Product Review

The AT&T Micro-Cell : How to improve your cellular service in your home or office

We’ve landed on Mars again. Another milestone has been reached. We can now send a roving robot to Mars, communicate with that robot, even send files to it and receive HD quality video from it. It’s fantastic. What’s more amazing though, is that some of us can’t use our cell phones in our homes, or along certain stretches of Sunset Blvd, or on the subway in New York City. (Cell phones do work, however, on the metro in Paris). Apparently there is only so much technology can do. Mars, sure – Beverly Hills? Uhm … not so much.

Ta-dah! Enter the Micro-cell. (Cue the balloons)

If you have broadband internet in your home, you can now add a “mini-cell tower” to your list of gadgets. Once installed and configured, the Micro-cell will finally allow your cell phone to work in your home, out by the pool, and perhaps in your kitchen. It’s true, you’re paying to improve service you’re already paying for, but let’s be pragmatic. Do you want to be able to use your cell phone in your house reliably, or not? The device is the size of a model spaceship, something similar in shape to the star fighter that Darth Vader escaped in at the end of one of the many Star Wars sequels. Plug this puppy directly in to your router, place it near a window, and after an hour or two, you should have your very own cell signal available within 50 or so feet of the device. Once  the Microcell has acquired its GPS signal while near a window, you can unplug it and move it to a more central location in your house.The setup is fairly simple. If you’re an AT&T customer, you can go to a local AT&T store, and pick up a unit there. Currently the cost is about $200 plus tax. When the micro-cell was first introduced a few years ago, it was offered in promotions to help the idea take hold. Frankly it also didn’t work quite as well. But now that demand is up, promotions are hard to find. Micro-cells are private, meaning only subscribed (programmed) cell numbers will be able to connect to it. Your guest will not be able to use your mini cell tower in your home unless you’ve added his number to the list, even if his phone is with AT&T. This means that you will have to program it when you first install it. Or, you can call someone like us, and we can do it for you.
The instructions for the setup are straightforward, and the cables are even color-coded (black for power, yellow for internet connection, and so on). The only difficulty you might encounter is when it’s time to log in to the configuration website. We’ve experienced a few hiccups when the Safari browser didn’t seem fully compatible with the AT&T webpage. But recently, those hiccups appear to be resolved, and setup has been quite simple. You’ll need to setup an online account with AT&T wireless, then log in, then follow the step-by-step instructions for entering each cell number you’d like to allow access for. Note that up to ten numbers are allowed, that they must be AT&T cellular numbers, but not necessarily all on the same family plan. In other words, the whole family can be on the list, as well as the housekeeper, the gardener, and boyfriends or girlfriends, poker buddies and the like, as long as all use AT&T.
Once the setup is done, you should see the 3G or 4G symbol at the top left of your iphone screen change to “M-Cell”, with full bars available. Keep in mind that you are NOT circumventing your calling plan when using the microcell. Quite to the contrary. If you’re not on an unlimited calling plan, your minutes will be deducted at home just as they would be if you were walking down main street, chatting happily away. In our experience, the microcell works quite well. Out of perhaps 80 installations we’ve done, when NO service was available in a home prior to installing a microcell, only one client has had some difficulty receiving the M-Cell Signal.  We’re thinking their unit might be defective, and are preparing to exchange it with AT&T. (To AT&T’s credit, they are very responsive and helpful in that regard)
Now the safety issue. As many of you may have heard, there is an ongoing debate over the safety of cell phones, or more specifically, the cellular signal. The last thing many folks want is a mini cell tower planted in their house. (The actual size is not large, so “tower” is more of a metaphor here). They not only refuse to have a cellular transmitter, like the micro-cell, in their home, but they block any efforts to add cell towers in their neighborhood. This explains why some of the most exclusive residential areas, like Beverly Hills, have the worst cellular service. No one wants a cell tower in their backyard. Why? Besides the eye-sore, there is a real concern about the microwaves that are transmitted from such towers, and such devices.
As the technology is relatively new, and has also become so ubiquitous, people are nervous. Cigarettes were once touted as a healthy medication to fight asthma, and EVERYONE seemed to smoke back in the 50s and 60s. Many of those chain smokers are now dead, and we’ve since learned that inhaling smoke is a bad idea. So too, people say, is holding a cellular phone to your brain for extended periods, day after day, month after month, year after year. I can’t argue with that. I too try my best to avoid holding the cell phone near my head. Instead, I opt for either a headset (not only for driving), a speakerphone, or some other hands-free, phone-away-from-my-brain option. All one has to do is leave a cell phone near a speaker or stereo system to realize how powerful and constant those cellular signals care. The interference on sound systems is loud and clear.
But does that mean a microcell poses a health risk? The industry of course says “no”. My pragmatic approach is that we are already bombarded by all sorts of signals in the course of our daily lives, from the microwave in the kitchen (if you have one), to the WIFI throughout your home or office, or your neighbor. I don’t recommend installing a WIFI transmitter, or router, in a bedroom – as the signal IS strong by design, and you wouldn’t want something like that next to your head for a third of your life. Indeed, it has been shown that infants are especially sensitive to such transmitters, and that the signal can be disruptive to their sleep cycles.
Studies in Europe have also drawn alarming conclusions, but they refer to cellular phone use, not the cellular signals produced by transmitters or microcells. At the end of the day, we’ve drawn the following nuggets of useful information from our array of sources, personal experience, and opinion. We have not conducted any scientific or medical research, and are certainly not experts on the complex technology involved in providing cellular service. It would appear the experts themselves cannot agree on the risks of cellular, or whether any risk even exists. Having said that, to make everyone’s lawyers happy, we have an opinion on this that us feels based in some common sense.
1. Never let a child hold a cell phone up to his or her head. Their craniums are still developing, and may be considerably thinner (and thus more vulnerable) than adult craniums. No need to stream cellular signals into their still developing brains. Not a good idea. If they must use a cell phone at any given time (to say “hi” to grandpa, for example, use the speakerphone, or a headset. IF your child has a cell phone, make sure the exclusive headset use is a condition of keeping the privilege. (Yes, I know, they’re texting 95% of the time)
2. Guard yourself as you would your child. Avoid putting a cell phone next to your own head. There are several infamous cases of celebrities who died of brain cancer, and whose families contend it was due at least in part to prolonged use of a cell phone against the head. Always employ a headset when using your phone, or use some device (such as the hands-free system in your car) to make and take your calls. By the way, if you drive while using your iphone, be sure not to wear both earbuds. In California, it’s against the law. Only one ear-bud allowed while driving.
3. Avoid those fancy-looking (fairly ridiculous) bluetooth wireless earpieces people tend to wear when dining in a restaurant. You’re essentially inserting a powerful transmitter into your ear canal, in very close proximity to your brain! Does that sound like a good idea to you? In our opinion, it’s not.
4. If you cannot receive a reliable cellular signal in your home, and you rely on your cell phone for bringing home the bacon, keeping in touch with your under-age children, or some other critical need for decent communication, spring for a micro cell. It really does make ALL the difference. Just install it somewhere central to your home, perhaps in a closet under a stairway, far away from your bedroom (remember, no transmitters next to your head). If you’re REALLY concerned about prolonged exposure to a cellular signal in the home, reduce that exposure by installing a timer on the power supply. Those timers available at your local hardware store control lights, and anything else electrical, including the power supply to a microcell. Remember that it could take as much as 20 minutes for the thing to power up completely, but you could program the timer to go on at 8:30am, and off at 5pm, for example. It’s really up to you what you’re comfortable with.
5. IF you feel you shouldn’t have to pay for an extra gadget just to improve service you’re already paying for, I hear you. Try calling AT&T customer service, and state your case. Perhaps you’ll find someone sympathetic who will cut you a deal. Anything is possible. Keep in mind that you will NOT be improving cellular connection for your community. The micro-cell only allows the numbers you’ve programmed into it to connect. So unless you’ve programmed your neighbors cell into your micro-cell, you won’t be improving his reception one bit. Micro-cells are private transmitters.
We really like the Micro-cell. Clients love it too, once it’s installed. Several have resisted these last two years they’ve been available, but now with cellular replacing landlines, smartphones dominating the market with all sorts of cool apps and functions, the micro-cell has become a real necessity for remote areas (especially in Beverly Hill, and we suppose, on Mars).
If you think your sensitive to wireless signals, don’t get one. If you have one installed, and it doesn’t do much for your reception, return it. AT&T has been very good about returns with us.
With the pressure from the competition, we’ve noticed AT&T going to great lengths to hold on to their customers. They want you to be happy. There is still room for improvement, in my opinion, but overall I have to say we’re satisfied with the service we get. Over the years we’ve learned where the “black holes” of cellular communications are in this town, and we plan accordingly, as most of you have in your areas I’m sure. The micro-cell is not limited to AT&T, by the way. Verizon sells something similar. But since we use AT&T, we’ve limited the commentary to what we use.
If your iphone just won’t receive calls at home, check out the micro-cell. We think you’ll like the improved cellular signal. If you’re in the Los Angeles area and need someone to install it for you, let us know.  Our cell phones now work in the office, and we’ll be glad to take your call.

Vonage – How to keep your original home telephone, or office number, when you move

Ok, so this isn’t exactly a Mac topic, or even related to Apple. But because so many clients have opted to purchase the digital bundles offered by service providers – whereby phone, television (cable or satellite), and internet are provided together, it’s time to let you in on a secret. Despite what some people and companies will tell you, you CAN keep your number when you move. And I don’t mean just a move across town. I’m telling you if you move to the South of France, you can keep your 310 area code number, and receive calls there – inexpensively.

To hear phone companies tell it, it’s virtually impossible to keep the original home phone number you and your children have known and loved for years. The phone company may tell you it doesn’t serve the area you’re moving to, and that you will have to give up that number. The company servicing your new area may not only tell you it can’t get the number you had, but that you’ll have to use a new area code, such as 424, along with a new, foreign number. According to Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles, for example, there aren’t enough 310 area code numbers to go around.

Not to offend the residents of Catalina Island, but who wants a 424 area code when living in Beverly Hills? It’s just absurd.A client faced this very situation when she moved from West LA to Beverly Hills. She had accepted the idea of getting a completely new number, but assumed that number would at least be within the 310 area code. Time Warner Cable, also the provider of internet and phone services these days, informed us that 310 area codes are just about sold out. There are few available. In fact,  the “pool” of available numbers that Time Warner has, was reduced to 424 area codes. That’s all the customers who need new numbers can get.

Baloney. Perhaps it’s all a customer can get with Time Warner, but there are plenty of 310 area code numbers out there. Between foreclosures, the bad economy and businesses shuttering across our country,  more “old” phone numbers are becoming available every day. You just have to know where to look for them, and, you need to know how the system works. There are even consumer rights to be considered here.

Unbeknownst to many, you’ve been paying for a “feature” on your landline for several decades. This feature is known as the “digital phone portability service”, a fee you paid  that would allow you to take your number with you if you were to ever move to a new location. Yes, you heard right. We’ve been paying for that capability for not some months, not years, but decades. PRE-INTERNET! And, it wasn’t a fee one could opt out of. It was a mandated fee.

I remember discovering it on my phone bill back in the 80s. The fee amounted to $1.50 per month, and was right up there with the digital touch-tone charge of $1 that phone companies charged when rotary phones were still common.

Yes, I am that old. I remember rotary phones, and the days prior to touch-tone. I also remember my first Sony Walkman. It was made almost entirely of metal, and played something called “cassette tapes”.  Back then, a Sony Walkman cost $250 – a great deal of money for a teenager back then. And, kids who had a Walkman also sported “roller skates” with Chicago Struts.But I digress.

We protested those digital portability and touch-tone fees at the time, since operating touch tone technology was actually cheaper for the phone company than rotary service.

As the cellular market took off in the 90s, people REALLY wanted to keep their original home numbers as they went mobile. The migration of phone numbers from landlines to competing cellular markets was a complete nightmare for the phone companies. Yes, they had been collecting fees for this eventuality for many years, but now the chickens had come home to roost.

Not long after hemorrhaging business to the cellular market, the larger phone companies had enough of this hassle. They unceremoniously announced they would no longer offer the migration of numbers to other services. Not only that, but clients could no longer transfer their calls from an old number that had been set up to be virtual, to their new number across town. When a client moved years ago, an AT&T agent on the phone told me it was too complicated to move the number, and that they no longer offered that service. Some politicians sued, successfully, and even delayed the implementation of an area code overlay – calling the phone companies bluff. But that impasse only lasted for awhile. Eventually, the phone companies got what they wanted, and area code 424 (as well as many others) were born.


Enter an internet phone service, known as Vonage. Years ago we learned that a relatively new company called Vonage could assume the original phone number we had been using. It would allow me to CANCEL the virtual number with SBC Global (now AT&T), forgo the per minute charges for forwarded calls, AND, provide me with a very clear phone signal. All of that for considerably less than I was paying then. At the risk of sounding like a commercial . . . “but wait, there’s more.”

Vonage offered unlimited calls within the US, free calls to certain foreign countries, included voice mail, and an online web portal for managing the account, and call logs. All for $25 a month? Well, no. By the time we upgraded the calling plan for Europe, and added taxes and fees, it was more like $52 per month. Still, we LIKED it.

I like it so much that since then, I’ve installed another Vonage account for our home. Our long distance bills dropped from $200 or so a month to about $75. If we miss a call, the voicemail message gets emailed to us. If we want to know just how long we were on the phone on that last call, we can log in to our web portal, and look it up on the call log within minutes. No more waiting for that bill at the end of the month. This has helped us immensely with client billing on service calls. What’s not to love?

One of our clients claims he takes his Vonage box (a small device that is less than the size of half a paperback book) with him to the South of France when he vacations there in the summer. If people call his Los Angeles number, he picks the call up in France, and no one knows the difference. While I haven’t been invited there to confirm this (yet), it would seem that where ever there is internet, your home number can stay with you.

More recently, Vonage has introduced an app for your smartphone, called Vonage Extension. With the app, I can call friends overseas using my Vonage service, via my iphone. Instead of paying $.99 per minute to call Europe, I now pay $.37 per minute. Nice.

But the point of the story is this:

Don’t let them tell you that number portability is dead, or that you can’t have any area code you want.

For our client in Beverly Hills, we went online immeditely and ordered a Vonage account. Within minutes, we chose an easy-to-remember number within the 310 area code, and set it up to forward to our client’s cell phone. It would take less than a week to receive the little Vonage box necessary to have the number ring in the home. In the meantime, she could give her new number out to friends and family, and receive calls to that number, on her cell. We then contacted Time Warner, explained that we would need to revise the bundled deal our client had signed up for, and have them remove the phone service from that bundle. She did not want a 424 area code number.

To be fair, Time Warner was very helpful in making that happen, did not impose any penalties for making the change, and admitted that we were not the first to complain about the area code issue. Unfortunately, not many people know they have options. Now you do.

Let’s review how the service works.

Vonage, like many phone service providers these days, uses the internet connection you have established in your home to offer you a discounted, often unlimited phone service. They send you a small box that you plug in to your router (or network), and configure to operate with the regular phone hardware in your home. (It sounds more complicated than it is. Three wires have to be plugged in, and you’re good to go). The box is plugged in to the router, the phone is plugged in to the box. And voila, you have internet phone service.


There is one caveat. Your internet service must be broadband, have a speed of at least 6 megs per second, and NOT use DSL – for ideal phone connectivity. Time and again some of our clients jump on the Vonage bandwagon, not realizing that if their internet connection is on the slower side (such as 3 megs per second download or slower), they will have trouble with the Vonage phone connection (or ANY internet phone connection).

Yes, they TELL you it will work fine, but I beg to differ. With a slower connection, the phone may work alright, but as soon as you go online to download something (even email with attachments), or do some streaming, your phone will drop out. The person at the other end of the line will become harder to understand, and so on. With a faster connection, it’s just not an issue.

At the risk of getting long-winded, let me elaborate. DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line. It’s internet that is offered over your existing copper phone line. As such, it’s considered very 1990s – less than ideal, and not very stable. You have to realize that in some areas, those original phone lines were put in perhaps 100 years ago. They’ve been spliced, re-routed, chewed on by rats – you name it. As the digital signal travels over those lines, the likelihood of signal loss is high. Some areas, of course, are on the edge of broadband service, and thus have no choice but to go with DSL. For those areas, I would NOT suggest exploring Vonage service just yet. Wait until your area has upgraded internet, so that transmission speeds reach at least 6 megs per second.

If you have cable internet service, with Time Warner or Charter for example, then you’re in business. Order a Vonage box, choose a number, and run with it. Most cable connections will surpass 6 megs per second, even if you’re only paying for 3 megs per. Some will even hit 25, 35 or even 48 megs per second. Keep in mind that if you’ve already bundled your services, you are probably committed to a two year contract. And, since both services (Time Warner and Vonage) are of the same type (phone over internet, aka VOIP), there isn’t much point to making a switch to Vonage. It’s the same technology.

Another benefit of the Vonage service is the ease with which you can add a second line, either for fax or for that teenager who has suddenly commandeered your telephone handset and the television remote. For more details on current offers, go to the Vonage website. If you’re wondering, we still do not have a referral deal with Vonage (though we probably should). While we love our Vonage service, we remain financially independent and impartial. And we don’t endorse services lightly.

To sum it up, know that you can keep your current number for as long as you like – most easily, in our opinion, by transferring the number to an online service like Vonage. As with all internet phone services, there is one potential downside. If the power were to go out, or if your internet service were to go down, you’d lose your phone line while the internet and or power is out.

The traditional landline receives it’s low voltage power through the phone cable. That’s why phones may still work after an earthquake, but the lights won’t come on. Internet phones, including Vonage, require electricity to operate the small box that connects your phone to the internet. No power, no internet. No internet, no phone.

Thankfully, Vonage has a solution. Should your phones go down in your home or office (where the Vonage box is installed), the service automatically re-directs any incoming calls to whatever number you provided. Most people configure the service to revert to their mobile number if there is a problem. Works for us.

As an additional safety measure (and for convenience), we’ve installed UPS (uninterrupted power supply) units to our internet modems, Vonage boxes and cordless phones. If the power goes out, we can run a couple of hours on battery backups. (See our separate review of APC UPS battery backup units – coming soon)

There really is no easier way to quickly and inexpensively add a fax line to your home office, if you still need a fax line. Or, for that foreign exchange student, a private, inexpensive phone line in his or her room.

One final note before you run off to join Vonage (or some similar service). If you wish to keep your old number, you must make sure that the original phone service is NOT interrupted or cancelled before Vonage has a chance to contact your old phone company. The number has to still exist if Vonage is to take it over. Cancel the number too soon, and it’s gone.


This is very important. Vonage will NOT be able to assume your number for you if you’ve already cancelled the old service. The transfer usually takes about a week. if you’re starting with a new number, it can be up and running within minutes of signing up online. It’s that easy.


If you checked out Vonage many years ago, and had a less than stellar impression back then, take another look today. It’s not your Dad’s internet phone. They really, finally, have this stuff down to a science. The most important thing to know is that you need better than average internet connection speed (better than 3 megs per second). Once you’ve confirmed that, you’re good to go.


To check your connection speed, go to, and click on speed test, then the city nearest you in the list that appears. Vonage may not be an Apple product, but you’ll enjoy how easily you’ll be able to manage your phone service, using your Mac online. And, now you can tell your friends something they may not know. That number they have? As long as they pay for it, they have a right to keep it, no matter what.

Fujistsu Scansnap S1500M – The scanner that will change your life

Our goal in life is to simplify, and finally have technology make things easier for us, rather than more challenging. Unfortunately, the quest for simplicity and efficiency is usually thwarted, even frustrated, by products that fall short of glorious promises. So it’s rare when a product lands in our office and completely exceeds all expectations of performance, usefulness, and speed. This little gem of a scanner is our favorite hardware (not made by Apple), period. In the past, we tried (and often failed) to maintain a digital office, scanning every document, every receipt to make the retrieval of information easier. With the flat-bed scanners available as part of the all-in-one printers, keeping up with the document tide every week was almost impossible. Even dedicated, stand-alone Epson scanners – while excellent in scan quality, were slow. Having to flip the documents over on a flat-bed, to capture both sides, was tedious. The papers were “organized” in trays, then boxes, and those boxes grew.

With the purchase of Scansnap, all of that changed. This little scanner scans BOTH sides of a document simultaneously, with the speed of a sheet passing through a shredder. If you try it, you will want one. This is the one of the most addictive gadgets you will bring into your office. Clients who purchase one become giddy with excitement as they quickly feed their piles of papers through the magical scanning slot. But let’s get to some specs:

One button searchable PDF creation
Intelligent paper feed detection
20ppm color scanning
50-page automatic document feeder
Adobe Acrobat Pro included
Simultaneous front/back scanning via two CCD image sensors
Multi-feed detection
USB connectivity
600 dpi capable resolution

Video Intro Link:

We’ve been using Scansnap for years now, and it has paid for itself many times over. Case in point: scanning check deposits before running them to the bank. In the past, we would receive notices from the bank from time to time, advising us that “unfortunately, you failed to include check X in you recent deposit”, and that the bank would be deducting said amount from our deposit. Thanks to our scans however, we are able to pull up copies of those checks, take them down to the bank, and demand that they find the missing checks. They always do. Before you suggest we change banks, note that this problem of “missing” deposits has happened with three major banks here in California. Changing banks did not make it go away. Having scans of our deposits available, did.

Once the documents are scanned, we label and organize the digital copies. Now if a two year-old contract needs to be reviewed, we can pull it up in seconds and email it if necessary. Need a print-out of an airline ticket, that receipt for a hotel stay for your last conference, a check that you handed the gardener three months ago? It’s all quickly and easily available thanks to Scansnap.

The unit has a small footprint, and when not in use, folds up into a neat little package. I will say that the automated document detection isn’t always perfect, and we don’t rely on that feature. If you put multiple pages in at once, Scansnap will combine them all into one, multi-page PDF document if you like. Also, we wouldn’t feed precious one-of-a-kind documents or photos through this machine. Any type of sheet-fed contraption has a risk of jamming, and possibly mangling that document or photo. Use the slower but safer flat-bed scanner for those.

Since the ScanSnap is a sheet-fed scanner, you won’t be able to scan the page of a book or some large item that can’t be fed through the machine. For larger items, you’ll still need a flat-bed scanner. As many printers these days are multi-function and include a scanner, that shouldn’t be a problem.

If you have a lot of documents to keep track of, we recommend the Scansnap S1500M. It changed our office environment dramatically, and had paid for itself in improved efficiency. We think you’ll love it. Note that there are different models of the ScanSnap hardware available. They have a Mac version, as well as a Windows version. If you’re on this site, you’ll want the Mac version – the S1500M, which currently retails for around $420.00.

And finally, save yourself some grief. After scanning all of your papers, make sure you have the digital versions of those documents verified and backed up BEFORE you shred the original documents. A client once shredded the contents of all his file cabinets, then accidentally trashed the digital files. Don’t let that happen to you.