Review // WeBoost Drive Reach
Remember a time before cell phones? If you do join me in that feeling of being old, when VHS/Betamax were still a thing, where we didn’t have instant access to the entire knowledge-base of the world with only a few finger presses. Realistically almost everyone doing back country or cross country driving has a cell phone. More so than radios, more than satellite phones, and so on. The problem is, there’s a lot of land out there, and cellular coverage isn’t uniform and of the same quality throughout.
Over the past few years the popularity of cellular boosters has gone from being more centered on fleet vehicles and RVs, to off-road/overland vehicles where realistically weekend warriors want to have cellular coverage out away from civilization. I’ll spare you the debate about wether that really constitutes ‘roughing’ it, out in nature when you constantly have access to Instagram or Facebook, but that’s another article altogether.
Wilson Electronics, manufacturers of the WeBoost line of devices, just introduced the WeBoost Drive Reach. This improves upon their still existing Drive 4G series with more signal gain. I had the 4G-X in my previous vehicle, a Toyota 4Runner, and I’ll reference that product when it comes to antenna mounting.
Right out of the box there’s a few big differences, and a few small ones as well. The enclosure is now metal, with large red heatsinks built into the casing, along with a status LED. Connections are now SMB rather than SMA, so if you’re upgrading that’s something you’ll need to consider. It uses the same style internal antenna, and the same style external magnetic mounted antenna.
The device works the same way as their other offerings, which takes a weak signal externally, boosts it in/out through their device, and creates an internal signal in the vehicle that helps stabilize what signal you are able to get. The brass tacks of this means you can not manufacture signal where there is none, but you can reinforce signal where you find it. If you are out in the middle of nowhere, and there is absolutely zero signal (which for this test we drove out to central Oregon for a half day) you will not get a signal. If you however get a signal that fluctuates between 0-1 bar, or 1-2 bars, but isn’t stable enough for a call or email, you have a greater chance of making that signal usable.
I’m going to be as frank as possible, this is a device who’s usefulness is determined by circumstances. When I have seen it work, it works genuinely very well. When you’re outside of the circumstances where it shines, it will not justify its price tag. Specifically if you use it in urban settings, or where multiple cell towers exist with decently strong signals. In those cases the WeBoost will create a signal internally that competes with signals that may be just as strong externally, and you either break even or have a lesser connection. For this very reason running the WeBoost devices on a user selectable on/off switch is highly recommended both for signal quality and the life-span of the device.
Mounting location is critical for the antenna. In the overland world, there’s a lot of ‘farkle’ or stuff mounted all over vehicles. The ideal mounting location for antennas is dead center of the vehicle, as high as possible. Is this always realistic? Unfortunately, no. On my 2015 4Runner, which had a steel body, the small magnetic mount antenna was placed on the hood, about 8” away from the windshield. Not ideal, as it’s not getting a 360 degree line of sight, and glass can serve to hurt radio signals. Despite this my experience with the Drive 4G-X was solid, as multiple trips into eastern Oregon consistently showed more usable and stable signals than with the device turned off.
For the Drive Reach, I had the challenge of mounting an antenna on an aluminum bodied truck. In this case a 2018 Ford Raptor SuperCrew. WeBoost provides an adhesive disk to solve the problem of aluminum skinned vehicles. Despite that solution I need to be upfront that regardless of where I placed the included antenna, hood, roof, bed, basically anywhere, the antenna would generate a feedback loop that would render the Drive Reach unable to function correctly.
My solution, and pardon if this sounds like a stealth review for another product, was to use a third brake light radio mount from Bullet Proof Diesel, which is specifically designed for 2014+ aluminum skinned Ford F-150s. This mount provides two NMO mounts, with two coax cables running to PL259 connectors. From there I used a VHF-to-SMB adapter, which bridged the two connection standards. Finally I purchased a Wilson Electronics high gain NMO antenna that would connect to this third brake light mount.
As I said the ideal location is middle of the truck, as high as possible, and this achieves that. It also avoids any signal interference that would cause the device to have a feedback loop. Excusing the fact that I have to take the antenna on or off every time I enter my rather low garage, this works pretty well.
So how well does it work? Driving 2 hours from Portland Oregon, I found a service road near Maupin Oregon where my signal steadily decreased to 1-2 bars. More importantly even with 2 bars I was finding the signal I’d get to be frankly borderline unusable. The challenge when testing these devices is a mix between “it feels” better and empirical data. Using the test modes built into iOS I would see between 5-12db signal gain over the course of 10 cycles, meaning 10 readings device off, then 10 readings on, allowing 30 seconds warm up before taking that reading.
Of those on-cycles, the connection remained at 2 bars, and with the SpeedTest app I would obtain download/uploads that weren’t faster, but they would be more consistent and unbroken. Again this can’t manufacture signal, only help make that connection less spotty.
Overall the device works…in the circumstances it was designed around. This is a device where if you buy it, and don’t go out to the boondocks, you will not get a result that justifies the price tag. At 500 dollars that’s a sizable purchase no matter how you define it. It’s my understanding that WeBoost plans to continue selling the 4G-X and Drive Sleek in addition to the Drive Reach. And with that in mind which one should you buy?
The Drive Sleek is a cradle style device, so one device at a time benefits from that signal boost. So if you plan to use it only when driving, and only one person at a time, the cost savings may make more sense. The 4G-X and Drive Reach becomes a bit of a more complicated affair, as the Reach provides +5db more output power. Both 4G-X and Drive Reach however work with multiple users as long as they’re within range of the internal antenna. Given that you’re generally hiding the brain of the unit somewhere out of sight, the actual enclosure design becomes more of a moot point. For 20 more dollars, it’s hard to argue against that extra added punch in potential range, so go for the Reach.
Overall my experience with the Drive Reach is positive, it’s also contingent on where it’s used. I consider communication devices to be a big set of partially overlapping benefits and uses. A cell phone is great when you’re near cell towers. A ham radio is great when you know someone might be in range and listening and have no cell service. A satellite messenger is awesome but acknowledgement of that message can take a long time. A satellite phone gives you quick confirmation by verbally talking with another person, but establishing that connection can be challenging based on line of sight, the cost can be ridiculous for most people.
A cell-phone is however is our day to day communications baseline. In non-third worlds, this holds true. This is what you likely use, what your family uses, what your friends uses. How much value you see in this cell booster is extremely subjective. Like most specialized pieces of gear, it only has to work once to prove its value. If having your kids be able to get cell service through long road trips is critical to your sanity, fine, it’s worth it. If you’re part of a Search and Rescue team and being able to have cellular coverage 1-2 miles further than without the device, yes it’s worth it. If you out and camp a few times a year, and just being able to check in with family is important/critical to you, is is likely worth it.
In the end, the value of the device will come down to where you drive, and how critical having access to signal is for you on a day to day basis. The WeBoost works in the situations it was designed for, and if you understand where and when it does, you’ll see the best return on investment.