weBoost released the Drive Reach recently which is a more powerful and refined version of the venerable Drive 4G-X, the gold standard for cellular amplifiers since 2014. I have been using mine for a few months, and have some observations.
The Drive Reach is a cell phone signal booster with three major components – an outdoor antenna, amplifier and inside antenna. It is designed for use primarily in vehicles, and includes a 12v cigarette adapter style power cable and power supply.
Cell amplifiers are designed to help improve the signal strength in areas where it is below a specific threshold – they’re not designed to improve signal or throughput in good quality signal areas. They do this by using an outdoor antenna that has a better chance of picking up the remote signal, that are usually much larger than antennas on phones or other devices, and sending that signal to the amplifier. The amplifier then increases the signal within various FCC limits, and re-broadcasts that signal on the inside antenna. Devices close to the inside antenna should either have a usable signal in the worst case, or perform much better if their signal initially was low.
There are a number of brands to choose from on the market, but the leader for some time in terms of performance on US LTE bands has been the weBoost Drive 4G-X.
Do you need an amplifier?
One thing you should carefully consider is whether you actually need an amplifier. Many people assume that adding one would only be good, and help improve overall signal and performance, but this is often not the case.
Amplifiers are a perfect solution for devices without external antennas such as smartphones and tablets, especially in a car/truck with lots of metal around, and where signal is in the mid-range. Boats are usually a different situation, both because of their construction, location, and the devices used.
For devices such as a Peplink LTE router with existing external antennas, an amplifier may actually cause performance to be worse. A directly connected outdoor antenna like the Wilson 4G marine can offer much better performance.
I personally use an amplifier only when I am on longer trips to known areas where I will be far away from any towers, cities, and the like. The rest of the time, I use the same Wilson 4G marine antenna without the amplifier, directly connected to the primary cellular antenna port of my Peplink LTE router. While I am at my home marina, I have it setup this way all the time, as adding the amplifier severely restricts the overall performance since I am close to a major metro area with dense cellular towers.
When considering whether you need an amplifier, look at where you will be boating, how close you will be to towns and population areas where there might be towers, and the terrain around you. If you are unsure as to whether an amplifier will be required, start with a good quality outdoor antenna, and add an amplifier where needed.
weBoost Drive Reach vs Drive 4G-X
The biggest difference between the Drive Reach and 4G-X is power. Both uplink and downlink power have been increased in the Reach, which means that you should be able to pick up more distant signals, and broadcast them at a higher power inside.
Powerful Signal have done a fantastic detailed comparison between the Reach and 4G-X available here. Scroll down to the “Uplink and downlink power” section for a detailed analysis of bands and uplink vs downlink. I’ve summarized below:
Uplink power is in reference to how much power the amplifier has with the outside antenna to connect to a remote cell tower. From Powerful Signal:
The Drive Reach has over three times the uplink power of the Drive 4G‑X (753 mW ÷ 242 mW = 3.12). That means the Drive Reach can connect to towers that are much farther away than those the lower-powered Drive 4G‑X can reach.
Downlink power measures how much power can be used on the internal antenna for devices that are taking advantage of the amplifier. Again, from Powerful Signal:
The Drive Reach has nearly twice the downlink power of the Drive 4G‑X (3.24 mW ÷ 1.78 mW = 1.82). That means the Drive Reach can connect to more phones in your vehicle at a greater distance from the inside antenna.
Overall, the Drive should be able to grab more distant remote signals and broadcast them with more power inside.
In the box
I bought the weBoost Drive Reach kit that is meant for a car/truck/RV. There is not a package (yet) that includes the Wilson 4G marine antenna that I recommend, but that’s OK – I already had one.
In the package, you get the amplifier, internal and external antennas, power cable, mounting bracket, velcro for other mounting options, screws, and various documentation.
The amplifier itself is really well made and is quite a bit heavier than the 4G-X – in fact, the Reach is 1.8lbs and the 4G-X is only .75lbs. It has deep red aluminum heat sink fins, an LED light, and plastic grips on the side that allow it to snap into the mounting bracket easily. The glue that weBoost uses for their stickers also is really well made – so much so I couldn’t get it off easily!
One end of the amplifier has the inside antenna and power connector. Both of these are new/different than the previous weBoost 4G-X – the connector for the antenna is different, and the power supply is more powerful, and has more features. More on that below…
On the other end is the connector for the outside antenna – again, this has changed from the previous models.
The amplifier itself is quite a bit taller than the 4G-X which can mostly be attributed to the aluminum heat sink fins. I think it looks far cooler with these, but their real purpose is to dissipate the heat during operation. This is one considerable difference over the 4G-X – the Reach gets quite hot, so ensure it has adequate ventilation. This picture also gives you a better view of the plastic release tabs that hold it into the mounting bracket.
The mounting bracket is a lot better on the Drive. Not only does it have velcro strips already applied to the back, but the plastic clips are far easier to use to remove the amplifier. The 4G-X had a bracket that was really hard to work with, especially if you wanted to get the amp out.
There is a covered connector on one end of the Drive as well – removing the cover shows a PCB with contact points on both sides, perhaps for a programming or diagnostics interface?
The outside antenna is one of the standard magnetic stubby antennas meant for a car/truck, which I won’t be using. However, the inside antenna is a nice change from the previous one, which I hated. This one is the flat panel antenna that I usually recommended people replace the standing desk one from the 4G-X. I used the provided double sided sticky tape to mount it within about 3″ of my Peplink MAX Transit router antennas (see Rendezvous internet setup for more details on my full solution). This antenna has outperformed the standard one provided with the 4G-X for almost all conditions I tested it in.
The power supply has also been updated with more power, a bigger brick, and a light and USB port on the 12V plug. Unfortunately it is still a barrel-type connector with no locking mechanism, and can work its way out due to vibration. The specs say this outputs 5V at a maximum of 4.5 amps, while the 4G-X was 6V at 2.5 amps. Even with the slight voltage difference, the Reach clearly uses more power, which is expected since it is a more powerful amplifier.
The really strange thing is the lack of any details at all on the power supply. Usually there will be info on the acceptable voltage ranges, input and output power, various numbers for government agencies, and more. This has absolutely nothing on it, which is really unusual.
For those using this in a car, the 12V socket comes with a USB port that can charge a phone, and an indicator light. Because I was installing this permanently, I cut off the 12V plug and added two ring terminals to the wires so I could connect it to a fused circuit in my DC power system.
weBoost Drive Reach vs 4G-X size
The Reach is pretty similar in terms of footprint compared to the 4G-X. In fact, it is a little bit smaller top to bottom.
The height is where you’ll see the biggest difference. The fins on the Drive are quite a bit higher than the 4G-X.
Antenna Connector Changeup
Both the inside and outside antenna connectors on the Drive Reach are completely different than previous models, using newer SMB connectors. I am not a fan of these connectors so far given how easy it is to unplug them. I think they should have stuck with the older SMA connectors which screw on, and have very little likelihood of falling off. However, I don’t know if there is a technical reason that this new connector is better – signal strength? Less cable loss?
The included inside antenna will work just fine with this connector, of course. But if you have an external LTE antenna already, or want to use the Wilson 4G marine antenna I recommend, you’ll need an adapter.
I have only found this adapter at Wilson as part number 970019. There are some on Amazon as of the time of this writing, but they don’t look quite the same.
After 4 months of use, including a long trip into Desolation Sound and surrounding areas, where LTE signals are much harder to come by, I can say unequivocally that the weBoost Drive Reach is a marked improvement on the 4G-X and highly recommend it.
In addition, the Drive has support for band 25 which may help with newer phones/devices. Right now, band 25 is primarily used by Sprint, but with their merger with T-Mobile, anything is possible. To understand what bands different providers use, see this Cheat Sheet.
Above you can see a comparison of the signal details from my Peplink MAX Transit LTE router with the weBoost Drive Reach amplified signal on the top, and the unamplified signal on the bottom. This test was done where the entire amplifier and external antenna setup was turned off for the right hand test, leaving the Peplink MAX Transit to fend for itself with its standard stock antennas. I’ve done tons of this type of test, both with Verizon and T-Mobile, and in varying conditions.
Overall, I can generally say that the amplifier is worth having in situations where you know towers will be far away and signal will be hard to get. Trips up into British Columbia for me will always include an amplifier, but while I am in the Salish Sea / Puget Sound nearer Seattle and the more populated area, I turn the amplifier off and directly connect my outside antenna to the Peplink.
If you need an amplifier because you will be away from major population areas or have areas of moderate to poor signal you need to boost, the weBoost Drive Reach will definitely help, and is a great upgrade from the Drive 4G-X.
If you already have a Drive 4G-X and it works well for you, it is not likely worth the cost to upgrade.
What I Like
- Performance / power – the improvements in power definitely help when you’re dealing with a poor signal.
- Mounting bracket – much better system for mounting.
What I Don’t Like
- Heat – this thing gets super hot!
- Connectors – the newer SMB connectors unplug very easily. I preferred the screw on SMA version.
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