Review of the Wilson Sleek Cell Amplifier and Directional Antenna

I love privacy and being alone with nature and so I try to camp in remote places, like this one. But, that means the nearest cell/data tower is a long ways away. Here you can see my Wilson Diretional Antenna pulling in a strong 4g signal from 20 miles away.

I love privacy and being alone with nature and so I try to camp in remote places, like this one. But, that means the nearest cell/data tower is a long ways away. Here you can see my Wilson Directional Antenna pulling in a strong 4g signal from 20 miles away. The mountain is Bill Williams Mt. and according to my “Signal Finder” smartphone app, the tower is just to the left of it. I’s a long ways away!

One question I get all the time is: “Can I reliably get the internet on the road as a traveler, and if so, how?” Based on my experience, and the experience of the many other vandwellers I know, the answer is “Yes, you absolutely can!” Running this website means I MUST have good internet at all times and I’m able to do that. But, there are two things I did to ensure that happens, and I suggest you do them too:

  1. I signed up for data with Verizon because it has by far the best coverage in remote areas. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been camping with friends and they had a different carrier and they got nothing while I had a strong 4g signal. For awhile, I had an ATT phone, and that was my experience also, Verizon worked where ATT wouldn’t. However, if you spend most of your time in cities, then they’re all the same and you should buy on price and convenience. But if you think you’ll ever travel beyond cities, I recommend Verizon even if they cost more. A good deal on a phone that doesn’t work half the time is not really a good deal. I have a friend who had ATT but it never worked were we were while my data was great. He got so fed up with it he paid the fee to end the contract early and signed up with Verizon, he’s never regretted it!
  2. I bought a Wilson Sleek Cell Signal Amplifier. If you’re a traveler and spend much time camping in remote areas, even as good as Verizon is, there will be times when your signal will be weak and intermittent. If constant access to the Net is critical to you, you really should own an amplifier and the one I highly recommend is a Wilson Sleek. If you like to get really remote, then you should also add a good directional antenna and I also recommend a Wilson antenna for that. Buy it from Amazon here: Wilson Electronics Sleek 4g Cell Amplifier
To allow for different  sizes of devices the Sleek comes with different size ares and has grooves the arms slid into. If you use the widest arm and the furthest out groove, it will hold a pretty wide device.

To allow for different sizes of devices the Sleek comes with different width arms and has grooves the arms slid into. If you use the widest arm and the furthest out groove, it will hold a pretty wide device. If you put your phone in it, you should use a Bluetooth earpiece and keyboard for voice and text because it puts out a lot of radiation. 

This post is a review of the Wilson Sleek and Wilson Directional Antenna and installation instructions. Fortunately, installing the Sleek is a simple process:

  1. You plug in the USB power cord into the Sleek and into a 12 volt cigarette lighter plug.
  2. Put the 4 inch magnetic antenna on the roof and run the wire to the Sleek.
  3. Plug the antenna in.
  4. Adjust the arms to fit your phone or Jetpack. It comes with different size arms to hold different sizes of devices and it’s a simple matter to adjust them.
  5. Put your device into the cradle and its working. The Sleek takes the Verizon data signal from the antenna and amplifies it into your device so it gets a stronger signal.

And you’re done, its working and doing a very good job. Even with the small 4 inch magnetic antenna that comes with it I usually get 2 extra bars. However, sometimes that’s not enough. For example, where I’m camped now I’m 20 miles away from the tower, which is located at the nearest interstate. Without the Sleek I get no signal at all and even with the Sleek I’m getting a lot of drops and fairly slow service when it is working. What I need is a better antenna to capture the weak signal.

The Wilson Sleek doing it's job and giving me a great data signal from a tower 20 miles away.

The Wilson Sleek doing it’s job and giving me a great data signal from a tower 20 miles away.

I follow a blog called RVSue and crew (http://rvsueandcrew.net/) and she uses a Wilson Directional Antenna that she plugs directly into her Verizon Jetpack (it’s one of the few with an antenna jack) and she reports that it drastically improves her reception (get the whole story on her antenna here: http://rvsueandcrew.net/8014-2/). Because I’m often in places where not even the Sleek amplifier gives me as good of reception as I want, I decided to give an antenna like hers a try. I figured if it does so well without the Sleek, it should be even better with it. So I bought one and hooked it up. Buy it from Amazon here: Wide Band Directional Antenna For Cell Amplifiers

It’s every bit as good as she said it is! Where I am now I’m about 20 miles from the nearest tower and even with the Sleek and a truckers antenna I could only get 1 or 2 bars of 4g. That sounds pretty good but it’s not very reliable and it would often drop and come and go. So I installed the Directional Antenna and it picked up another 2 bars over the Sleeks antenna giving me a rock solid 4 bars of 4g. But more important is its reliability; I rarely get drops or break the connection. I’m extremely pleased with its performance and it’s more than worth the extra cost and the slight hassle of finding the tower.

I mounted the antenna on a 6 to 12 foot painter pole. Here it's in the down position because it was a windy day. With just a twist I an raise it to 12 feet. The cell tower is on the far ridge-line just above Interstate 40.

I mounted the antenna on a 6 to 12 foot painters pole. Here it’s in the down position because it was a windy day. With just a twist I can raise it to 12 feet. The cell tower is on the far ridge-line just above Interstate 40.

Because it’s a directional antenna you can’t just plug it in and have it work, you have to find the tower and point it as nearly directly at it as you can. I’ll explain how to do that but first let me explain briefly the difference in an omni-directional and a directional antenna (it’ll be brief because I don’t really understand it all).

An omni-diectional antenna is a generalist, it receives cell signals from cell towers on a full 360 degrees around it. So if you’re in a city where there are towers all around you and fairly close by, it’s a great choice–you install it and forget it. But as a generalist it doesn’t pull in towers that are far away. A directional antenna (also commonly called a “Yagi” antenna) is just the opposite, it will only receive signals from the specific towers it’s aimed at but it will receive that signal from a tower that is much further away.

A directional antenna presents a lot of surface area to the tower but ignores all the other directions. In remote areas where the tower is often far away, that's just what you need.

A directional antenna presents a lot of surface area to the tower but ignores all the other directions. In remote areas, where the tower is often far away, that’s just what I need.

Here’s an analogy I read on one page: imagine you blow up a round balloon that is a foot wide; that means that from the center of the balloon to the furthest wall is only 6 inches—that’s how an omni-directional antenna works; in a big but shallow circle. But now imagine that you take that balloon and squeeze it into a long tube that is 24 inches long. The distance from the center to the furthest wall is now 12 inches, or double the distance. So it reaches out a long way, but it has a very long, narrow beam.

In my case, where I usually only have one tower anywhere nearby and it is a long ways away (20 miles away right now), I need to squeeze the balloon and I can do that with a directional antenna. Because it’s a long narrow beam and not a round balloon, I have to aim it fairly close to the tower. How do I do that?

I have a Smartphone app that locates the cell towers near me and puts them on a map. That makes it very simple to aim at the tower, I just look at the map and know generally where the tower is. It’s called Signal Finder and is on the Google Play store here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.akvelon.signaltracker&hl=en

Screenshot from Signal Finder on my phone. I've added the information.

Screenshot from Signal Finder on my phone. I’ve added the information. The picture at the top of the post shows Bill Williams Mt.

If you don’t have the app, or to fine tune it even more, you have to physically turn the antenna and watch the bars on your device until it’s at its best. So what I do is:

  1. Turn on my Sleek and hook up the antenna to it
  2. Put my Jetpack into it and turn it on.
  3. Then I check the App to try to find the general direction of the tower and then turn the antenna in that direction and check the bars of the Jetpack, hopefully I got fairly close and show some bars. But even if you don’t have the App, it’s still easy; it’ll just take a little longer.
  4. Next, I turn the antenna until I get some bars, or the bars I have get weaker or stronger. Without the App I might start in the exact wrong direction and have to slowly turn the antenna in a 320 degree circle to get my first bar, but that’s okay, it will only take 5 minutes and we all have that much time to spare.
  5. When you do have some bars, keep turning slowly until they are getting stronger, then keep turning it slowly in that direction. Once the bars start going down, the signal is getting weaker and I know I’ve turned away from the antenna so I stop going that direction and start going back.
  6. By slowly turning the antenna back and forth to the right and left, getting more or less bars on the Jetpack, I can find the exact direction of the tower and know I’m getting my strongest signal.

Writing it out makes it sound complicated but it really isn’t. Anyone can do it and probably get it perfect the first time.

You might be thinking, “This is going to cost me a couple hundred dollars and sounds complicated, I’m not sure I’ll bother with it.” but believe me, when you’re camped in the middle of nowhere and have a fast 4g signal it will all be worth it!

This post got too long so I’m breaking it up into two posts. Next time I’ll describe the antenna, cable and adapters I had to buy to make them work with the Sleek and I’ll also tell you how I mounted the antenna on a 12 foot mast to my van.

Bob
About

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

41 comments on “Review of the Wilson Sleek Cell Amplifier and Directional Antenna
  1. 4G Nomad says:

    Hello Bob,

    I just completed my blog entry today and then came here to the site and found this new article. Thanks for posting your review on this setup. I wondered how it would do in rural areas as I am looking for solutions of this nature for the mobile office setup I need to create for work. A couple questions…

    1. Does Cellular require line of sight? If you don’t have line of sight, will this setup still improve reception?

    2. What type of power drain did you notice with running the antenna?

    Thanks for the post. Much appreciated.
    4G Nomad recently posted…4G Nomad Phase One Goals Set…My Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      4g Nomad, yes, I believe cell phone is line of sight for it to work. One thing I do when I get to a new campsite is to drive around and make sure I’m getting a signal. Sometimes just a few feet can be the difference of a signal or nothing. We looked everywhere here and got the best signal at this spot because we are a hill looking down at the valley, you can see that in the first photo. Elevation is usually the key to getting line of sight signal which is why I wanted a 12 foot mast.

      The antenna doesn’t have an electrical connection so I don’t expect any extra power draw. I have 200 watts of solar on the trailer and that is all I have ever needed for all my electrical devices, including the amplifier and a 12 volt fridge.
      Bob

  2. Wheelingit says:

    great review of this setup. We use the same one and love it!
    Nina
    Wheelingit recently posted…Morning Photo Shoots At Magnificent Mono Lake, CAMy Profile

  3. tommy helms says:

    This is truly a great time to be alive

  4. Naomi says:

    Thanks, Bob. You make this type of information understandable for my non-technical brain. While reading this, however, I kept imagining your van and all this great equipment during a thunderstorm. What do you do to keep it from being a huge lighting rod?

    ~Naomi

    • Bob Bob says:

      Naomi, I’m no expert on the topic at all but it’s a fallacy that the pole will attract lighting, it really doesn’t attract the lighting, I’m no more likely to be struck by lighting by having it. What can happen is that if a strike is going to occur near me anyway, it might chose the pole to strike. http://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/lightning7.htm

      The bottom of the painters pole is fiberglass so it is non-conductive of electricity. But lighting has such enormous power I don’t think that would stop it, it will just simply jump past it, but it’s the best I can do.

      When I set out on this life, I made the decision to not live by “What if…” If you live by “What if…” you’ll stay in your house and never leave. And that’s not a life I’m willing to have. The odds against lighting hitting me are so gigantic that it’s just not part of my thinking.
      Bob
      Bob

      • Naomi says:

        Thanks for putting that fallacy to rest. I didn’t realize. I totally agree about not living in fear. I try to be careful and don’t run with scissors, but letting fear win is a fate worse than death, imho.

        ~Naomi

  5. Irv Oslin says:

    Great advice. Good to know that, even in remote spots, you can stay connected.
    I agree about Verizon. I grumble about the price, but it works better than other carriers when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Consider it life insurance, because it could well save your life or someone else’s.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Irv, I also complain about the price I’m paying, but Verizon has spent more on towers than their competitors so it just makes sense they have to charge more.

      Thinking of it a life insurance is a very good point. Being remote raises more risks so being able to call for help is a very good thing.
      Bob

  6. joe says:

    I learn a lot from you thanks again for such great info I always wanted to know how to do something like this now I have a better idea take care bob

  7. Rob says:

    Another great “let me explain this” post!
    Thanks Bob

    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks Rob. I have the advantage that I have a simple mind (very nearly a simpleton!) so I have to have things simple to understand them. Fortunately, I can generally communicate that simplicity.
      Bob

  8. rjones says:

    Great write up and look forward to step two. Thank you Bob.

  9. jonthebru says:

    Cell signals are indeed line of sight. There can be slight reflections but in a digital world the signal has to be fairly strong to work. I always use the analogy of light, which RF signals actually are. Imagine or observe a candle or light bulb without a shade. This light is strongest right at its source, as you move away it diminishes equally in all directions. Now think of a spot light with its beam of light; what the Wilson antenna is doing is focusing the potential of the transmit and receive antenna straight at the signal source thereby enhancing its strength. Not all site antenna systems are omnidirectional. They may be directional to favor a highway or town and not out towards the boondocks where nobody is. So if you are off the back or side of that focus, your signal may be lacking and the amplifier and outside antenna would be even more imperative. Indeed we do live in very interesting times, use your time wisely.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Thanks jonthebru, light fall-off is a great analogy for cell signals–wish I’d thought of it!

      My guess is that tower is directional because it look down the free way and also down Highy 89 which I am on. All I know is the antenna really works!
      Bob

    • The day I was at Bob’s current campsite, I was set up about 20 feet from Bob’s spot. Even though we use the same booster and JetPack (this was before Bob was using his directional antenna), the best I could pick up was weak and spotty 3G, mostly 1X or nothing at all. So sometimes line-of-sight can be VERY picky.
      Al Christensen recently posted…ColinMy Profile

      • Bob Bob says:

        That’s totally correct Al, whenever I get to a new campsite I walk around with the Jetpack and see where I get the bet signal. It can vary greatly with just a few feet.
        Bob

  10. I’ve been thinking about doing this. Then I think maybe I need to suffer without net access once in a while, stop staring at the screen, go outside and play. Then I think about doing this again.
    Al Christensen recently posted…How dare other people have schedules!My Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Decisions, decisions!

      I noticed you skedaddled right out of here when you didn’t get a signal! Don’t you want to come out and play with me–oh wait, I’m too busy with my nose to a screen!
      Bob

  11. Carla says:

    Trying to save money, I went with StraightTalk for a hotspot. The hotspot itself was much cheaper and Wally World sells data transfer for $10 per GB.

    I only considered this because StraightTalk DOES piggyback Verizon’s network.

    The bad news is that StraightTalk cannot make my usage show up on my account — I have to call in to a special line and wait at east 5 minutes every time because the customer service reps can’t see it either and have to use a “special tool” as they say to tell me my balance. But, what they can see is at least 24 hours old. And sometimes they tell me I have more data remaining than I had the day before (even though I had used the hotspot and used data).

    And what this means even beyond the inconvenience is that I have to “guess” when I am nearly the end of a current data plan and then load up a new one — and at StraightTalk that means I lose whatever portion of a GB I had left. If I let it run out, I have to drive to a public wifi to load in a new data plan to get service back.

    What I’ve learned is that with StraightTalk, I am using about 6-8 GB a month. That amounts to $60 to $80. On Verizon, I believe their current price is $90 for 10 GB. So for $10 more, I can have extra data if I ever need it. I believe.. and correct me if I’m wrong…that at the end of a 30-day cycle, I would lose whatever data I had left with Verizon, too.

    Bob, does your jetpack show an up-to-date “data usage” feature? I see it on your screen shot but wondered if it is a “real time” reading?
    Thanks much for the always helpful info.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Carla, yes, it appears to be up to date. But to be honest I have 30 gigs and almost never use it all so I don’t keep a close eye on it. I had a 10 gig account as was going over a lot so I went to upgrade to 15 and they had a special going to get 30 for the price of 15 so I did that. Now I never have to watch it. But, I do think it is real-time.
      Bob

      • I got 30GB of data with my current setup. Verizon was having a half-price promo at the time. I found out I could get along just fine with only 20GB, but now it would cost me more per month to get less data, so I’m sticking with 30GB until Verizon does something weird again with its arbitrary rates.
        Al Christensen recently posted…ColinMy Profile

  12. Boy Blue says:

    Bob, your pictures show how the antennae is attached to the painters pole. How do you keep the pole vertical and stationary? Are there straps attached to your van? Thanks.

  13. Ming says:

    lol, so I was sitting beside the Nahatlatch river in a forestry campsite, where the coverage map says I should get nothing, when I notice that there might be signal, if only it could be boosted.

    So I break out the Wilson Sleek that I bought on your recommendation in a past post, and voila, 3 bars. I go online and find… your post about the directional antenna!! Too funny.

    I was going to look into a trucker’s antenna at some point in the future, but not after this post. In fact, you have inspired me to go tinker instead – I will try to build a parabolic reflector for my little 4 inch magnetic antenna to see if I could use that to turn my omni into a directional antenna (the net abounds with such tinkering projects).

    I look forward to seeing what you have come up with for the mast.

    Thanks again, Bob!!

  14. molonewolf says:

    Hi BOB. Very good info and easy to understand. The pitchers are great. How much solar power do you have in the van? Stay safe out there my friend

  15. Thank you for the write up, it has helped me decide on what I want to do. I can pick up the discontinued 4G sleek for around $100 and will start collecting the directional antenna parts. That should cover all but one band we can use and I am doubtful it’s in use where we camp.

  16. Christina says:

    Providing a good antenna supplier was a very considerate thing to do. Reliability is essential.

  17. Neil Noah says:

    Hey,

    Amazing Post!!

    Cell phone signal boosters also termed as amplifiers or repeaters, which catches a weak signal outside the home, office, vehicle, ship, warehouse, etc, bring it inside, amplify it, and redistribute it. And the most popular products on the market include four main elements: the outside antenna, the amplifier (booster/repeater), the inside antenna, and the cabling to connect everything.

    Thank you so much for great sharing.

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