Easy RV Mod -> The weBoost Drive 4G-X OTR Cellular Booster
We’ve done quite a few upgrades to our tech this past year. In May we installed a WiFi Ranger thus upgrading our WiFi & routing set-up (and we’re still very happy with that), but we’ve also been wanting to upgrade our cellular booster for a while too.
As chance would have it, a few months ago we were offered the chance to try out a weBoost Drive 4G-X plus 4G Trucker Antenna (Wilson Link HERE and Amazon link HERE) in return for a review of the product on the blog. It was actually the exact booster we’d been looking at for a while and met all the requirements we wanted in our upgrade, so we jumped at the chance to try it. We’ve now been using the booster for a few months and can finally update our readers on the progress.
For those who’d like to see the whole thing on video feel free to enjoy our ~18 min overview. Otherwise for those who prefer the written word, read on below….
Why Would You Need A Cell Booster?
Cell boosters have actually been an essential part of our road gear pretty much since we originally stared on the road in 2010.
As many seasoned RVers know, campground WiFi is often overloaded or poor and free WiFi hotspots (e.g. library, coffee shops) are not always easily accessible. So if you want to be able to reliably get online in the comfort of your own home, some kind of cellular data plan is really the best/easiest way to go. We’ve had a Verizon-based MiFi (mobile hotspot) since we started in 2010 and although the equipment & plans have changed a few times over the years, it’s still our primary carrier today. These days we also carry ATT on our cellphones (our secondary backup) and we even have T-mobile on my iPad too (our third backup). Being able to get online is pretty essential to us, both for Paul’s investing and my work, so having multiple carriers gives us the most flexibility.
But sometimes this isn’t enough.
Cell phone coverage has gotten better and better over the years (the carriers are always improving & expanding their networks), but there are still many spots we like to go, especially when we boondock or get into more remote areas where cell signal is weak or poor**. In those situations a cell booster can make the difference between being able to work online or not being able to work at all. We’ve always carried a booster of some kind or another since we started on the road. Back in 2010 it was an old 3G wired booster, then we switched to a cradle booster and now we’re switching again. We consider it a pretty essential piece of gear for folks who rely on their internet like us.
**Note/ For a booster to work there has to be *some* kind of signal present to begin with. If you’re in a spot with truly zero signal, then your booster won’t magically make one appear. However if you’re in a spot with weak or iffy signal, then your booster may well help to make it usable.
How Do You Choose Which Booster To Buy?
So this is the point where I get lazy and tell you to go to the experts. Mobile booster technology is constantly changing and the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center together with it’s premium membership component Mobile Internet Aficionados*** keeps constant track of both that and literally everything else that has to do with mobile internet. The site was created and is run by our good buddies Chris & Cherie who are both fellow RVers and avid technology geeks. They really know their stuff!
So, whenever I look at upgrading gear I simply log into MIA and read their latest comparison reviews (which are updated all the time), and decide based on that. We got all our data plans based on their tips, we bought our last booster based on their reviews and we decided on our current upgrade based on their reviews too. Easy Peasy.
*** Note/ We have no affiliation. We just like to recommend good RV resource sites run by good folks 🙂
POST-POST EDIT – Chris and Cherie were kind enough to create a $5 MIA membership coupon code for any Wheelingit readers looking to join their premium membership site. You get tons of great pre-release and “insider” tips thro’ the membership so I definitely recommend it. Use “MIAWheelingIt” to get your discount!
Our Old Gear -> The Wilson Sleek & Why We Upgraded It
For the past several years we’ve been traveling with a Wilson Sleek (current version is the weBoost Drive 4GS, ~$180) which has actually served us just fine. It’s an inexpensive cradle booster that comes with a teeny little 2″ “stubby” antenna that you can mount just about anywhere. We have our antenna attached to a stainless steel plate (which acts as a ground plane = very important for the antenna to work properly) on our roof. The cable then runs through the roof into our “tech cabinet” (inside the RV) where we keep the cradle itself. We place our Verizon MiFi inside the cradle and voila…we have boosting.
We’ve also traveled for several years with a Wilson Paddle Antenna (current version is weBoost Wide-Band Directional ~$50) which has worked well to increase the range of the Sleek in marginal areas. It’s a directional antenna which means it needs to be aimed towards the cell tower to work. We had to buy a longer cable and some adapters to get this to work with our cradle, but it’s definitely gotten us usable signal in a few places where the “stubby” antenna just didn’t do the job. When we use it we simply clamp it to our TV antenna. That way we can rotate it around from inside the RV to get it properly aimed.
Our old gear has worked fine for years and honestly if you are looking for an inexpensive booster today I’d still recommend the weBoost cradle. It does a very decent job for the price.
In our case however, we’ve been wanting something beefier for a while. The two big negatives we’ve encountered with the cradle are:
- It Gets Hot – Out MiFi often overheats when it’s in the cradle for longer periods. We usually have to angle it inside the cradle (to leave an air space) or shut it down periodically to cool down. The booster just gets too hot and there’s no real way around it. It’s a known problem.
- It Can Only Boost 1 Thing At A Time – You can only ever have 1 thing in the cradle at a time. There’s no way to boost a MiFi and a phone at the same time, for example.
So, we were looking for something that improved both those things, plus we wanted a booster that could give us a little more oooomph so-to-speak (the Cradle is only spec’d to provide a max of around 23dB gain). A “nice to have” was a booster that was compatible with our old antennas (just to make things more flexible). At the time we were searching there were two boosters from Wilson that fit the bill -> the 4G-M and the 4G-X They’re actually very similar except that the 4G-X has a more powerful transmitter (once again, a little secret I know because I read the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center). We were offered to review a kit with the 4G-X so that’s what we ended up with.
Our New Gear -> The Wilson 4G-X plus 4G Trucker Antenna
Setting up the booster is incredibly easy. We got the “weBoost Drive 4G-X OTR kit” (regular price $549.99) which comes with the 4G-X Amplifier, a hefty 24″ external 4G Trucker Antenna (+ cable), an Internal antenna, power adaptor and mount.
The external antenna is omni-directional which means it does not need to be aimed. So you simply install the antenna vertically somewhere “high” (the higher the better -> you can install it on a RV ladder, a flag pole or the TV antenna like we did), then you run the cable inside your RV and connect it to the input side of your 4G-X Amplifier.
The other side of the Amplifier connects to the Internal Antenna. It’s a small, flat rectangular thing that needs to be far enough away from the external antenna to prevent oscillation (specs say at least 6′ away), but very close (within 1-2 feet) of the objects (MiFi, phone etc.) you are trying to boost. If the spacing is off, your booster either won’t work or won’t work optimally. Then you just turn on the booster, look for the “green” light and you are good to go.
How Well Did The New Booster It Work?
Over the past few months we’ve been traveling on the developed East Coast so we’ve only been in a few places where the signal was marginal enough to require a booster, but the few places we’ve used it we’ve been very impressed indeed. The OTR kit is spec’d to provide up to 50dB gain and although we didn’t see the “max” we did see some very good numbers.
We took readings in 2 different spots, plus we played with antenna placement (bungee’d onto our RV side-mirror and bungee’d onto our TV antenna) and compared the boost to our old Cradle too. Here are the results:
|Carrier||No Boost||Old Cradle Booster||4G-X plus “stubby” antenna on roof||4G-X plus 4G antenna on side-mirror||4G-X plus 4G antenna on roof|
|ATT Site 1||-118 db||-112 db||-104 db||-106 db||-78 db|
|ATT Site 2||-113 db||-92 db|
|Verizon Site 1||-112 db||-100 db||-84db||-90db||-77 db|
|Verizon Site 2||-107 db||-82 db|
We also saw some serious speed improvements with the booster, (from 9Mbps down/8 Mbps up unboosted to 59 Mbps down/30 Mbps up boosted!!). Speed can depend on many variables other than pure cell strength (e.g. cell tower loading etc.) but it was still nice to see.
That was nowhere near a complete test obviously, but based on this and what we’ve seen on the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center site (they do very in-depth testing, so we don’t have to!) we’re confident we’ll see similar results everywhere.
Plus we learned a few things (mostly what we expected, but it’s still nice to get confirmation) about how we should best use our various antennas. The first lesson we learned is that we get pretty darn good boosting with our 4G-X plus our old “stubby” antenna, even though that’s not the strongest pairing for the system. Since our stubby is permanently mounted on a metal ground plane our roof (and thus a no-brainier to use) this is probably the set-up we’ll use most of the time.
Also we discovered that it’s not really worth the trouble to strap the 4G antenna to our RV side-mirror (especially as long as we’ve got the stubby). If we’re going to break out the big antenna we need to get up on the roof and place it there. Getting “high” is where you see the biggest improvement, as is always the case with antennas.
Lastly we didn’t test the Paddle Antenna with this set-up, but we know it will work (yet again, thanks to the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center) so we have that as an extra, extra backup in case we need a little more reach than either the stubby or 4G trucker antenna can get us.
- GREAT boosting power (MUCH improved over our cradle)
- No heating problems with the internal antenna (MUCH improved over our cradle)
- Super easy to use = just connect, go
- Compatible with ALL our old antennas (our old “stubby” and our Paddle), plus boosting power with the old antenna is even better than we expected
- It’s multi-use and can boost both our phones and MiFi at the same time (nice advantage over our cradle)
- The external 4G trucker antenna is a “beastly” thing and not super easy to mount anywhere in a way that’s permanent. Our test results with the “stubby” were pretty good, so we’re probably going to use that most of the time (even though the antenna is not as strong) and just break out the trucker or paddle when we feel we need extra reach.
POST-POST EDIT – Thanks to tips in the comments below, a nifty alternative to the rigid “beastly” 24″ 4G trucker antenna is to purchase the 4G-X with the stubby (or the 4G-M with the stubby) and then buy the shorter (and more manageable) 19″ spring-mounted antenna separately. Not only does this give you two antenna options (e.g. one for RV, one for car…or just an extra back-up…), but the flexible and smaller 19″ is much easier to install permanently on an RV. I LIKE this option!
- The internal antenna doesn’t have much reach. You really get BEST boosting if you place your cellular devices (phone, MiFi etc.) right ON TOP of the internal antenna. You’ll get *some* boosting around 1 foot away, but almost nothing past 2 feet.
- Spacing can be a bit tricky. As I mentioned above the internal antenna needs to be placed at least 6-feet from the external antenna, but must be very close to your cellular devices. Keep this in mind when you decide where to create your “tech cabinet”.
Overall this was exactly the upgrade we were looking for. I’m not sure how much we’ll end up using the big trucker antenna (especially given we have 2 other options that work) but the 4G-X is now a permanent and very pleasing part of our set-up.
- The 2015 WheelingIt Internet & Phone Set-Up
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