So you got a shiny new smartphone for the holidays. Great! But your initial joy may have turned to frustration by now if you discovered that, for all the fancy tech built into that new possession, your wireless carrier’s reception is lousy in places where you need it to be strong.
If you’re suffering from dropped calls or slow downloads or endless video buffering, you could of course try switching carriers. Or you could do as little as possible over cellular networks and try to rely mainly on Wi-Fi.
I’ve been testing a new product that promises a much less radical solution. It’s a protective case with a built-in antenna that augments the one in the phone. Its maker claims that it can increase cellular (not Wi-Fi) reception, speed downloads by up to 2x, and even increase battery life, because your phone won’t be using as much juice searching for a decent signal.
It’s called the Reach79, and for now, it’s only available for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. It comes in black, and costs $60 for the 6 and $70 for the 6 Plus. It’s sold at Reach79.com. The company is planning other colors, and is considering doing versions for other popular phones. It’s also considering versions tuned to specific carriers’ networks. Right now, it’s designed to work on all of them.
I’d like to be able to say that the Reach79 will solve your cellular reception problems, or even to flatly declare that it won’t. But I can’t say either. After nearly a week of testing it, using two methods in a variety of locations, all I can report is very mixed results. Roughly half the time it seemed to help, sometimes by a little and sometimes by a lot. And roughly half the time it made no difference at all. On a few occasions, it actually degraded the performance of my iPhone 6.
So here’s what I will say: If (unlike me) you have very serious problems with cellular reception, voice and data on an iPhone 6, my tests indicate there’s a chance it might help, and that it might be $60 well spent. But network performance is a tricky, variable business, so there are no guarantees.
Reach79 comes from a company, now known as Antenna79, whose previous product was a phone case called Pong, which was designed to deflect radiation from the user’s head during phone calls. As a side effect, it also supposedly improved reception somewhat.
By contrast, for Reach79, the company makes no claims at all about radiation, and instead says the product is wholly focused on boosting reception. The company says that as soon as you pop the phone into the Reach79, the extra antenna automatically pairs with the phone’s antennas and begins to improve your signal. No settings need changing, no plugs need plugging in, and no app is required. The antennas combine through a process the company calls “passive coupling.”
One caveat: The booster effect is only meant to work when the phone is held in your hand or up to your ear, not when it’s lying flat on a surface.
The case is also designed to be protective, while avoiding too much bulk. It’s made of a thin, hard plastic, with a thicker, rubbery cushion around the edges and forming a lip around the screen. Antenna79 claims it will protect the phone during a six-foot drop.
On the back of the case, a pattern of small antenna-shaped openings displays the embedded gold-plated antenna, which is sandwiched between the inner and outer plastic layers of the case. But this pattern is decorative and doesn’t affect performance, regardless of whether you cover it with your hand.
For this review, I tested my Verizon iPhone 6 all over my home and other locations in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, and also at my downtown D.C. office and a few other spots downtown.
I used two testing methods. One was the familiar Ookla speed-test app, which I have used for years on all types of phones, tablets and laptops.
The other method involved putting my phone in so-called “field-test mode,” which replaces the bars or dots showing reception strength with an actual number. You can learn how to do this here.
I found that the Reach79 increased my download speeds some of the time, especially in weaker locations, by somewhere between a few percentage points and 100 percent or so. Its best result for me — in a whole series of tests, when averaged — was 43 percent. This was achieved in a suburban Starbucks. But most of the time, any improvement was far less dramatic.
And, as noted above, about half the time, the Reach79 didn’t improve average download speeds at all.
As for the field-test number (a negative number where a lower figure is better), the Reach79 did, in a few tests, manage to improve the number by 25 percent to 100 percent. But, in many of my tests, it did nothing at all. And with the case both on and off, this reading tended to fluctuate, sometimes considerably, with slight movements of my hand.
I wasn’t able to test one of the product’s key use cases — fixing dropped or garbled voice calls — because none occurred during my test period.
The company notes that it tested the case with 200 consumers in 37 states, and in a certified test lab. It concedes that results can be quite variable, as mine were. But, it said, in cases where users were getting especially slow speeds, the Reach79 “increased download speeds from an average of 3.8Mbps to an average of 5.8Mbps, a 2Mbps or 52 percent improvement in average download speeds.”
Bottom line: I cannot recommend the Reach79 as a cure-all for reception and speed problems, due to its inconsistent performance. But it’s worth a shot if your voice reception and data speeds are so bad they’re driving you crazy.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.