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Testing cell networks across America: Apps and tools

Gabe Scelta | May 22, 2013
As part of TechHive and OpenSignal's massive annual test on mobile cell networks, I set out on a cross-country journey to investigate signal strength. I visited 20 cities in five weeks, and learned a lot about how to pack light for a tech-centric trip.

As part of TechHive and OpenSignal's massive annual test on mobile cell networks, I set out on a cross-country journey to investigate signal strength. I visited 20 cities in five weeks, and learned a lot about how to pack light for a tech-centric trip.

Early on in our testing, we realized that some kind of tablet would be necessary to monitor the internal testing dashboard on the go. To be totally honest, I was hesitant about the usefulness of an iPad mini. We just needed to monitor a mostly text, web-based data dashboard, so really any smartphone would do an adequate job. After five weeks on the road, though, I am sold. It became home base for everything I needed on the go, from booking hotels and cars to distracting myself with Angry Birds during a mildly terrifying descent in a CRJ-200 into the Detroit airport. It is small and light, which is overwhelmingly a plus.

Here are some of the most useful iOS apps I found for this study.

The apps

OpenSignal: Obviously, OpenSignal the most important app I used, as this was the tool we used to test and record signal strength. I'm using a modified version of the OpenSignal app for our tester phones, a fleet of iPhone 4S's and Galaxy Note II's. I added the standard release to the iPad mini as well. There were a few times where AT&T service was spotty, which prevented me from seeing my web-based data dashboard as I was collecting it. In those cases, I could fire up OpenSignal and try to get the iPad closer to a tower... so I could connect to the database... so I could see how much the phones were not connecting...

TripIt: I was skeptical about this at first. TripIt parses through your email account for flight, hotel, and car rental confirmation emails, then adds all the details into one convenient place. With 20 cities, 11 flights, 12 car rentals, and 23 hotel bookings it was nice to have them all organized according to check-in time, car return time, boarding time, etc. TripIt was invaluable. The only thing it could have done better was managing multiple or overlapping trips, as it seemed to organize everything based on flights. For example, my trip to Ann Arbor was labeled "Trip to Detroit" because I flew into the Detroit airport. I could have manually corrected this on the web interface, but the app is otherwise so comprehensive, I rarely logged in online.

Foursquare: This was just a fun way to keep track of my travels and put a name to all those anonymous lat/long coordinates I was gathering. I also set it up to post to my Facebook page, so my non-Foursquare followers could keep track of where I was.

 

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