Network signal apps on Android are a dime a dozen. Most of them manage to do a pretty good job gathering information about your network, but all but a select few fall apart displaying that data. It’s easy to gather and show exact information about signal strength, but interpreting that data and presenting your interpretation in a meaningful way isn’t as easy. It doesn’t help that most of the network signal apps in the Play Store seem to be built by and for engineers with a bare minimum of design experience (here’s looking at you network signal info or network signal booster). They’re great for power users, but not so good for casual tinkerers.
Enter OpenSignal. It’s an Android application that keeps track of how often you’re connected to your cell phone network, which network (4G, 3G, 2G) you’re on, your signal strength, and what WiFi networks you’re connected to. The entire application is fairly well designed, especially when you compare it to the average network signal app, and it adheres to Android’s Holo guidelines. Swiping to the left and the right moves between the tabs at the top of the screen, and the color palette makes an original, if somewhat safe, break from the usual Android 4.x look. When you open the app, it displays a dashboard with your current network status, the direction of the tower you’re connected to (so you can move toward an area with a better signal), and a list of nearby wireless networks. The large, colorful charts and dials are set to simple by default, but it’s a breeze to tap advanced and toggle text overlays that display more technical data, including MAC and IP addresses, which advanced users will find helpful.
OpenSignal runs in the background and logs your network status, along with how much you use your phone. You can see your average signal strength and type; along with information on how many minutes you’ve talked, how many text messages you’ve sent, and how much data you’ve used, in the stats tab. It’s a nice way to track signal health over time, and can help you remember not to go over your data cap or run up a bill texting Great Aunt Bertha. When I first started using OpenSignal I was worried allowing it to run in the background would use too much power, but in practice it’s had a negligible impact on battery life. OpenSignal allows users to specify how much data they would like the app to collect, and I found any setting from minimum or medium worked well. I didn’t test leaving the maximum setting on all the time, but even it seemed less aggressive with power consumption than it could have been. I do have extended batteries in both my phones, which may mask some of the effect the app has had, but I can predict with a fair degree of confidence that running the OpenSignal in the background won’t ruin your day (that’s more than I can say for some apps I’ve reviewed).
OpenSignal utilizes user data to build coverage maps and rank carriers. You can see how the networks are doing in the app itself, or on the OpenSignal website, either through a numbered list, or by looking at a heat map of signal strength. You can also see how an area’s networks perform compared to other cities across a country or the entire globe. This is where OpenSignal really shines. Before researching the app for this feature, I only used OpenSignal to occasionally grab a more precise image of my phone’s network connection or find an unsecured hotspot. Now that I’ve grown more familiar with OpenSignal’s coverage maps I use the app to help plan out my day. Not sure if you’ll have the connection to stream songs from Spotify? Check OpenSignal and cache some songs if the connection looks spotty. Want to know if you can trust your phone to work on a hiking trip? OpenSignal has you covered. Need to know if it’s safe to wait for that important sales call in your hotel? OpenSignal has your back. OpenSignal’s coverage maps may seem like a trivial, obvious feature, but they provide an important service. Having a pretty good idea of what your connection is going to be like throughout the day can change how you use your phone, especially if you live in an area with poor coverage. If you have to drive around a lot for work, as I do, you know what it’s like to never be sure of phone’s data connection. OpenSignal’s toolset is the perfect response to network uncertainty.
OpenSignal’s product description claims it is lightweight enough to run on most phones — ”from small screened devices (HTC Wildifre) [sic] on 1.5 (Cupcake) up to your flashy Galaxy Nexus on 4.0 (Ice cream Sandwich)” — but it doesn’t manage to perform at the same level everywhere. The stock software stack on my HTC Rezound has never been the most responsive, but opening OpenSignal ground the phone to a halt. About half the time swiping to the next tab froze the entire app, other times annoying black or tan boxes randomly appeared to obscure crucial interface elements or graphs. The scrolling is the worst I’ve ever seen on my Rezound, and trying to flick quickly down a page would often crash the app or trigger even more black boxes. The app performed much better on a Photon 4G—scrolling down a page or swiping between tabs was very fast, and the strange black boxes quickly disappeared the one time they did show up. However, a different problem appeared up on the Photon. On a few screens, text that was supposed to appear above dials and charts showed up on top of the charts, obfuscating data. It never reached the point where text made charts impossible to understand, but it got a bit annoying.
I also had trouble testing the 3-D map view OpenSignal shipped in their latest update. It seems like a cool feature, but it just didn’t work where I was. I’m inclined to say this is more my fault than OpenSignal’s—I live in a small town, and it’s never been top priority for mapping companies. Street View for most of the city is a couple of years out of date. A little more annoying is the “report” tab to the far right. It’s a placeholder for a feature OpenSignal plans to add in the future. It’s cool that they’re going to add stuff, but do they really need to put the tab in before it’s ready? All that does is force me to swipe back when I accidentally pull up the useless window. Like the text overlaying some of the graphs, it’s not a big deal, but it’s another obnoxious little bug that detracts from an otherwise good experience.
The worst part of the app is the widget. On both phones I tested the app with the widget was completely useless. On the Rezound the widget refreshed much too slowly—information in the OpenSignal widget was several minutes out of sync with the network info displayed in other network widgets, the top bar, and even the OpenSignal app itself. Tapping the widget to refresh it or open the app would either do nothing at all or cause the widget to display a searching message that refused to go away. On the Photon the widget simply refused to display any data at all. The widget’s poor performance is matched by an equally poor design. The widget is a single size, all resizing it does is make it take up more space on the homescreen without changing its appearance. If you don’t like the tiny, default view… well, I guess you’re out of luck. It’s small, doesn’t display much information, and can’t be configured to show different data. In fact, it’s so tiny it couldn’t even display the full text “Verizon Wireless” (Instead, OpenSignal cuts wireless off at the halfway point). If you need a stellar network widget I’d recommend skipping OpenSignal and giving the premium version of Network Signal Info a try. The Network Signal Info app itself is hideous, and doesn’t have OpenSignal’s mapping data, but the widget is amazing.
OpenSignal is somewhat of an enigma. It’s a nice app, a nice website, and it’s the best network signal app I’ve used on Android so far. High praise, right? Well, yes and no. It all comes back to what I said at the beginning: most of the network signal apps on Android feel like hobby projects built by engineers. You can’t expect a hobby developer, or even a one man shop, to test an app on every phone out there. OpenSignal feels different. It feels like it should be a big name app and a big name service, and I’ve come to expect more from big name apps than you get with OpenSignal. When an application is trying to provide a premium, important product, like OpenSignal’s coverage maps, it’s difficult not to be a bit harsher with it than you would be with its less ambitious peers. Yes, it’s free—but in a world where free is worth a ton of money, users reasonably demand a high level of polish from their free apps. OpenSignal is a good app, in many ways an amazing app, but it doesn’t feel polished. Neither of the two phones I tested it on are state of the art, although the Rezound was updated to Ice Cream Sandwich, but that’s still not much of an excuse. Problems on less popular, older devices are certainly more forgivable than problems on devices that sold well or were recently released, but they’re still problems users have to struggle with. I’ve bought a Galaxy Nexus to replace my Rezound, and will post an update here when I’ve had a chance to test OpenSignal on it, but that won’t negate the issues I’ve run into. (Update: I just finished testing OpenSignal on my Galaxy Nexus, and I’m happy to report I haven’t encountered any of the issues I saw on the Rezound or Photon. The app is buttery smooth, stable, and renders perfectly.)
Does that mean you shouldn’t use the app? Of course not. If your battery can handle it, and most batteries probably can, the network analytics are incredibly useful. Will you enjoy using the app? Probably not. Even if you don’t run into the exact performance issues and bugs I did, the more questionable decisions — the ones that feel like they were made by an amateur instead of a professional —compromise the experience. OpenSignal’s stuck in a weird place. It’s too good for me to judge it like someone’s side project, too rough around the edges to look at it like a big name product. That’s fine for now, but I don’t think the network signal app space is going to stay empty for long. The idea behind these types of apps is simple, but they can create coverage maps almost as accurate as the carriers, and provide a personalized report that applies their coverage data to your life. There’s real value in knowing where networks need to improve, where they’re great, and where people will be stuck without signal. Imagine, for just a moment, if Google Now had access to OpenSignal’s map—it wouldn’t just know when you’re supposed to leave, but what type of data it needs to cache before you go. If OpenSignal doesn’t step up its game, it won’t be too long before I’m writing a new story about the next best network app on the Play Store, one that does far more far better than OpenSignal does. In the mean time, OpenSignal’s earned its spot on my home screen.
OpenSignal for Android: Download