Get a mobile signal in a dead zone – Gadling reviews the new Wilson Electronics Sleek

Even though we live in a 3G (and sometimes even 4G) world – mobile operators in the US have not yet mastered the art of delivering coverage everywhere we need it. Some operators (like AT&T) have capacity issues, while others just don’t have enough towers. Often, nature can play a role in restricting signals from reaching you, and even things like the metal structure of a hotel can prevent you from being able to make or receive phone calls in your room.

As most mobile phones have made the switch to a nifty internal antenna, you can no longer pull out the stubby antenna we used to have on our phones. This means you will either need to resort to finding a place where signal can reach, or in the worst case, pull over for a pay phone.

There is thankfully now a better option in the form of a portable signal booster. I met with the Wilson Electronics product team at the Consumer Electronics Show to learn about the Sleek. What you see in the photo above is an entire signal booster setup with the power to boost your cellular signal up to 20 times.

The kit includes the Sleek dock/booster, a magnetic antenna, USB power cable and a 12 volt power adapter. In its basic form, the kit is designed for in-car use, but an optional AC adapter allows you to bring it indoors.

To use the Sleek, you simply slide your phone in the cradle, and use your phone like you always would. Of course, with your device in the cradle, you’ll want to use a wired or wireless headset, though nothing is stopping you from holding the entire thing up to your ears (other than you looking like a bit of a dork).

There are no buttons to push, no adjustments to make and no settings to mess with on your phone. The cradle picks up the signal from your device, and does everything for you.

On the bottom of the unit is a power input (MiniUSB) and an antenna connector. On left side is a power output and a status indicator light. This power output jack is pretty handy, because it allows you to plug your phone into the cradle for power, allowing you to power the Sleek and your phone with just one cord.

Of course, the big question is – does this device work?

I took the Wilson Electronics Sleek out on a road test to a location where my calls usually drop. With my phone in the cradle, I suddenly had 5 bars, and outside the cradle (with the unit turned off), I dropped down to 2 bars, and eventually completely lost the signal.

At that same location, I tried making a call without the cradle, and got the usual “call failed” error. When cradled in the Sleek, I was able to make a call (using my car Bluetooth hands-free kit).

Sure, this may not be a full scientific review, but all I know is that I was able to make a call with this product, when I normally can not.

Because the Sleek boosts all of your signal, you’ll benefit from it for voice and data.

The Sleek for travelers

This is a travel site, so pointing out the uses for travelers is part of what we do – with the Sleek, there are several obvious uses. The first is of course the most logical; using the Sleek in a car. It doesn’t matter whether you are taking a road trip, or just driving to visit some friends. When correctly installed (antenna on the roof), you can set up a great permanent solution for boosting your mobile signal.

For travelers looking for better reception in a hotel, Wilson Electronics offers an AC adapter and a suction cup window mount. Simply attach the antenna to the hotel window, and place the cradle on the desk or other object. The cradle and antenna need to be at least 8 inches apart, to prevent “oscillation”. Thankfully, the LED indicator on the unit will warn you when the two are too close together.

Final thoughts

Here is the most important thing about the Sleek – it works exactly as advertised. Wilson Electronics promises better reception and fewer dropped calls, and the unit does just that.

Sadly, the world of “signal boosters” has a pretty bad name, mainly due to those pathetic “booster stickers” sold in the past. Since none of those things worked, it is understandable to be hesitant about a $129 product that promises something as awesome as a 20x increase in signal.

The purchase price includes the Sleek itself, the antenna and a power cable. It also includes a second set of mounting arms, which let syou install almost any size mobile phone in the cradle.

PROS: Compact, works as advertised, affordable, fits almost any mobile phone (GSM and CDMA, does not support iDen/Nextel).

When docked, phone requires wired or wireless headset

All in all, $129 is not a lot for a device that actually can help you make calls when a normal signal won’t reach you. There are some other operator offered alternatives on the market, but those rely on an Internet connection and usually come with a monthly fee. The Sleek is a one-time investment, and is portable enough to be moved from a car to a hotel room and back.

If you travel, and rely on being able to make and receive calls, or use your data connection, you really can benefit from adding the Sleek to your gadget arsenal.

You’ll find a list of Wilson Electronics retailers on their web site, along with more information on their assortment of signal boosting equipment.