Since we began making extended trips into the backcountry over three years ago, we’ve been on a search for a way to stay connected from the road, even in places where cell towers are sparse. As wonderful as it is to completely disconnect, it’s still important for us to keep working, checking weather, loading trail maps, staying in touch, etc.
Driving along a remote stretch of the Denali Highway.
Having experimented with several other versions of cell phone “signal boosters” in the past, the results have always left us in utter disappointment. Earlier models were cumbersome, didn’t work with our cell phone cases, were outrageously expensive, or just simply didn’t work.
Then we tried Wilson Electronics’ new WeBoost Drive Sleek, just out this month! As we’re traveling in Alaska, a place where you’d expect spotty reception and internet connectivity, it’s been a perfect place to test drive its abilities.
Off-grid camping on the drive up to Hatcher’s Pass near Palmer, Alaska.
Not to be confused with older models of similar name, such as the WeBoost Drive 4G, the all new Drive Sleek is a single-user cradle booster with the strongest allowed dBm gain the FCC will allow. After giving it a whirl, it’s pretty clear that the overall improvements on design and performance make this the best and most affordable ($199) cellular booster on the market to date. Better ones cost upwards of $600+, but the added cost doesn’t necessarily equate to better reliability in cell signal. For that, you’d have to invest in a satellite phone. At this price point, its about the biggest bang for the buck you can get (to date).
Drivers, RVers, Vanlifers, pretty much anyone who can benefit from a cell signal boost from a vehicle that is either moving or stationary. It’s power source is a 12V cigarette plug-in and its antenna mounts to the exterior of the vehicle with a strong magnet.
The Drive Sleek has to be one of the most intuitive electronics purchases we’ve made in quite a while. WeBoost’s no-nonsense step-by-step stickers on each of the components made it easy to deploy & start using in seconds. It’s as simple as:
Connecting the cables to the booster and the antenna.
Placing the magnetic antenna at least 6” away from the windows on the exterior of the vehicle (and 12” away from any other antenna).
Routing the cable & booster to where you’d like to use it in the vehicle.
Powering it up by plugging in to your vehicle’s cigarette lighter.
Inserting your phone into the expandable cradle to enjoy a stronger signal.
Though intuitive, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that all the cordage can be a bit cumbersome. If you’re not leaving it set up for an extended period, the cords can tangle easily or just be in the way. Fortunately, WeBoost does include some clever velcro straps so you can keep everything organized.
Unlike a standard vehicle or RV, our truck has a locking separation between the cab and the cabin. We have to set the booster up front where our cigarette lighter is housed (though you could get an adapter). Since we are 100% foam and fiberglass structure, the top of the cab is also the only place the antenna can be mounted. If we’re stationary, they included plenty of wire to be able to use the cradle all the way in the back of the cabin for stationary use. In the best of all possible worlds, this unit would not have a wired connection between the phone cradle, the power source and the antenna. This is not a criticism of the manufacturer of the unit; just of the current state of technology. For the price-point, the wires suit us just fine.
USING THE BOOSTER/CRADLE
One of the notable improvements from past models is the versatility of the cradle. Other models we’ve tried haven’t been able to accommodate phones with bulky cases like LifeProof, but the spring mechanism in the cradle of this design extends vertically to fit just about any case, including our LifeProof Fre’s. It’s a surprisingly quality spring, too, so your phone is nice and secure once inside.
They’ve also designed multiple usage and mounting options so the Drive Sleek can be used in a variety of different positions, depending on your space and usage. They include vent & magnet mounts if you prefer, or you can just stick it in a cupholder or on your center console.
We started our test on the drive from Palmer, Alaska to Valdez on the Glenn Highway. The drive had intermittent periods of cell coverage with long sections of “No Service.” With two phones of the same carrier side by side, we were able to notice that the Drive Sleek was consistently able to offer at least 1 extra signal bar without fail. If we were close to a tower and one phone showed “No Service,” the phone in the cradle was able to pick up one signal bar. Where there was no tower to be had, however, as you might expect, we were not able to get service even with the booster. There were sections where we could get a more amplified boost in bars with the booster, however, the average was consistently one added signal bar, which in many cases made all the difference in rendering the phone usable. In mountain passes, over the tundra and on the outskirts of the coastal rainforest of this part of Alaska, it allowed us to stay connected, conduct business, download trail maps, get weather, etc.
While we were stationed in Valdez for a couple of weeks, we used it in a stationary application. In this part of the state, we had full bars (according to our phones) but the signal was not strong enough to be able to download or stream. WeBoost’s packaging is quick to point out that signal bars can be misleading. You really only know if it’s working if your connection is, in fact, faster with the booster than without it. So we linked it up and voila! We went from the dreaded red Netflix ‘circle of waiting’ to being able to stream the latest episode of House of Cards.
Performs better than expected with consistently at least one extra signal bar of service, or a notable upgrade in phone performance & battery life even if the number of bars were not an accurate indicator.
Works with thick phone cases (like LifeProof) for virtually any phone
Perfect price point (currently $199.99 on the WeBoost website)
Customer support is excellent
Instructions are clear and concise
Set up from box to connection is fast
Works great in a mobile as well as stationary application
2 Year Warranty
A suction cup mount for the antenna would have been helpful, but not necessary
A USB power source would have been more ideal, but the cigarette lighter works for our application
We can’t wait for technology to make a wireless version of this more practical and affordable
Not great for uber backcountry use where there is no tower in the vicinity, but great if you’re on the edge of civilization or just want to be able to boost the signal enough to stream, download, or use the internet with much more efficiency.