TechHive's Wireless Week: Testing America's networks

Testing cell networks across America: Apps and tools

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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.

Testing in snowy Denver.

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.

Diner in Omaha

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.

Yelp: When I am not working, I am eating. I am easily excited over local fare and sadly gluten-intolerent, so to be able to see that the Best BBQ in San Diego is literally across the street from my hotel or that gluten-free pizza and beer are available for dinner in Ann Arbor made this trip worthwhile for my stomach.

The Weather Channel: Instead of jetlag on this trip, I got weatherlag. I went from a sunburnt 89 degrees in Phoenix to a blizzard in Denver, to a torrential downpour in DC. This app helped me mentally prepare for what was next. If the iPhone version of WeatherSignal was out, I would probably have opted for that for more realtime information.

TripAdvisor: Pretty good for hotel reviews, and better than most for finding quirky places to stay, like the Carlton Inn outside of Chicago, where the otherwise standard quick-airport-layover rooms feature photo montages of the family poodle in a beret or Indian Hot Springs outside of Denver, where a dip in a mineral water swimming pool is part of the unique experience.

Hotel Tonight: This app is gorgeous and provides great photos all of the time, and great deals some of the time. I noticed that on the West Coast, it was pretty easy to find a really great last minute deal. I booked my stay at Palms Place in Las Vegas through this app and loved every minute of it. On the East Coast, the deals seem to be less discounted and in my experience can usually be trumped on Priceline.

Priceline: I found the Priceline app to be only supplementarily useful, but the website’s Express Deals provided many an affordable night in a four star hotel—as long as you can remain calm about not knowing exactly which one you’re going to be staying in until after you pay. & I used these mostly for cross-referencing what i was seeing elsewhere. They offer pretty standard rates and the occasional good deal, but I found both of them difficult to navigate when looking for last minute or day-of rates.

Meeting up with old friends in Michigan. Chickens get terrible reception

Facebook: Through the magic of Facebook I was able to connect with old friends in about ten of the twenty cities. Luckily, I have the type of friends that I can call after ten years and still get dinner with. It was great to see a friendly face and have an occasional home-cooked, free-range omelet.

Parkmobile: I was able to use this app to pay for parking in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, and D.C., but I wish this was nationwide. I found I actually didn’t mind paying $1 to $4 for parking when it was this easy. Each parking area has a number you add to the app and the rest is automatic once you’ve put in your credit card and license plate information. No fishing for quarters, no running back to the meter, no walking back to the car to put a sticker in the window. This is the future of municipal parking.

Apple Maps: Round and round we go

Apple Maps: I used the default Apple Maps app most of the time, maybe because I like some spice in my life. It was totally acceptable for general directions and I liked hands-off Siri telling me what to do as I drove. However, the app's actual understanding about speed, traffic, and human spacial architecture is seriously lacking. It’s also not so good with finding imperfect addresses. For example, a search for “Avis Rental Car NY NY” returns zero results. It also prioritizes an address’ zip+4 codes for location over the street address, which seems like a really odd choice and leads to a Bermuda triangle-like “approximate location” with no basis in reality. It also does not seem to understand different types of roads. After a rest stop somewhere between Dallas and Houston, it decided that the best way for me to get back to the highway was to go twelve miles down a dirt road through a cemetery in the middle of the night. I got to the highway eventually, but I cursed Siri the whole way. I still don’t think she’s forgiven me.

You can follow my travels on Facebook (OpenSignal Gabe) or FourSquare (OpenSignal), where I’ll be checking in periodically.


This story, "Testing cell networks across America: Apps and tools" was originally published by TechHive.

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