This article follows on from the article we wrote explaining what cellphone signal boosters are, how they work, and the type of typical range extension you can expect with one.
After the theoretical discussion in that earlier article, it is helpful to focus in on a specific model and see exactly how it works, which is what we’ll do here.
For some long time now, there has been a US company, Wilson Electronics, based in UT, manufacturing a range of excellent cell phone signal booster units. Probably ten years ago we reviewed an earlier unit, and since that time the nature of cell phone service has changed dramatically. There are now different frequencies, different types of signal, and of course, for most of us, most of the time, what we most need now is data rather than voice service.
Wilson have kept up with the times, releasing new units on a regular basis, and we had a chance to test out one of their newest “Drive Reach” units.
The Unboxing Experience
There was a time, a few years back, when the unboxing or opening experience became a point of major focus by companies that sold electronics.
The idea was that you should be greeted with something that immediately had visual appeal, reinforced your decision to purchase the product, and made you feel good, intuitively conveying the essence of the product purchased.
This was clearly the case with the weBoost (no, this is not a typo, annoyingly the company chooses the affection of starting off with a lower case letter and then adding an upper case letter in the middle….) Drive Reach.
As you can see, the items in the box were clearly labeled to make it easy and intuitive in terms of how to install everything, which turned out to be as simple and straightforward as the numbered labels implied.
Setting the Unit Up
There are three steps to setting the unit up. The first step is to place the external antenna on the roof of the vehicle. The second is to place the booster unit inside the vehicle somewhere. The third step is then to place the internal antenna somewhere inside the vehicle.
The booster unit itself is a box measuring about 6.25″ x 4.5″ x 1.75″. It has an 11′ power cord to plug in to a cigarette lighter socket in the car. As a nice extra touch, there’s a high-power USB power port on the outside of the plug, an on/off switch and indicator light.
The two antennas each come with ten feet of cable. This is maybe sufficient, maybe a bit limiting, but because the signal gets weakened by extra cable length, it is best to try and fit everything into locations so that the cable lengths are adequate.
The external antenna is best in the center of your vehicle’s roof. If the unit is centered, its signal coverage will be most even in all directions (and you never really know what direction the closest cell tower will be with respect to your vehicle). Wilson recommend 12″ of metal all around the antenna base (the roof acts as part of the antenna). But they also say that even 3″ in all directions of metal base would be fine, and once you get to 6″, you’re starting to enter the point where more no longer makes much difference at all.
The antenna needs to be at least 12″ away from any other antennas on your car roof, so as to prevent interference and “beam shaping” that might cause the antenna to send/receive other than equally in all directions.
The box of electronics can be anywhere inside the vehicle.
The trickiest part of the antenna setup is arranging the relative location of the two antennas so they don’t interfere with each other. It is a bit like setting up a sound system with a microphone and speaker – if the microphone is in the wrong place, with respect to the speakers, it will create a feedback howl. The same with the antennas. Depending on your vehicle, this may require some finessing to get optimized, and it is essential you do this, or else the booster unit won’t be able to work at its maximum amplification setting.
We found it difficult to mount the unit on either of our two vehicles. One is a convertible with a cloth roof, the other – a Landrover – has a roof that is mainly glass and with only small strips of metal. An alternative would be to mount the antenna on the center of the trunk lid or hood, although the SUV style of the Landrover meant no trunk either.
We really wanted to get the antenna as high as possible, and with no car body obscuring the antenna’s 360° all around “view”, so we persevered and found a location on the Landrover roof.
With very little choice of where the external roof antenna could be located, we then tried to work out where in the vehicle the internal antenna could be located. This has three constraints – the first being it needs to be somewhere so there is no feedback loop created with the external antenna. When trying to find good respective locations, it is better to have more vertical height separating the two antennas than it is to have more horizontal distance, because the roof antenna radiates mainly in a largely horizontal plane.
The second constraint is the internal antenna needs to be close (but not too close) to your phone – ideally between 18″ and 36″. And the third constraint being it is best to be located some distance away from any passengers – at least 8″ away.
Juggling those different issues greatly reduced the useful “sweet spot”, and while for our testing we didn’t investigate every possible inch of location, we quickly decided that perhaps the best thing was to decide that when using the unit, we’d place the phone close to it and then use the phone’s Bluetooth connection to actually complete the journey of the sound to/from ourselves. That made it much easier to find somewhere that worked.
You can tell how suitable a location is by turning the unit on and seeing if the indicator light on the unit itself (not on the power connector) quickly goes green, or if it flashes red a few times first. The red flashes indicate the equivalent of the terrible howling feedback you get between a regular microphone and its matched speaker.
If the unit flashes red, it means it has detected a feedback loop, and so is reducing its gain (ie its amplification) down to a level where the feedback doesn’t happen. That is the automatic electronic equivalent of simply lowering the volume on a regular amplifier when its microphone starts creating feedback from the speakers. The system will still work, but not as well as if it powers on with no red light flashing at all.
One more point about this. If you’re having problems with apparent feedback, the problem might be due to objects around you reflecting the radio waves back into the car – a building or something like that. While you should set it up in a typical environment to match your usage, don’t do so inside your garage, for example.
We’d prefer to see the flash codes on both the unit and the power supply, because depending on where you set up the booster box and where you plug in the power supply, it can be difficult to see one or the other (or possibly even both) making it hard when setting things up to know if the indicator lights are indicating a fault or not, and also meaning that once things are set up, you may not ever get to see any visual warning signals if they only appear on the booster box and that is out of sight.
Once you’ve got the antenna placement optimized, so that when you turn it on, you only get a green light and no flashes of red, you’re good to go. Unless you’re concerned about filling your world with still more radio waves, there’s no reason not to have the unit always on, and indeed, the extremely low signal strength of the in-car transmitter provided by the Weboost unit (3 mW) is truly nothing to worry about. It is comparable in power to Bluetooth class 2, and much weaker than the transmitter on your phone which can go up to about 600 mW. The roof mounted antenna will transmit up to 800 mW of power.
Wilson claim up to 50dB of signal boost, which is the maximum allowed by the FCC for in-vehicle mobile units. What does that mean? Well, 50dB is another way of saying “it makes the signal 100,000 times more powerful” which is of course a fairly extraordinary sort of statement to make.
The actual amount of signal boost you’ll get depends on how powerful the signal was to start with, because the FCC simultaneously limits the amount of boost that can be provided and the maximum power level that can be re-transmitted. Think of a car – maybe it has a turbocharger or supercharger or nitrous boost capability that claims to be able to add another 20 mph to its speed. That is great, but if the car is already traveling at 60 mph and the speed limit is 70 mph, you’ll only be able to (legally) add 10 mph to the speed.
Using the WeBoost Drive Reach
We did all testing while parked in our driveway at home. Happily (for this article, but generally unhappily for me until now) this is an area with poor cellular reception, even though in the heart of a suburban area.
Turning the unit on and using it couldn’t be simpler. Push the on/off button on the cigarette lighter/adapter and the unit nearly instantly switches on or off. Any phones in range automatically switch over to the booster’s stronger signal – you don’t need to change any settings on your phones.
Using the unit saw a dramatic increase in received signal strength. We’d been getting a signal strength of around -110 to -115dB when using the phone in the car by itself (left hand screen shot), and when we turned the WeBoost on, this shot up to about -80dB (center screen shot). That’s a huge increase of over 30dB – the signal was over 1,000 times stronger thanks to the booster unit. (Note – it is best to concentrate on the signal strength shown on the upper dial, because that is the actual signal strength of the tower in active use.)
We did one further test as well, because we were curious to see how much of the improvement in signal was simply the difference between having the phone inside the car at a lower level, and having it outside the car at rooftop level.
As you can see from the third (right hand side) of the three screen shots, this didn’t make much difference – the snapshot we took showed a 4 dB improvement in signal, which was in line with what we’d have guessed.
However, this boost of 30 dB was a bit of a “hollow victory” because there was no improvement in audio quality while making a call. This is typical for a digital circuit – see our article explaining how cellular power boosters work for a discussion on this point. Sure, it meant we had a more stable signal and were less likely to drop the call, and sure, it confirmed that the WeBoost unit truly does work.
Sure, also, this 30 dB improvement would also make a great difference to how far further we could go out of prime signal areas without losing signal. But we’d have liked something more tangible to show for the $500 cost of the unit.
Stunning Boost in Data Speeds
Then we tested our data connection. In the car, we struggled to get a 2.45Mbps connection, and note also that the upload speed was almost zero (left hand screen shot). There was also a huge latency (ping) and a lot of jitter, hinting at an unstable connection, and a huge amount of packet loss requiring signal retransmission. If the ping, jitter, and packet loss numbers were all very much smaller, and with a tweak more upload bandwidth, a 2.45 Mbps signal is actually perfectly usable, but with these other numbers all so terrible, it was a struggle to load web pages at all.
We then turned on the WeBoost, and look at the second (center) test result. More than ten times faster downloading, 1000 times faster uploading, a plunge in ping time, and zero packet loss. The internet became lightning quick.
We also tested internet speeds by taking the phone onto the vehicle roof (right hand screen shot). They were very much better than in the car, but using the WeBoost saw speeds about four times faster.
And there we had it – the tangible solid “proof” that using the WeBoost was more than just a change in numbers with no real impact on usability.
We didn’t test, but we’re sure Wilson Electronics is telling the truth when they say that up to five people can use one Drive Reach unit simultaneously. That’s a full car load of people. It is nice to think that one person could be on the phone, another couple could be doing something with data, and another couple could have their phones connected and available to take calls if needed.
This would of course require all five phones to be in the “sweet spot” of between 18″ and 36″ of the repeater antenna.
What About Range Increase?
We have experienced increased range when driving out of cell phone coverage as well. We can still encounter areas with no signal, especially when we’re in the mountains or in other fairly deserted areas. The WeBoost unit usually helps, but it isn’t a magic solution that gets us perfect signal everywhere. In some cases, there’s just not enough signal for the WeBoost to amplify.
The improvement in range varies depending on terrain and other factors (see our general article about how cell phone signal boosters work for an explanation about this) and so it is harder to be exactly on that point, other than to confirm there was better coverage when using the booster unit.
Wilson’s Line-Up of Different Booster Units, Explained
Wilson Weboost make a very wide range of booster units, for home and office use as well as for vehicles.
They offer an impressive range of different units under their “weBoost” brand. Indeed, they have so many, and seemingly so similar, that identifying the best one for you can be confusing. To try and simplify the eight different units currently offered, this is how we understand the key models to be differentiated. We include direct product links because if you go searching on Amazin, you end up with a morass of model names and descriptions, and old and new models all mixed in together :
Drive Reach ($500) : The newest model, has an extra frequency band for better LTE coverage, and the most powerful transmitter; comes with a magnetic mount external antenna. Available from the manufacturer, or at the same price with fast shipping from Amazon.
Drive 4G-X ($450 or $500) : Their standard model booster, with the same antenna unit for $450, or with a different higher performance (OTR) antenna unit, suitable for mounting on other surfaces for $500. Available from Wilson or Amazon in both the $450 and $500 versions, with fast Amazon shipping.
Drive X RV ($500) : A standard model booster with the high performance antenna and a stronger internal antenna giving more coverage within the vehicle. Available from either Wilson or Amazon.
Connect RV 65 ($650) : The key thing about this unit is that it has a directional antenna that you have to manually point in the direction of the nearest cell phone tower, and so only works while you are parked, for example, in a campground overnight. It also has a wider area internal antenna (compared to the Reach and 4G units) which means your phone doesn’t have to be so close to the inside antennal. It provides more powerful amplification. Available from both Wilson and Amazon.
Drive Sleek ($200 or $280) : A small unit for a single cell phone in a vehicle, requiring the cell phone to be in a special cradle that contains the internal booster. Less powerful signal boosting. The $280 unit has the high performance (OTR) external antenna. Available from Wilson and Amazon in both the $200 and $280 versions.
Older Models : A word of gentle caution. Many websites also sell older/earlier Wilson boosters. There’s nothing wrong with them per se, but they lack the latest features, the best boosting, and the broadest set of coverage bands and frequencies. We suggest it is “penny wise and pound foolish” to buy an obsolete unit, and better to get a current unit that will remain more useful for more years.
Which Unit Is Best For You
Most of us will want the $500 Drive Reach because of its extra LTE band coverage and its maximum capabilities. That is the unit we received and tested.
However, there’s a case to be made for the least expensive unit as well – the Drive Sleek, priced at $200 or $280, depending on the antenna you choose to use with it.
If you have an RV, you’d perhaps choose the Drive X RV because it works while you’re driving as well as when you’re stopped. But for maximum performance, the Connect RV 65, which requires you to aim its antenna at the nearest phone tower and so only works while you’re stopped, is the better choice.
The $500 Wilson weBoost Drive Reach Cell Phone Signal Booster makes a great difference when you’re driving into marginal coverage areas with your phone. You’ll stay connected longer, you’re less likely to have calls dropped, and your data speeds will skyrocket.
It is easy to install, although locating the two antennas can be a bit difficult to get perfect. Once installed, there’s nothing to remember or adjust on your phone. Just turn the booster unit on, and everything happens automatically.