New Cell Phone signal better?
December 4, 2010 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Do newer cell phones pick up cell phone tower signals better? My Dad had a Tracfone analog cell phone that picked up signal fine in a part of our county that he hunts in but Tracfone upgraded his phone to a digital cell phone about 3 years ago and now he can not get signal in that part of the county anymore. I contacted Tracfone at the time this happened to see if I could update his phone with any new cell phone towers and was told the phone automatically updates with new cell phone towers. If I bought him a newer Tracfone what are chances it will pick up better then the one he has?
posted by sandyp to Technology (8 answers total)
The cell phone searches for any towers in range that it can work with; the provider doesn't need to send it updated lists of towers.

The analog (AMPS) and digital systems are more or less separate, although they use the same pool of frequencies. That is, the problem is probably just that there isn't a digital tower close enough, even though there was an analog tower close enough (maybe they're on the same physical tower, but the analog equipment had higher power, or something).

My impression is that the analog system was designed with fewer, more widely-spaced towers in mind than the later digital systems are. The engineering tradeoffs are different if you're trying to serve a city densely filled with phone users than trying to serve a large sparsely-populated area.

It is true that different models of phone are going to have different radio performance. (Newer isn't always better, since it's a tug-of-war between things like sensitivity, compactness, battery life, interference rejection, and of course price.) Also there are several distinct digital networks (GSM vs. CDMA, and different frequency bands; generally a lower frequency will work better in the boondocks). So there are a gazillion variables. It's worth asking around to find out if anyone else you know has a phone that works well in that area and what kind of phone it is.
posted by hattifattener at 1:52 PM on December 4, 2010

hattifattener for the win. The relatively goodness or badness of a phone can only be judged based on where you use the phone and with what provider. Your best bet is to ask others in the area for what works for them and you might want to check with the provider to understand their return policies so that you can actually try one out.
posted by mmascolino at 2:02 PM on December 4, 2010

AMPS phone had WATTS of output power, and the various digital modes have milliWatts. That's one reason that the batteries now last days instead of hours. (My old Motorola flip phones needed recharging after 6 or 8 hours.)

hattifattener is right in that there are many variables, but a direct answer to your first question is that yes, newer digital phones are more sensitive, in the sense that their signals are weaker. Since they are digital, they work pretty much the same right up to the edge of the signal, then crap out. The digital signal processing that makes them work has something called processing gain that makes signal recoverable even at levels that you can't see on an oscilloscope. It's math in action, and if you are not a techie, and a fairly high level one at that, you are missing one of the most fascinating aspects of current technology. Signals can be recovered when they are lower in strength than the noise they appear in. It's like decoding a whisper with the vacuum cleaner running. Way cool. (Way Cooley if you'll pardon the pun!) I loves me some FFT. Woot.

Dad may like a new phone anyway, and one thing is certain... designers keep adding features and performance, even at the low end. Tracfones are inexpensive, but they are not 'cheap' in terms of what's in them.
posted by FauxScot at 2:19 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

According to wikipedia, Tracfone offers both CDMA and GSM phones, so if you want the best chance of getting him a new phone that will fix the reception problem then choose the new phone in the opposite flavor of whatever you have now. Though it will still be a phone from Tracfone, it will be a different carrier under the hood -- Tracfone doesn't actually run any networks, they just buy capacity from the major carriers and resell it as their service. This means that the coverage will potentially be vastly different on account of the phone using a whole different and competing set of towers and frequencies, like switching from AT&T to Verizon.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:33 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Different phones do have different levels of reception. I used to live in a weak spot for at&t, and the Nokias I used didn't have any significant trouble with reception, while folks with the free Samsung and LG (also on at&t) flip phones would be sitting there saying "No Service."

I'd check coverage maps for at&t, Verizon, or any other facilities-based provider and see if they claim to have service in the area where your dad goes. From there, you can work out which MVNO uses that network and give it a shot.
posted by wierdo at 2:56 PM on December 4, 2010

Best answer: Rhomboid has some good information regarding Tracfone. Depending on your location either CDMA or GSM will work better. GSM seems to work better in dense urban environments and CDMA may work better in less dense locations.

Tracfone will give you a CDMA phone by default phone unless CDMA is not available in your neighborhood. They seem to prefer CDMA probably because they get better rates from the carriers.

However, you can induce them to give you a GSM phone by telling them your home location range is in particular zip codes as described here.

Tracfone uses mostly Verizon for CDMA and T-mobile or AT&T for GSM. You could ask your neighbors which carriers work best for them.
posted by JackFlash at 6:33 PM on December 4, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, thank all of you for the good information, I love this website!
posted by sandyp at 7:13 PM on December 4, 2010

There's a good chance that the AMPS cell he used to connect to isn't there any longer. Service providers all over the country have been shutting down their AMPS infrastructure so they can reclaim the spectrum for use with newer, more efficient, standards.

When Tracfone upgraded his phone to digital, it was probably part of a process of getting customers off of AMPS so they could shut down the cell.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:07 PM on December 4, 2010

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