Overall: 9 out of 10
- 5-bar signal even in areas of zero coverage
- Seamless handover to/from Vodafone network
- Fit and forget usability
- No extra monthly costs
- Complex to set up
- Only registered phones can use it
- Can interfere with Wi-Fi if too close
- Issues with some routers
The answer, for Vodafone users at least, is the Vodafone Sure Signal. Think of it as having a small mobile phone aerial inside your home, albeit without the brain-frying Megawatt broadcasting power of a full size mobile phone mast. The device communicates with your phone over its own local 3G network and connects you to the outside world via your existing broadband connection. Sounds like a simple and effective solution to having poor mobile phone signal. However, it’s not quite that simple to set up because the technology behind the Sure Signal is rather complex.
So that’s it. You buy a Sure Signal, set it up and get a great signal around your home. Sounds too good to be true? Well the downside is that while you are generating your own 3G mini-network and routing calls over your own broadband connection, you still have to pay for outgoing calls and data usage. Despite quite a lot of vitriol on forums on this very subject, I don’t see it as a major issue. If I had a good signal as standard I would be paying for the calls anyway. More to the point, the Sure Signal device works extremely well, delivers a full 5-bars signal, works with Vodafone data dongles and ensures I am no longer likely to fall out of the office window on important calls. What’s not to like for fifty quid!
It is supplied with a small plastic stand that when clipped into the rear of the device allows the whole thing to stand upright like a photo-frame. This also aids cooling as it gets a little toasty in use and all the vents are on the back panel. In my office it ended up on a window-sill. Laying it flat on its back would have stopped me cuffing it into the garden every time I opened the window to yell at the squirrels emptying my bird feeder. However, the Ethernet cable to your router comes straight out of the back, thus stopping it from laying perfectly flat. When I did try tipping it over, slightly cocked up on the cable, it got mighty warm as the vents were partially blocked and there was a marginal drop in signal at extreme range. It needs to be placed upright is what we are saying here.
But before you start plugging everything in and calling your mates from the sofa, there is that set up procedure to deal with. Head off to Vodafone’s Sure Signal support and click on ‘Register Your Sure Signal’. You have to set up a Vodafone account if you haven’t already got one, then register the device using its serial number and, bizarrely, what floor of your house it will be used on. Vodafone’s FAQs answers why this is required with the pathetically nebulous ‘so we can ensure your Sure Signal works at its best’ without actually explaining anything. Via their on-line helpdesk, the assistant had no better answer although did tell me that it didn’t really make much difference. Strange.
Still using the portal you then enter all the Vodafone mobile numbers you want to work with the device. As noted you can have up to 32 handsets registered but only four will work at any one time. This rather beggars the question why you would want to have 32 phones registered as that won’t help in an office environment .Meh, I digress. After that you log out of the Vodafone site, plug in the Ethernet cable, power up the Sure Signal and then just sit back and wait. And wait, and wait a bit more.
Vodafone states that it can take up to six hours for its network to work out what’s going on, register your Sure Signal 3G LAN and attach all the relevant phone number to it. In fact it was about 1 hour 40 minutes in my case. I took a quick squint at the Galaxy S2 on the desk – 5-bars. This might just work then.
Sure enough the Android phone worked just like it had a full-on 5-bar signal, making and receiving perfect calls, messages and surfing. A quick run of the ‘ping’ and ‘speed’ measurements at speedtest.net showed that it was communicating at approximately 2Mbps downstream, 200k upstream with a long-ish ping time. That is exactly what I get on my broadband connection. There is no perceived added latency in connecting via the Sure Signal 3G LAN and call quality was spot on. Wow, that works then. Here Mr Vodafone is my fifty quid, I’ll take it.
Most Android phones have the facility to show you the precise signal strength you are receiving somewhere in the menus. Iphones from 3GS onwards have a field-test mode that will show you signal strength where your bars normally reside on screen. Field test mode can be accessed by keying in *3001#12345#* and pressing ‘call’. (Pressing the home key escapes this mode)
The noise floor of a 3G signal, the point where the signal is so low it is obscured by RF noise and your phone displays ‘no signal’ is about -111dB. A really awesome, very close to a major mast, 5-bar signal is between -70dB and -50dB. The bars represents roughly equal increments between these points, albeit skewed by phone makers wishing to show that their phones pull a better signal that others and bumping up the bars despite lower signal. Cheeky, eh?
In my office, connecting to the standard Vodafone network, the Galaxy S2 registered between -104dB and -108dB, the latter lower measure obviously affected by light rain and red underpants. An iPhone 4S showed from -106dB to -108dB over the test period of one quarter moon phase. For both that is just a single bar on the display, although the Galaxy occasionally tried to convince me that it had two. Switch on the Sure Signal: The iPhone immediately showed a solid -65dBm signal and the Galaxy indicated it was microscopically higher at -64dBm. Now that is a seriously good result.
Bunting was put out, there was dancing in the streets, a perfect 10/10 review was in the offing…. and then it all went horribly wrong.
About two hours into the test my router disconnected from the internet. It never does that normally. I did the text-book standard first fix for all consumer electronics equipment; I turned it off and back on again a few seconds later. It connected fine. Seemed OK for 30 minutes, when it disconnected again. Repeat emergency fix procedures and again it went back to normal. An hour later, it dropped again. By which time the missus was bitchin’ as she works from home as well. She intimated that one more Internet outage and she would raise her status from ‘getting annoyed’ to ‘seriously miffed’. This is not a good place to be. So I disconnected the Sure Signal to work out what was happening another day.
A few days later and the router had not, as usual, dropped the internet connection at all during that time. I reconnected while Mrs S was out to be on the safe side. Everything seemed fine so half hour later I tried some walk tests to see how the Sure Signal 3G LAN would drop off over distance. Heading down the drive in clear site of the office the drop-off was fairly linear, the signal strength rolling down from its -65dB best back to Vodafone’s broadcast signal at -101dB (outdoors) at about 20-25m from the device. I tried the same again whilst on a call and was pleasantly surprised that the hand over was absolutely seamless. You can walk in and out of the Sure Signal LAN area without any major hiccup.
Inside it is a different story. Oh how I love Vodafone rhetoric that Sure Signal will deliver a signal to every corner of your house from the loft to the basement. Well, yes, possibly – assuming your house is not too large and made of cardboard. I have a house made from 130 year old bricks hand-craft from clay spoil dug out of an iron pit. There is so much iron in the bricks that one hung from a bit of string makes a fairly accurate compass. The whole house is a giant Faraday Cage, where little or no RF signal gets in or out.
One short step outside of the office where the Sure Signal was placed and the signal collapsed to -98dB a few more paces and it was gone. I have the same problem with the more powerful Wi-Fi signal (which runs at about -25dBm in the office) so I was not surprised, just a little disappointed. Then the router threw the internet connection again. Arrrghh!
The supplied literature indicates that if the Sure Signal is placed too close to your Wi-Fi router it may affect the range (i.e. signal strength) of your regular wireless network. I moved the Sure Signal 1.5m away from the router, governed by the supplied cable. I checked Wi-Fi signal strength in various areas of the home stead and it was normal. But not 40 minutes later. While the phones connected to the Sure Signal were in standby, the router dropped the internet connection and required resetting again.
Plan B ensued. I moved the Sure Signal into another room that was connected to the router via Ethernet cable that runs through an offending iron-brick wall. The system registered and set up fine extending the 3G LAN to new parts of the house, and for a while all was good. Then two hours later… no Internet. The Sure Signal went back in the box. Can I have my fifty quid back please, mister?
Vodafone’s on-line helpdesk had little to offer on the problem and I could find only one report of a similar issue across the help desk and external forums. Was it just a glitch in my Wi-Fi router that didn’t like something the Sure Signal was doing? If I was a conspiracy theorist, I could suggest that my Orange home broadband was not happy about being used as a Vodafone signal portal. The Sure Signal FAQs page says all routers will work with Sure Signal but some may need their router settings adjusted. Frankly, I can’t think what could possibly need adjusting in a router to ensure that an Ethernet connected device connects through it. Hmmmm.
In fact, I think the Sure Signal is such a great bit of kit I have just binned my Orange broadband contract early and am changing back to BT Business Broadband. As my issues seem isolated I am sure that will solve the Sure Signal issues and give me those magic little five bars in the home office. Trust me, it’s worth it because falling out of the window really did hurt.
NOTE: Once the new router and broadband is installed we will add an update to this review. Look back shortly.
Update: With BT broadband service installed.
Well, I can’t blame a tenuous conspiracy theory about Vodafone Sure Signal not working with Orange home broadband then. Having uninstalled the SureSiganl, swapped service provider to BT Business, and reinstated the Sure Signal it took around an hour to close all those network synapses and suddenly bestow my Vodafone iPhone 4S with five bars of signal goodness. Success! Albeit briefly. An hour later I was back down to a shaky single bar and had no broadband connection. The old Linksys router had, once again, crash. So my issues are not with the broadband service then. The only common link in this slightly sorry tale is the 6-month old Linksys (Cisco) WAG-160N router. OK, maybe I should have listened to the BT sales rep when they tried to sell me a BT Business Hub.
So there you have it, the Vodafone Sure Signal is an incredibly useful device for anyone on the Vodafone network suffering the vagaries of a poor signal in the home or office. While rooftop antennas and internal boosters will polish up a marginal signal, the Sure Signal will work anywhere near you broadband router irrespective of whether you have an actual mobile phone signal or not. While our tests have highlighted some compatibility issues (or was it juts a faulty WAG-160N router?) for fifty notes the Vodafone Sure Signal is an absolute bargain.