Wine­gard WiFi Ex­ten­der

Passage Maker - - Electronics - BY BEN STEIN, Con­tribut­ing Editor at Panbo.com

When I first wrote about my in­stal­la­tion of a Wine­gard Con­necT, it was be­cause I was frus­trated by the ca­bling and mount­ing scheme Wine­gard em­ploys. But the com­pany de­serves high marks for their re­sponse to my con­cerns, as they quickly had a pro­posed so­lu­tion, which I will ex­plain be­low. While Con­necT’s all-in-one WiFi and cel­lu­lar get-on­line sys­tem—with the cell ser­vice in­cluded—is Wine­gard’s first en­try into the marine mar­ket, they’ve been at it in the recre­ational ve­hi­cle world for quite some time. And their ra­dio fre­quency (RF) per­for­mance is rock solid, even if the in­ter­face seemed rather bare-bones to me.

The Wine­gard Con­necT 4G1xM is a WiFi bridge, 4G/ LTE mo­dem, and router in a sin­gle en­clo­sure. It pro­vides the op­tion to con­nect ei­ther via cel­lu­lar band­width pur­chased di­rectly from Wine­gard or via a land-based WiFi net­work. If you have an ex­ist­ing boat net­work, the Con­necT can be con­nected to it via Eth­er­net or you can use the WiFi in client de­vices like your lap­top or tablet di­rectly with the Con­necT.

Con­necT 4G1xM has two WiFi ra­dios, one for con­nect­ing to shore-based WiFi and one for client de­vices on the boat to con­nect to the unit. Both of these ra­dios are sin­gle­band 2.4 GHz ra­dios. As has been talked about a lot re­cently, the 2.4 GHz band presents some chal­lenges in RF-dense ar­eas. So while the 2.4 GHz band op­tion comes with greater range than 5 GHz, I’m still a lit­tle sad to see 5 GHz omit­ted here.

When Ben El­li­son and I sat down with Wine­gard’s lead­er­ship at the 2018 Mi­ami Boat Show, they stressed their roots. Based in Burling­ton, Iowa, the com­pany pro­duces al­most ev­ery­thing in-house and has an im­pres­sive ar­ray of ca­pa­bil­i­ties from soft­ware engineering to an on­site print shop.

IN­STAL­LA­TION

Con­necT can be mounted ei­ther on a stan­dard 1”-14 marine an­tenna mount or with an in­cluded deck mount adapter. The CAT5 cable that car­ries power to the unit and al­lows con­nect­ing to the boat net­work comes through the hole, so you will need to find

a mount with a cable slot cutout (like the Shake­speare 4188-SL I’m us­ing) or with a hole large enough to pass through an RJ45 con­nec­tor.

A power-over-Eth­er­net (POE) in­jec­tor is in­cluded to power the unit, and I was happy to see that it’s a 12v model, which makes in­stal­la­tion eas­ier for most boaters. A CAT5 cable runs from the POE in­jec­tor to the cable com­ing out of the bot­tom of Con­necT. This one con­nec­tion is all that is needed be­tween the unit and the POE in­jec­tor. If you’re go­ing to use WiFi be­tween your de­vice and Con­necT, you’re done with the in­stal­la­tion. But if you’re us­ing a wired con­nec­tion to the boat’s net­work—known as a lo­cal area net­work (LAN)—or straight to a com­puter be­low, you will plug its cable into the LAN port on the other side of the POE in­jec­tor.

USER IN­TER­FACE

Con­necT’s user in­ter­face has min­i­mal bells and whis­tles. For in­stance, the change from 4G to WiFi is done man­u­ally to avoid any us­age or billing sur­prises. Al­though the sim­ple user in­ter­face gen­er­ally worked well for me, it did feel a lit­tle clunky at times. For in­stance, there’s no top or side nav­i­ga­tion func­tion in the in­ter­face; in­stead, all pages are se­lected by scrolling to the bot­tom of the screen and pulling down a menu.

Some di­ag­nos­tic in­for­ma­tion is avail­able within the in­ter­face. This in­cludes a bit of in­for­ma­tion about the client de­vices con­nected to the unit and the wide area net­work (WAN) or in­ter­net con­nec­tion. How­ever, there’s no in-depth di­ag­nos­tic in­for­ma­tion ex­posed to the end user that a power-user might like. I also found my­self wish­ing data us­age was dis­played more promi­nently when the unit was in 4G/ LTE mode.

PER­FOR­MANCE

I’ve had the Con­necT on my boat, Have An­other Day, since our spring­time launch and dur­ing our sum­mer cruise up Lake Michi­gan and into the North Chan­nel of Lake Huron, Canada, which in­cluded spots with min­i­mal cell cov­er­age.

On our cruise, I also had sev­eral other marine in­ter­net de­vices and my trusty NetGear LB1120, but ev­ery time we found our­selves in ar­eas of bor­der­line cel­lu­lar ser­vice the Con­necT was the last de­vice to lose con­nec­tiv­ity.

This was un­der­scored when we spent a night in Baie Fine, one of the few fjords in North Amer­ica and a well-known cel­lu­lar

dead spot. In­deed, as we pulled into the fjord we watched our phones and tablets go from full cov­er­age to no sig­nal. Af­ter drop­ping the an­chor I fired up a browser and con­sulted Con­necT’s user in­ter­face. Though there wasn’t much con­nec­tiv­ity, there was enough ser­vice to get iMes­sages out to fam­ily and send a few emails to main­tain con­tact with the out­side world. No­tably, Con­necT was the only de­vice with any ser­vice that evening, a fact that proved es­pe­cially help­ful when re­triev­ing weather in­for­ma­tion about a straight-line squall headed di­rectly over us.

I have sev­eral other data SIMs on the boat, in­ci­den­tally all tied to AT&T’s net­work. Two are part of my voice plan, di­rect with AT&T, and one came from a re­seller who pro­vides (sort of ) un­lim­ited band­width. Oc­ca­sion­ally dur­ing our Cana­dian stay I had dif­fi­culty get­ting any of them to work. I’d find my­self swap­ping the cards be­tween the Shake­speare We­bWatch, Wave WiFi MBR-550, NetGear LB1120, NetGear NightHawk MR1100, and iPads hop­ing for ac­ti­va­tion. When these de­vices did ac­ti­vate, their per­for­mance var­ied widely and ap­par­ently re­gard­less of ser­vice avail­abil­ity; some­times I’d see 8 to10 Mbps of through­put while other times I’d strug­gle to get 1 Mpbs. I don’t be­lieve this was the

fault of the modems or an­ten­nas, but rather the va­garies of in­ter­na­tional data roam­ing.

By con­trast, Wine­gard just worked. The only vari­a­tions I saw in speed seemed to cor­re­late to cel­lu­lar ser­vice range, and as I men­tioned above, that was typ­i­cally stronger with Con­necT than other de­vices. Con­necT also had very strong WiFi RF per­for­mance. It con­sis­tently pulled in the most net­works and seemed to cope bet­ter with mar­ginal sig­nal strength.

CON­NEC­TOR CHAL­LENGES

My main con­cern with the prod­uct was that the orig­i­nal mount­ing setup left the RJ45 con­nec­tors ex­posed to the weather. But as I men­tioned, I was im­pressed with Wine­gard’s re­sponse to this con­cern. They quickly de­liv­ered an Am­phe­nol wa­ter­proof RJ45/CAT6 cable cou­pler. That cou­pler does a very nice job of seal­ing off the cable ends from any weather. I think the is­sues I saw stem from the fact that Con­necT is the marine ver­sion of a prod­uct orig­i­nally de­signed for the RV world, and Wine­gard let me know they are con­sid­er­ing other op­tions to bet­ter weather-seal that vul­ner­a­ble con­nec­tor, which is es­sen­tial con­sid­er­a­tion for marine users.

PRIC­ING

The Wine­gard Con­necT 4G1xM unit is listed at $479, and Wine­gard of­fers two ba­sic types of plans: U.S./Canada or U.S. only. The U.S.-only plan is avail­able with a 10 GB bucket of data for $65. At $6.50 per gig, this is de­cent value. The 1 GB, 3 GB, 10 GB, and 20 GB plans ($20, $35, $80, and $150, re­spec­tively) that in­clude ser­vice in Canada are as cheap as $7.50/GB with the 20 GB plan. The mul­ti­ple op­tions and costs com­pare fa­vor­ably to their com­pe­ti­tion as KVH cur­rently of­fers with their LTE-1 only a sin­gle op­tion, a 20 GB plan for $200.

FI­NAL THOUGHTS

Over­all, Con­necT is a slightly odd look­ing but very ef­fec­tive prod­uct. The user in­ter­face isn’t sexy and there aren’t a ton of bells of and whis­tles; how­ever, it just works. The unit was re­li­able, the RF per­for­mance was very strong, and Wine­gard makes get­ting 4G/ LTE in­ter­net ser­vice very easy. If you in­tend to use large quan­ti­ties of band­width or need more ad­vanced fea­tures, you might be able to find a bet­ter fit. But for a re­li­able, sim­ple sys­tem, Con­necT is easy to rec­om­mend. On­line: wine­gard.com

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