AT&T 3G MicroCell Review and Recommendations

The MicroCell is an interesting product. Some believe it is a product filling holes in a carrier’s network that shouldn’t exist. No carrier has blanket coverage and often even when there is coverage, it is worse indoors so it is nice that products like this do exist.  For $150, you can pick up an AT&T MicroCell from any AT&T store.  This is a cheaper option than some alternatives and worth consideration if you have little coverage at home or work.


Account setup is rather simple and done through a website.  You provide your address and phone numbers and that’s it.  You are limited to 10 phone numbers that can work through a MicroCell.  The good news is that it is locked down by phone numbers so your neighbor can’t use it.  Your address info is verified by GPS in the MicroCell during startup.  Unfortunately, this means the device needs to be near a window so it can get a GPS signal.  This is the oddest thing about it but apparently a requirement by the FCC.  If the GPS light does not come on, you need to move it closer to a window.  In some cases, you may need to try various windows at your house until you finally are able to get GPS.

Once you get GPS and are connected to your Internet, you can move the device as long as it doesn’t lose power.  This might be easy if are just relocating it in the same room.  If you are moving to an area with no windows, you’ll need a battery backup solution.  A cheap good option is the Tripp Lite Compact UPS.  Once you get GPS by a window, you can unhook the ethernet and move the MicroCell and UPS (uninterrupted power supply) wherever you like.  Of course, if you ever lose power for longer than your UPS can last, you’ll have to go through that whole process again to set it up.  This battery backup approach can make sense though because placement is very important.


AT&T claims a 40 ft range.  This is pretty decent and works out to an area of about 5,000 square feet, even more if you have 2 floors.  You’ll drop about 1 bar of coverage per major obstacle (like a wall) so to cover a whole house, you’ll want to put the MicroCell in the most central location.  Unfortunately, central often means no windows, hence the need for the UPS approach.

Even if you’ve got 5 bars and are sitting right next to the MicroCell, your call quality might be awful if your Internet isn’t good.  This is often the cause of any VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) issues and everyone’s assumption that their Internet is good.  To test the VoIP quality of your Internet, visit this VoIP test site.  If you don’t do well on those tests, you shouldn’t consider any VoIP products.

Assuming you’ve got good Internet and good bars, the MicroCell performance is very good.  You’ll know you’re connected because your phone will say something like AT&T M-Cell instead of just AT&T.  If you’re far from the MicroCell or have many walls between it and you, your performance may suffer so be sure to place it near where you expect to make most calls.  If you’re heavily using your Internet, streaming a video for example, your call quality may suffer if you don’t have your router setup properly.

Router Optimization

The MicroCell can go between your router and DSL/Cable modem but additional routers is rarely a good thing.  We recommend you hook the MicroCell up to your router so it can plug in anywhere on your network. We don’t recommend the use of a wireless bridge as wireless can be too sporadic for VoIP.  To optimize MicroCell performance, it should be given high priority in your router’s QoS (Quality of Service).  The MicroCell MAC address is on the bottom of the device.


Before the MicroCell, the best alternative was the zBoost YX-510 Cell Phone Booster.  This is around $300 and requires that you have some signal near a window or in an attic.  Coaxial cable is run from an antenna to the zBoost repeating antenna.


If you’ve got poor Internet but some outside signal, the cell phone booster is your best bet.  If you’ve got good enough Internet, the MicroCell is a cheaper and superior option.  You may not like having to pay for such a device but it is a one time fee that should simply make your AT&T phones work at home.

Play Music at Retail Legally

Background Music at the Store

I recently helped install a stereo system for a retail store in Virginia. They wanted to play background music for their customers but weren’t sure what they could play. In the US, it’s illegal to play the radio or regular CDs because those songs aren’t licensed to be played for “public performance.” (UPDATE: Thanks to John Kaufeld who corrected me in the comments regarding radio play)

What happens if you play regular music CDs at your business? You might get a visit from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), or the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). One retailer I know of was fined $7000 by ASCAP for playing music which was not properly licensed.

Legal Options

So how do you play music legally in the public? Here are some options.

  1. Purchase business-licensed music CDs. Many retailers buy muzak, the horrible elevator music, because it’s cheaper to license than the actual songs. Please don’t do this.
  2. Get XM Radio for Business, costing $40/month.
  3. Download free music from Jamendo which is under a Creative Commons license.  This music is uploaded by artists that are not represented by ASCAP/BMI/SEAC. I am amazed at the number of high quality albums listed on Jamendo. My Virginia client found lots of great jazz at Jamendo and will play that at their retail store.

ASCAP is Nuts

As a side note, I am all in favor of musicians getting their due. But hearing background music in a store falls under “fair use” to me. From a music business prospective, I don’t think that many people will chose to listen to music in a store as a replacement for buying music. “Hey honey, let’s go to the mall. I feel like listening to some Lady Gaga.” Hearing music at a store promotes music purchases just like hearing it on the radio.

ASCAP goes way too far. They’ve sued Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for singing camp songs. They’ve sued cell phone users for playing ring tones. They want fees from YouTube for having background music in videos. They want fees from iTunes and Amazon for 30-second song previews. That’s not just silly. It hurts the musicians.

Microsoft Security Essentials 2.0 Beta

My favorite free security software for Windows is Microsoft Security Essentials from Microsoft, the folks who should be protecting their operating system.

Microsoft just came out with a beta of their next version, Microsoft Security Essentials 2.0 featuring:

  • Windows Firewall integration– allows you to turn on or off the Windows Firewall during setup.
  • Enhanced protection from web-based threats – integrates with Internet Explorer to provide improved protection against web-based attacks.
  • New protection engine – offers enhanced detection and cleanup capabilities with better performance.
  • Network inspection system – protects against network-based exploits.

To get the new version, go to the Microsoft Connect site and fill out the beta registration information. Then you’ll see instructions for downloading and installing the beta.

Microsoft Fix It Software

A quick fix to many common PC problems (non-functioning printers, drivers, web broswers, etc) is possible with the free Fix-it software from Microsoft at:

Click Try it Now!, install the software, run Mircosoft Fix it and choose the category of your problem. Mircosoft Fix it then looks for and can automatically fix lots of issues.

Before calling on computer support, see if this free software can help you out.

10 Fixes for Overheating Laptops

Many PC laptops are poorly designed, causing them to overheat and turn off automatically to keep from becoming damaged. Here are a few possible fixes:

1. Remove Dust

Dust often forms around fans and air vents, reducing airflow and cooling. Start with a vacuum cleaner to pull out loose dust. Then blow out the remaining dust with a can of compressed air.

2. Keep Vents Open

Be sure to never cover the fans and air vents. The small holes under the laptop are needed for the components to properly cool. Placing a laptop on a pillow or bed will smother the vents and stop airflow. If you do use the laptop on a bed, carpet, etc, at least place it on a board or other smooth surface so that the laptop can use the designed airflow.

3. Raise the Laptop

Raise the laptop to allow more air to flow underneath. Don’t do this in a way that covers the air vents. For example, four rubber furniture raisers bought a hardware store will cheaply raise a laptop. For more cheap options, see the Lifehacker Top 10 DIY Laptop Stands.

4. Add Active Cooling

For more money, you can buy a notebook cooling pad such as the Targus Lap Chill Mat or Cooler Master Notepal U2. These raise the laptop and have fans which move air under the laptop.

With one customer, I needed to get the data off of a quickly overheating laptop so I placed it onto trays of ice. I placed a sheet of plastic over the ice to reduce humidity seeping up to the laptop. It wasn’t a long-term solution but was able to keep the laptop running for a few hours.

5. Download BIOS and Software Updates

Typically available from the laptop manufacturer, BIOS and OS driver updates can fix CPU and fan control problems.

6. Configure the BIOS

Check to see what BIOS options exist for the CPU and GPU. You typically get into the BIOS by clicking F1, F2 or ESC when you first turn the computer on.  Sometimes there are options to underclock the CPU or step down the processors.

Fan speeds and temperature alarms can sometimes also be set in the BIOS.

7. Configure Windows Power Options

Within Power Options (Control Panel – Power Options), you can set the laptop to run using less power for both the CPU and graphics card. This will slow down the computer but also lower its heat.

8. Install Monitoring Software

Speedfan is free Windows software allowing you to see the temperature of components. Knowing the CPU temperature can be helpful when trying to improve cooling. Depending on the system, Speedfan might be able to control and modify the fan speed.

9. Fix the Thermal Compound

The thermal compound between the CPU and heat sink is often poorly applied during manufacture. If you want to fix an overheating CPU and are adventurous, you can open the laptop, remove the CPU, clean it and the heat sink, apply new thermal paste, and put everything back together. This is not a simple process, even for people who do it regularly. But it can permanently fix some overheating computers.

10. Internet Search For Your Laptop Model

Particular laptop models are typically susceptible to the same problems. A recent customer has a Gateway M1625, commonly afflicted with overheating on the left side due to poor CPU thermal paste. Many Sony models were recently identified as having an overheating problem that Sony is fixing through software. A fix for your laptop might be found with a quick Internet search.