By Whitson Gordon
You probably use your cellphone as your primary phone line, and since it's with you all the time, that's extremely convenient. It turns into a problem, however, when you're stuck with crappy reception. If you regularly deal with bad service — whether at home, at work, or anywhere else you frequent — here are a few of the best ways to deal with it (short of moving). Note: For the sake of simplicity, we're going to talk about getting bad reception in your home as an example, but these tips can work just about anywhere, like your office.
If you have a weak signal to work with
If you have a little bit of reception to work with — say, one bar, or salvageable service in certain places in your house, there are a few things you can do.
Find the areas in which you get service: If you're lucky, there may be a few spots (such as by windows, doors or away from big appliances like TVs and microwaves) where you get service. The quickest and easiest solution is to just make sure you don't venture out of these areas when you're talking. Make a mental (or physical) map of where your phone works and where it doesn't. Obviously, this isn't the most ideal, but it'll work in a pinch.
Use a Bluetooth headset: If there's an area of your house in which you get good reception, a quick and easy solution is to pick up a Bluetooth headset, leave your phone in a good reception area, and just talk via Bluetooth. The range isn't incredible (so, if you have a big house, you'll need a few designated "good reception" areas), but it'll let you move around a little more while still getting enough reception to talk.
Upgrade your antenna: If your phone supports installing an external antenna (which many do nowadays), you may be able to buy a (relatively) inexpensive external antenna and an adapter for your particular phone. There are quite a few external antenna models available, but many are designed to be used in cars, and will work only when mounted on the surface they've been designed for — magnetic ones need to go on metal, and glass ones need to go on glass. They should still work, but just be aware of which one you're buying. Also note that these will need to be wired up to your phone, effectively making it as useful as a landline. You won't be able to walk around your house, but again, it will keep you from having to talk without leaning your head out the window.
Try another phone: Again, it isn't ideal, but if you found that part of the problem is your phone, using a different one might help you out. In fact, you'll probably get better reception if you use one of those old phones you have lying around in the basement. Old phones often get much better reception, usually because of the giant antennas they have sticking out of them. If you're a smartphone fanatic, you won't like this option, but AT&T and T-Mobile users can at least use them inside and swap their SIM card back into a new phone when they leave the bad-reception building.
Install a repeater: Sadly, the most reliable non-VoIP option is also the most expensive. There are a number of pretty good cellular repeaters out there, which, when installed, can spread some much better service across a room or two. Unfortunately, they cost about $200 or $300, so unless you're hell bent on avoiding using your computer to make phone calls, you'll have to plop down some cash if you want maximum range and reliability.
The signal-independent solution: Google Voice Calling in Gmail
While all these tricks may help you eke out some extra reception, they probably aren't going to make your life as easy as you'd like it to be. With an Internet connection and a bit of extra work, however, you can get a much more reliable solution from our favorite telephony service, Google Voice.
Google Voice hasn't always been the easiest to start using, but some recent additions to the service have made it much more compelling, especially if you're having reception problems on your cellphone. Now, you can port your number to Google Voice so you don't need to give out a new number, and you can make and receive free calls right from the Gmail web interface on your computer. That, coupled with Google Voice's ability to send and receive SMS messages over the Internet, make it a perfect companion to the low-reception home or office, since you'll be able to make and receive all your calls and texts right from your PC.
Porting your number
While you could always try and convince your friends and family to learn to use your new Google Voice phone number, that isn't ideal for most of us. Number porting withGoogle Voice isn't simple, but it works, and it ensures that none of your friends will have to perform the apparently very difficult task of programming a new number into their phone.
Essentially, when you go through Google's porting service, they'll cancel your current contract and make that number your Google Voice number (don't cancel your number yourself! Google will do it for you). Once that's done, you'll need to contact your cellphone provider and ask for a new number on the same line—most providers shouldn't hit you with an early termination fee as long as you replace the canceled number with a new one (though you may want to call them just to make sure). Once you've gotten that new number, just add it as a forwarding number in Google Voice and your friends will be none the wiser — they'll just call you on your old phone number, and it'll go through Google Voice.
Calling through Gmail
Of course, porting your number only gets you half the deal (SMS messages). Without service, you still won't be able to make calls on your phone, Google Voice or not. The next step is to set up Gmail callingon your account, which you can do by installing theVoice and Video plug-in and enabling outbound voice calling in Gmail's Chat settings(under "Call Phones"). If you want to receive calls in Gmail, you'll also have to head into Google Voice's settings and checking the box next to "Google Chat" under the "Phones" tab.
Now, when anyone calls your number, your phone will ring—but as long as you're signed into Gmail and logged into the Chat sidebar, Gmail will also ring. So if your phone doesn't have service, you'll still be able to receive the call on your computer just fine. And, as always, you can send and receive text messages right from Google Voice's web app. If you're a Chrome user, I highly recommend installing the Google Voice Extension, which makes sending SMS messages and making calls through Gmail a snap. And, if you have an iPhone, you can even continue making calls from your phone with Gmail calling and previously mentioned Talkatone. Plus, Gmail calling has some other clever uses, too.
Note that Gmail calling is free for now and the rest of 2011, but we don't know what Google's going to do with the service after that. For the rest of the year, though, you should be all set for making easy calls inside your home.
Having bad cellphone reception is annoying, but it doesn't have to make your life more difficult. Whether you're setting up an extender or forwarding your calls through Google Voice, you can deal with just about any area that doesn't get service. Got any of your own tips for surviving bad reception? Share them with us in the comments.