It's not that Sprint's AIRAVE is minty fresh -- as a matter of fact, individuals in Indianapolis and Denver were able to pick one up last September -- but the device is brand new to the rest of the nation. The long-awaited CDMA femtocell (once dubbed the Samsung Ubicell) essentially acts as a super in-house signal booster, or, if you'd prefer, a mini Sprint tower sitting right beside your router. If the concept is ringing a bell, it's because you've certainly seen a similar setup with T-Mobile's @Home service. So, the real question here is can the AIRAVE really help your reception? And more importantly, is it worth the extra coin? Read on to find out.

Design

There's not a whole lot to say here, but we figured we'd give you a quick rundown of the hardware before digging into the actual performance. The box itself is no bigger than most home routers, it's lightweight, and it can be stored horizontally or vertically. 'Round back, you'll find an Ethernet jack, a GPS socket, an AC connector and an On / Off switch. After running overnight, the device was still rather cool to the touch, so there's no worry of it melting anything that's sure to sandwich it in your already cramped desk.

And yeah, about that GPS port. Much to our dismay, the AIRAVE requires that a GPS lock is found before it begins operating, and it requires that said lock puts you within the United States of America. For jet-setters, this device would be monumentally more attractive if you could simply pack it along, soar over to Zürich and use your CDMA handset and Sprint minutes to phone back home. Hate to burst your bubble, but unless a brilliant hack is discovered (and the loophole is left open), the AIRAVE will only prove useful here in the US.

Furthermore, Sprint claims that this unit is all ready to support multiple callers, and while that is indeed true, the actual bandwidth requirements are a touch harder to come by. For a single call, you need at least 40Kbps up and down in order to not break up, while 2 callers needs twice that and 3 callers thrice. If a fourth or fifth caller attempts to tap into the AIRAVE while a trio of calls are already underway, those mobiles will be directed to the nearest cell tower. Should one of the original three leave the house, however, they will be reconnected with the nearest cell tower without dropping the call.

Gallery | 29 Photos

Hands-on: Sprint's AIRAVE signal booster



Setup

Our AIRAVE came activated right out of the box, as should yours. Once you unwrap everything, you simply link the box to your router via an Ethernet cable, place your GPS module by a window (or anywhere that it will retrieve a signal), connect the GPS cable / AC adapter and flip the switch to On. It should be noted that this thing takes a long time to get going. Sprint advises you to be patient for a solid hour while it runs through the motions of its initial setup, and it's not lying. Around 55 minutes after firing it up, all of the LEDs had finally stopped dancing and settled on blue, a symbol that all systems were go. With future boot-up sequences (should you ever power it down and back up), the entire process took around 5 minutes.

Performance

Here's what it all boils down to -- does this unit really make a noticeable improvement in call quality and signal strength? In a word, absolutely. We tested the unit in a home with notoriously awful Sprint coverage -- we're talking 0 to 1 bars, flashing in and out of roaming / Sprint service depending on how the wind blows. We used a certain Sprint handset in this domicile for a solid month and dropped countless calls and could barely hear when connected unless we waltzed over to "that spot by the window" and remained there for the duration of the conversation. In other words, we'd know for certain if this AIRAVE was working or not.



Our test handset for the AIRAVE was a Samsung UpStage, a pretty simple candybar that should be indicative of how most handsets will react. Our test connection was a standard cable modem with 7Mbps down and 384Kbps up. Upon turning on the UpStage without the AIRAVE active, we saw the dreaded 1 bar, and sure enough, our test calls were nothing short of frustrating. Drops and breakups were a common occurrence, and if you just so happen to be in one of these awkward Sprint dead zones, we're totally sure you can relate. After the AIRAVE was ready for use, we phoned up a few friends from the same location as before to observe the differences.

It should be mentioned that our signal strength indicator shot up from 1 bar to 5 bars immediately after the AIRAVE was finished with its lengthy boot-up process. We walked around to various nooks and crannies and never saw the bars dip below 3. Remember folks, this is all happening in a house that never saw 3 bars of Sprint service prior to the AIRAVE being powered on. Upon dialing our first test subject, we heard a brief double beep just before the ringing began to let us know that the call was being funneled through the AIRAVE. A nice touch, we must say.



After surviving a few hours of small talk with random individuals deep down in our contact list (did we mention that out loud?), we can pretty much sum up our impressions with this: the AIRAVE makes an unquestionable, unmistakable difference in call quality and reception in homes that currently have subpar or altogether poor Sprint service. To be honest, the calls were as clear as we had ever heard from a cellphone, and we really had to look twice at our UpStage to confirm that we weren't on a landline. And, mind you, this was talking to other cellies on different networks, not just landline numbers.

Wrap-up

If you're currently stuck in a Sprint contract and are beyond perturbed with the awful coverage at your house, we'd certainly recommend giving the AIRAVE a go. Granted, you could just wait it out and switch carriers in a few months, but if you're hoping to stay on that now-defunct SERO plan forever, this is a wonderful alternative to paying (lots) more on another provider.

Additionally, the AIRAVE is becoming more and more relevant with each passing day, as Sprint phases out the handsets in which "Roaming only" is an option -- like, oh, the Samsung Instinct? We know, we know, it just feels dirty to hand Sprint money in order to make up for its lack of coverage in your area, but if you're utilizing a beautiful corporate discount or have one of the aforesaid SERO plans still in action, it may be worth your while to bite the bullet and take that whole "improve my service" initiative into your own hands.

Now that you know what a tremendous difference the box makes, is it really worth the cost? Truthfully, that depends on just how horrible Sprint's coverage is in your area, whether or not your phone has a Force Roam option and of course, your annual salary. If you don't mind using the AIRAVE to burn through your plan minutes, you'll only be asked to pay $99.99 up front for the box itself and $4.99 per month for the service. If you're jonesing for unlimited in-home calling, you'll be coughing up another $10 per month (so $14.99 total); if you're looking for unlimited in-home calling for families, that'll be $24.99 per month. Of note, those with unlimited voice plans (i.e. Simply Everything) will only be asked to pay $4.99 per month, as the whole "unlimited" bit is obviously already taken care of.

To be frank, our only real beef with the AIRAVE is the monthly fees. Really, Sprint -- just let us lay down a Benjamin (up from the $49.99 price tag it initially launched with) and be done with it. We're using our broadband connection and our minutes (unless we opt for something else), and the additional $4.99 per month to make up for your lack of coverage is a soft (albeit noticeable) kick in the shin. But then again, if customers are getting away with paying next to nothing on a SERO plan, maybe $4.99 per month isn't too much to ask.