Friday, August 22, 2014

Boosting your Tablet and Smartphone's WiFi

More and more people are using their tablet or smartphone to access the internet. Gartner forecasts tablet sales to increase by 54% this year while PC sales are set to decline by 11%. Although I don't have any statistics, my belief is that amongst us RV'ers the numbers are even higher. Who wants to schlep a heavy PC around when you can do 90% of what you want to do on an iPad?

Connecting to the Internet

A lot of people travel with a MiFi card or use their phone as a hotspot. This generally works very well, but data can be expensive. If you want to upload photos, download or stream music or install a new OS version it's better to use WiFi. However, connecting your tablet or smartphone to the campground's WiFi can be a real challenge. It's hard enough with a laptop, but I find my iPad's WiFi not as sensitive. WiFi boosters have been around for a while, but almost all of them require you to plug the booster into your device via a USB connection. But as you know, tablets and smartphones don't have USB connections. So what's to be done?

Setting up your own Boosted WiFi Hotspot

We have a gizmo that connects to a WiFi booster and enables you to set up your own WiFi hotspot. It's called the USB WiFi Repeater. You connect the booster to it via a USB cable (which also powers the booster). You then connect to the Repeater over its own WiFi connection and tell it which WiFi signal to tune in to. Once you've done that, any device that connects to your hotspot (e.g. tablet, smartphone, Kindle, Roku box, Smart TV, WiFi Printer) can access the internet. Even better, you'll have your own network so your devices will be able to talk to each other. This can be useful if for example you want to be able to print from your mobile device.

Each time you move campgrounds you'll have to login to the repeater and reconfigure it for the new WiFi signal. To make this easier, we have a TechnoRV Learning Series which takes you through each stage step-by-step. Once you've done it you'll be sitting outside in your easy chair drinking a cocktail while surfing the web in no time.

Selecting your Booster

You'll still need a booster to connect to the USB WiFi Repeater. Boosters amplify the transmit and have bigger antennas and so amplify the receive (but not by as much). That's worth remembering when you use a booster because WiFi is bi-directional, like a 2-way radio. The signal is also line-of-sight and is significantly impacted by obstructions such as RVs, trees, buildings etc. That's why it's best to put the antenna as high as possible and in direct sight of the campground's antenna.

We have three types of booster:

Desktop WiFi Booster

Our desktop booster can either sit on your desk or ideally, suction on to the window facing the campground's WiFi antenna. Even though it is inside, it is about 20 times more powerful than your mobile device's WiFi and can pull in a signal up to half a mile away. Its advantage is that you don't need to run a cable outside. The disadvantage is that because it is inside, there is a signal loss and your signal is more likely to be obstructed. Having said that, it's probably the best bang-for-the-buck.

To buy this solution, you need the Desktop WiFi Booster and the USB WiFi Repeater.

External WiFi Booster Tube

This booster is the same power output as the Desktop Booster (1W), but it has a longer antenna meaning that it has more gain (8db compared to 5db i.e. 1.5x the signal strength). Since it is mounted outside and is higher, it generally performs better than the Desktop booster.

It comes with a long (15') USB cable and a couple of nylon ties. For mounting, we suggest either the rear ladder, or on the side of the bat wing TV antenna if you have one of the manual crank-up type.

Again, the challenge is getting the cable inside - you can either drill through the roof (eeek), pass it through a vent on the roof (e.g. the refrigerator vent) or pass it through an open window.

Once inside, it plugs into the USB WiFi repeater, just like the desktop booster.

To purchase this solution, you'll need the External WiFi Booster and USB WiFi Repeater.

Super-Long Range Solution (Yagi)

The Yagi antenna is like having a super-large dish on your satellite TV. It's really good at pulling in a weaker signal from say a campground's indoor WiFi. This was the situation that I had at a campground in Webster which doesn't have outdoor WiFi, but does have it in the rec room. Using the Yagi I was able to access this weak indoor signal. Here's a video which I created at that campsite showing how I was able to use the Yagi.

The downside of the Yagi is that it works best if mounted outside which means that you need a way of getting the cable inside. Secondly, you always need to point it at the source WiFi. For this reason, we tend to recommend Yagis more for static installations such as park models, or long term camping when you're not moving around every day. Having said that, it is a good tool to have in your "bag". 

If you're interested in this solution, you'd need to buy the Yagi Antenna, LMR Cable, WiFi Booster and USB WiFi Repeater.


Hopefully this has given you a bit more information on what you'll need to boost your tablet's WiFi. We do also the Learning Series for both the Desktop Booster and the USB WiFi Repeater which gives more information as well as specific instruction on installation and configuring the system.

If you do have any questions, as always, comment on the blog or drop me an email.