How can you tell if a mobile phone has good reception before you buy it?

Guardian Technology 03 Jan 2019 08:00
Why is it that some smartphones have better reception than others and is there any way to find out which ones are best before buying them? Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

I have a Moto 3 smartphone and my wife has a similar earlier model. We are right on the edge of reception from EE. I can just get a very weak signal if I attach my phone to a selfie stick and lean out of a window, or walk up the bank behind the house. This is not ideal.

Away from home, sometimes my wife’s phone can get a strong signal whereas mine can’t get a signal at all. This made me wonder if there was a measurement to assess how good a mobile phone is at receiving signals in areas of poor reception before you buy it … and if there is an easy way for an ordinary punter to understand it. Paul

Phone manufacturers and others can and do test their phones, usually for certification purposes. The performance test results you want, if you can get them, are the Total Isotropic Sensitivity (TIS) value for reception and the Total Radiated Power (TRP) for transmission.

I couldn’t find much public research into mobile phone reception with commercial phones, presumably because of some of the problems mentioned above. Professor Gert Frølund Pedersen tested nine phones in Denmark in 2012 (PDF), while in the UK, Ofcom used the CTIA test to check 10 off-the-shelf phones in 2016 (PDF).

Otherwise, your best bet might be an EE Signal Box – which converts any broadband service into a local 3G mobile phone network – if you can get one. EE doesn’t list them for sale on its consumer website, though you might still be able to persuade a customer service agent to sell or even give you one.

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