dots on Apple devices) is a good thing – but very few people realize that different phones and operating systems calculate how many signal bars to display very differently.

This means that comparing bars, unless you are on the same phone and same carrier, is actually a very poor way to compare signal quality between different devices.

The bars your phone is displaying sometimes do not even directly correspond to the actual underlying signal strength. In addition to raw signal strength, the phone may be measuring network congestion and other variables to calculate how many bars to display.

In general, iPhones put more weight on network congestion when calculating what to display, and Android focuses more on raw signal strength. But always keep in mind - every device is different!

To go deeper than bars and to get a sense of the real signal strength being received over the air (and thus the impact a booster or antenna is having) - it is a good idea to learn how to look up the raw received signal strength on your mobile devices.

Measuring Raw Signal Strength

Field Test Mode on an iPhone provides access to some low-level signal details.

Most cellular devices have a way to lookup the raw signal strength - but you may have to dig into the diagnostic menus.

Here are a few specific tips:

  • Mobile Hotspots: Look for an "About" or "Diagnostics" screen when connected to the control panel via your web browser. Some hotspots with an on-device LCD screen also have this info tucked into the on-screen menus.
  • Android: On most modern Android devices, you can find the raw signal strength if you go to Settings -> About Phone -> Status -> SIM Status. There are a lot of "Signal Check" apps in the Play store that give you an easier way to check this, and you can even add a widget to your Today screen or status bar.
  • iPhone: For privacy and security reasons Apple blocks apps from accessing the raw cellular signal details, but there is a hidden feature found in every iPhone running iOS 4.1 or newer - the ability to enable a special "Field Test Mode" that displays a real signal strength reading.This mode is enabled by going to the dial pad, and dialing: *3001#12345#*Most of the information available inside Field Test is overwhelming and useless (but feel free to poke around, you can't hurt your phone) - but the number at the top of the screen is your raw signal strength in dBm.
    • TIP: You can also click on the "Serving Cell Info" to find the "Freq Band Indicator" to look up what LTE band you are connected to. If the number doesn't make sense, quit and restart Field Test Mode and check again.
  • iPad: Unfortunately - there is no Field Test Mode for iPad, and thus no way at all to check the raw signal strength.
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