Saturday, July 5, 2008

Something For Nothing...

Earlier this week, I ordered a new flash RAM card for our new cell phones. The best deal turned out to be a 2 GB card for a mere $17 – astonishingly cheap to this gray-bearded geek. And even though this was the best price I found for the card, it came with three freebies: an adapter so the tiny microSD chip could be read in a normal SD reader, a USB SD reader and a “cell phone antenna booster.” The first two things sounded at least possibly useful; the last thing I didn't even know what it was.

So when I received my package, it was with some interest that I looked for the cell antenna booster. When I finally found it, I could scarcely believe it – the entire thing was on a single little slip of paper, about 1.5 inches wide by 3.5 inches tall (see photo at right).

On the blue face of this paper were some, er, extravagant claims. First, it claims to work with all cell phones, walkie talkies, pagers, and cordless phones – devices that operate on a large number of different frequencies (and the frequency is critical to the design of any antenna or component). Second, it claims to help cell phones operate in tunnels, elevators, buildings – areas where cell phones often have some difficulty. A blurb at the top of the paper yells “IT'S LIKE HAVING A FOUR FOOT ANTENNA ON YOUR PHONE!” The back has a paragraph on the cell antenna booster's theory of operation, plus installation instructions. The theory of operation is a single sentence:
The cell antenna is a passive device designed to capture stray radiation in the body of the phone and to re-radiate the signal to improve the phone's performance.
Finally I figured out that the odd gold pattern on the bottom of the face of the slip was the cell antenna booster. The gold pattern is stamped onto a piece of clear plastic with a sticky back, and that is stuck to the small piece of white cardboard at the bottom in the photo above. A close-up of the gold stamping, still mounted on its cardboard, is at right.

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I'm a technical guy, with a background in electronics and software. I knew within a few minutes that this gadget was an utter and complete fraud – but it's easy to see how that might not be so apparent to someone with no technical background. I've got more detail that proves this is a fraud below.

What's most surprising to me is just how credible this looks. It's obviously mass-produced, the text is full of marketing-speak, and it's very slick – not something produced in someone's garage. Some careful examination reveals (in tiny text on the back) that it is made in China. The front has a suggested price of $19.99 – pretty darned pricy for some paper and a teensy bit of what appears to be gold foil stamping, though perhaps not out of line if it actually performed as advertised.

But “perform” is one thing that this gadget will never do. Here are the fatal flaws I observed in the gadget, in the order I observed them:
  1. The theory of operation describes an actually kind of device, called a “resonator.” In certain very restricted circumstances, a resonator can in fact boost an antenna's performance. One of the requirements for a resonator is that it be tuned extremely precisely for the exact frequency being received. The gold foil stamping forms five shapes that could conceivably be called resonators, but actually only three different shapes are involved. That means that if all other issues were removed, this device could resonate on only three different frequencies (or multiples of them) – nowhere near enough to cover all types of cell phones, let alone all the other devices it claims to work with.

  2. The theory of operation claims to work by capturing stray radiation inside the cell phone's body. This is just nonsense; any stray radiation there was wouldn't help you receive an actual signal. Positioning the gadget inside the body of a metal cell phone (which is what the instructions tell you to do) is a particularly useless exercise, as the metal body shields the gadget from any signal radiation – which is the only kind of radiation that would actually do any good.

  3. The coup de grace for the gadget's claims: any resonator (or any other conceivable passive antenna boosting technology) would need to be conductive. The most common conductors are metals, such as copper, aluminum, gold, etc. My first impression of the gold stamping was that it actually was gold – but on closer inspection, it didn't look precisely right. Ah, but there's a very simple test for conductivity: an ohm-meter. By strange coincidence, I own a very nice digital multimeter that can directly measure conductivity. So I broke out the multimeter and tested the conductivity of the gold stampings. More precisely, I measured the electrical resistance of the gold stampings, which is the inverse of conductivity – the higher the resistance, the lower the conductivity (and vice versa). If the gold stampings were conductive enough to be useful as a resonater, I'd expect them to have a resistance of less than one ohm, and probably less than one milliohm (a thousandth of an ohm). What I actually measured was a resistance of over 200 million ohms (that's the highest resistance my instrument can measure). That means the gold stampings are a very high-grade insulator (probably just garden-variety ink) – the exact opposite of a conductor, and totally useless in a resonator.
So this gadget is a complete fraud. It won't do any harm, but it most certainly won't do any good. It's exactly as effective as placing a slip of ordinary paper inside your cell phone.

When I started googling to find out if these gadgets were anomalous, I got my second big surprise. First of all, these things are actually for sale out there, at many stores – and for prices as high as $19.99. Oh, my. Then I found one cell phone site (which echoed my poo-pooing the gadget) that said their data indicates that somewhere between 100 thousand and 500 thousand of this brand have been sold – and this is just one of dozens of brands. Double oh, my. Some Chinese scamster is holding his belly in pain...pain from laughing hard at the gullible Americans who plunked down their hard-earned coins for this piece of paper. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find out the pattern is actually a Chinese character meaning “damned fool American!”

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