Last week, T-Mobile threw another lavish and expletive-filled "Uncarrier" event to announce it was making Wi-Fi calling more accessible for all of its customers. Part of that strategy involves selling only phones that are capable of making Wi-Fi calls from here out (existing customers are eligible for an early Jump upgrade to get a new phone if they wish) — but the other piece of the strategy is a humble wireless router.
Don’t let the name fool you — the Asus-built T-Mobile Personal CellSpot has nothing to do with the company’s cellular network. It’s not a FemtoCell, but a dual-band, 802.11ac router (it also works with the older b/g/n protocols) that the carrier is giving away to any customer who wants it and puts down a $25 deposit. Plug it in, and you can make Wi-Fi calls that promise to sound better, without having to worry about how good your T-Mobile cell signal is.
The new device is not a requirement for using T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling features. In fact, as long as your phone supports it, any Wi-Fi signal will work just fine. But T-Mobile says its CellSpot is better than most Wi-Fi routers out there, and that it’ll be a piece of cake to set up. From a business perspective, the carrier also wants to offer every link in the chain, from the handset to the connection point for your phone. However, T-Mobile could potentially be opening itself up to a host of customer service issues if subscribers can’t get it up and running, a problem T-Mobile’s executives acknowledged this at least week’s event.
I’ve been putting the CellSpot through its paces for the last few days to see if it meets T-Mobile’s promises, and it delivers well enough, though not without some setup issues. It wasn’t any worse than most experiences I’ve had installing a wireless router, but it certainly wasn’t better. After unboxing the CellSpot and screwing on its three antennas, and plugging in its ethernet cable, I booted everything up. Sadly, I had to spent another 20 minutes unplugging and restarting the CellSpot, my modem, and the T-Mobile-provided Samsung Galaxy Note 3 until I finally had a consistent internet connection. I’ve had the same experience before when adding new pieces to my networking setup, so it could be my Comcast-provided modem. Others might experience less trouble, but those who aren’t proficient in home networking could have enough trouble to warrant a call to support.
The best compliment you can pay any router is that it works well without you ever noticing it
The best compliment you can pay any router is that it works well without you ever noticing it, and that was certainly the case here. Once up and running, the CellSpot performed quite well. I spent the better part of the day uploading and downloading thousands of photos to Google Drive while simultaneously streaming music, watching Netflix, and doing normal work, and I never experienced any hiccups. It wasn’t any faster than my Apple AirPort Express — Speedtest.net tests for both were essentially identical — but it provided a strong and consistently fast connection the entire time I used it.
One place where the CellSpot distinguished itself was in range. I have a tiny apartment in San Francisco, and my AirPort more than covers it — but when I go very far down the halls or out to the roof deck, my Wi-Fi signal drops dramatically. Not so with the CellSpot — I was able to hold a signal much longer and farther away from the router itself. T-Mobile promises a 3,000-square-foot range for the CellSpot, which feels ambitious, but it should be able to broadcast a sufficient signal to cover a larger house — or get you internet on your back patio — without trouble.
Of course, all of these features don’t matter if the router can’t make the Wi-Fi calls that are its raison d’etre. Fortunately, making a Wi-Fi call with the Galaxy Note 3 was a piece of cake. There was no setup involved — once the phone is connected to a Wi-Fi network, it defaults to making calls over Wi-Fi and is smart enough to revert to cellular if no sufficient Wi-Fi signal is available.
Wi-Fi calls weren't the big step up in quality we hoped for
Unfortunately, Wi-Fi calling isn't going to make a big difference in call quality or clarity unless you're talking to someone else using a T-Mobile HD voice-capable handset (on Wi-Fi or not). When calling people on standard land lines or cell phones, the calls sounded fine for a cell phone call, but the quality of the audio was essentially indistinguishable from a standard call over T-Mobile’s network. However, I did further testing with someone else using T-Mobile Wi-Fi calling, and those calls were significantly improved over a standard cell call. Either way, it can be a big difference for people who don’t have great T-Mobile service in their houses. For them, placing a call over Wi-Fi should be a big improvement, but that’s the case whether or not you’re using the CellSpot or any other standard Wi-Fi router.
The CellSpot is also smart enough to give bandwidth priority to voice calls over other intensive activities like streaming video. I made a few calls while watching Netflix and didn’t have any major issues with either service, but your milage may vary depending on the overall speed of your connection from your ISP.
The added range of the CellSpot is a boon when making Wi-Fi calls, as you don’t have to worry about them disconnecting, but the ugly truth is that if you’re on the phone and move out of range of the Wi-Fi signal, you’ll drop the call. Future phones will allow for a seamless handoff between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, but the iPhone 6 and 6 plus are the only handsets that currently support that feature. In the meantime, the CellSpot’s strong range should help to mitigate this issue for most users.
T-Mobile is positioning its Personal CellSpot as a no-brainer — it’s as good of a router as many others on the market, and the carrier is right that it’ll probably work better than the equipment that many of its customers have in their houses. And, the only cash outlay is a $25 deposit. However, there’s still a big barrier to entry: routers can be very finicky, and if your Wi-Fi network is working, there’s very little incentive to invest in the CellSpot. It may be free, but you can use Wi-Fi calling on any wireless network you have access to; unless you’re actively having problems with your network, most customers probably won’t need to bother with this product. However, if you’re a T-Mobile user with a router that needs replacing, you could do a lot worse for your $25 than the Personal CellSpot.
Update, 6:00PM ET: Added further testing details.