When we bought our first Navion in 2012 one of the few systems that was completely familiar to me was the water heater. It was almost exactly like the one that my dad had in his 1971 Ute Liner, but as a “21st century product” the big upgrade was the self-igniting pilot light. My dad always kept a butane lighter handy for near nightly restarts.
Honestly, I’d given the water heater about the same amount of consideration that I have in the numerous residential properties with hot water heaters we’ve bought over the years. My deep analysis pretty much could be summed up as, “Yup. It’s got one.”
With all my work for Winnebago I have crossed paths with the folks from Truma over the last several years and they always made polite overtures that they’d be happy to swap my water heater out for their AquaGo product. While it seemed like a very generous offer, I would, in turn, politely decline.
In my mind there were three roadblocks: the hassle of replacement, the loss of dual heating options, and the belief that, for all their trouble to swap a unit out, I wouldn’t notice much difference.
In September, we were in Elkhart, Indiana, for Winnebago’s big product launch event. And once again, we revisited the conversation with the Truma execs. A few weeks earlier, I was talking with a couple of Travato owners who simply loved their Truma Combi system which combines hot water and heat. The Combi is a pretty amazing product, but its heat output just doesn’t have the BTUs for heating a larger rig like a View/Navion. I think it was those Travato owner’s passionate enthusiasm that finally pushed me to relent and hand over the keys to our rig to let the Truma techs do their thing.
The next morning I headed inside the Winnebago display area while two technicians showed up. By lunch I walked out to see how they were coming only to find a new hot water heater installed and the instructions sitting next to the sink in the galley with a blue rubber ducky. Okay – so that happened.
A couple of days later, the product launch event was over and we headed off for a ten day wander through Indiana and parts west. It would be the perfect test. With 80,000 miles of Navion travel over the past five years, I knew exactly what to expect from our water heater. So, the changeover in our existing Navion would really allow me to get the best comparison you could hope for.
As my good friend Kelli often says, “Holy Buckets!” Yeah, it was that much better. I know, I know. You’re thinking the same thing I did, “How much better can a water heater be?” Well, let me tell you, a lot better.
Let’s work through my roadblock list one at a time. First, the changeout was reasonably easy and had no impact on other systems. Most importantly, the exterior cover fit exactly and has a much sleeker, smoother and finished appearance than the old heater.
Sleek and stylish, the AquaGo looks great on the outside and slides into a standard RV hot water heater opening.
The next thing was noise. The Truma barely makes a peep. In our floorplan (a J), if the window is open in the evenings (and sometimes, even if it isn’t), I could be awakened briefly by the whoosh of the old heater as it blowtorched the reservoir tank back to temperature. When the Truma comes on, you barely hear it. But better yet, it only comes on when you’re using hot water — so no nighttime “hot flashes.”
A simple control allows you to set the super-efficient eco, regular, and cold weather modes.
Another roadblock was losing the ability to heat hot water electrically when we were connected to shore power. As we used the Truma over a period of ten days it seemed to sip LP gas. It only uses gas when hot water is demanded (or the outside temps drop below freezing). And, when it does come on, it’s very efficient, so gas-only became a total non-issue.
While we haven’t tried it yet, a couple of years ago I shot a video showing how easy it is to winterize the Truma. Unlike having to go buy a large 1” socket to open the drain of my old hot water tank and wait for a few minutes as the thing drained out on the drive, you pull a small lever-like chute down and a small amount of water spills out in seconds. Done!
But, I’ve saved the best for last. The most amazing thing about the Truma AquaGo is the consistent quality of 120-degree hot water it puts out. Starting with the 2016 View/Navion models, Winnebago changed the shower piping that allows you to get hot water more quickly without wasting water waiting for it to come up to temp. But even without that feature, I know our shower water use has become significantly more efficient. Here’s why: old style tank water heaters push warm water out first and then you’re hit with near scalding 140+ degree water. You waste a lot of water waiting for the super-hot temperature flow and then you’re fussing with the hot-cold balance. All of this means water waste, and in compact coaches when you’re boondocking, that’s not good. If you’re hooked up to city water, you’ll get never-ending hot water which will allow you to easily sing the entire first act of Madama Butterfly without interruption.
Now there are two schools on water temp. Some people like very, very hot – near scalding – water. For years I ran our home hot tubs at 104 degrees which is pretty hot to ease into (most hotels set their tubs at 102). Even if you tolerate hot water well, most people will not shower hotter than 110 degrees. The Truma’s 120 degree output did require a bit of cold to temper it. And while 140 degree water can scald, it doesn’t disinfect. Typical of German precision, the folks at Truma have pretty much figured all this out (in centigrade, of course).
It always comes as a shock to North Americans that Europe is a larger RV market. And who is the largest dominant supplier of water heaters in the European market? I can see by a show of hands that most of the class has deduced that it’s Truma. Righty, right. Like many technologies and ideas, Winnebago has looked to proven products like the AquaGo to add into their coaches which provide a better overall ownership experience.
Truma products have proven to be very trouble free and as part of their growing presence in the U.S. market, the company has made significant investments in national parts and service. Maintenance of the AquaGo is minimal. Occasionally you need to put some water descaling tablets (available from Truma) and run a cleaning cycle to keep the heater at peak efficiency, but that’s pretty much it.
If you find that you need to replace an existing water heater, take a long hard look at doing so with a Truma AquaGo. It costs more, but I think you get what you pay for. And if you’re looking at a coach on the lot, or planning on ordering one, definitely include the AquaGo on your “must have” list. It’s the kind of hot water worth getting into.
Winnebago owners Peter and Kathy Holcombe had a new Winnebago Revel for a week of touring in Western Colorado and Southeastern Utah. In this video, they take us on a deep tour to learn about all the features of this exciting adventure vehicle.
On a Monday morning on September 18th, Winnebago CEO Mike Happe stood in a warehouse-like event center in Elkhart, Indiana. Around him a crew of drivers, technicians, and product experts had just finished placing the company’s newest models. He watched as the motorhome division’s general manager, Brian Hazleton, was having his mic adjusted. by the video crew with cameras set like a traditional broadcast, but ready to wirelessly go live on the company’s Facebook page.
It was a uniquely high-tech moment in the heart of American RV country, which by its nature has a much more button-down vibe than the tech centers of the West Coast.
Twenty months earlier, the Winnebago board of directors made a big bet to bring in a non-RV executive to lead the company. True to his thoughtful midwestern roots, Happe arrived not with grand proclamations or corporate platitudes but started listening, watching, and devouring a deluge of information about a company he’d just been handed the keys to.
In less than two years, Happe has methodically and very deliberately reset the company’s compass point. He engineered the largest, industry-stunning acquisition in Winnebago’s history by buying the meteoric Grand Design company. All the while, he has never taken his eye off the ball on the company’s core business – motorhomes. It’s one thing to come into a six-decade old culture and identify inefficiencies and opportunities. It’s another thing to turn the battleship in a new direction.
Now, twenty months in, Happe stands in the midst of the first wave of new products that have been developed under his watch. While exciting, he sees them as a start, a bridge between the company’s storied history and the promise of bringing modern design and manufacturing processes to an industry that lags behind its automotive cousin.
What’s unusual about Winnebago’s introduction is that it signifies product advances across the board. Each model represents a different product class. From a compact van to a gas powered Class A, and to a luxury diesel pusher Class A, these Winnebago products represent a new way of thinking within the company. It’s a more customer-centric approach that puts a great deal of emphasis on the experience and applications that RV owners have in mind when they purchase and use a coach.
The Intent: maximizing value. A few years ago, a couple of Winnebago’s competitors introduced lower-priced Class A motorhomes that were well under the $90,000 dollar price point. These units were popular, but as Winnebago engineers and product managers assessed these competitive units, they stubbornly resisted the apparent trade-offs in fewer features and lower build quality it seemed to take to create a lower-priced motorhome. Their intent, and the namesake coach they created, was to design a more affordable motorhome without stripping out the core quality that makes Winnebagos more durable for long years of service.
The Horizon: design matters. In the world of luxury Class A motorhomes, just like regular homes, interior design features such as tile floors, solid surface counters, and handcrafted wood cabinets are expected. For years, Winnebago’s Sprinter-based View and Navion Class C motorhomes have been the top sellers in the industry. And a big part of that success is the sleeker modern interiors with precision-manufactured cabinet components from Italy. This led to a highly complex initiative to create the first modern Euro-inspired interiors in the industry. The result was remarkable, an interior that rivals that of a $1 million dollar custom coach, for a third of the cost.
The Revel: an RV for non-RVers. Where the Intent and Horizon are poised to disrupt the categories they’re in, the four-wheel drive Revel was designed to open up a completely new category in the B-Van market. Built on a rugged Mercedes Sprinter 4X4 chassis, the Revel may look too utilitarian to many RV owners, but to trail runners, kayakers, rock climbers, bikers, and backcountry enthusiasts it’s a Ritz Carlton suite on the edge of the wilderness or along a riverbank. Until the Revel, aggressive outdoor adventurers had to buy and customize their own van shell, or wait for months while expensive custom up-fitters would build a backcountry capable vehicle.
It’s been an eventful twenty months for Mike Happe and Winnebago’s re-charted course. The hard effort of change is starting to bear fruit and the star exhibits have been unveiled. Eager buyers won’t have to wait long until all of these models begin to appear at Winnebago dealers.
For nearly sixty years Winnebago has been “America’s RV.” This short video celebrates the company’s legacy and new generation of Winnebago owners.
The Intent really lives up to its name – an affordable, modern RV made without compromising Winnebago’s high standards. Watch as product manager Niles Whitehouse introduces the company’s new entry-level Class A motorhome.
Read more about the Intent here.
When I first heard about the notion of Winnebago developing a new entry-level Class A motorhome a while back, my first reaction was, “Oh no. A race to the bottom.” With the propulsive growth of RV sales for the past five years, other manufacturers wanted to broaden the base of buyers by bringing even lower-priced motorhomes to the market. For a long time Winnebago’s popular Vista line met that demand.
For all the behind the scenes tours I’ve had at the company’s sprawling Forest City plant, I have learned that this is a company that doesn’t cut corners. In other businesses, when people use the term “value engineering” it’s often code for “cheaper materials.” And, for a moment or two there was a thought of switching to cheaper materials and eliminating the steel cage construction that’s been a hallmark of Winnebago for decades.
As I’ve toured through this entry tier of products at various RV shows I could see where corners were cut (literally could see the saw marks!). The market thinking was pretty clear — build to make a good impression at a show or on a dealer’s lot, but don’t worry how long the unit will last or what its trade-in value will be. Just make the first sale and worry about the future later. That was the tar pit that Winnebago was staring into.
So I’ll admit that I was rather apprehensive when the Intent product manager, Niles Whitehouse, met me at the company’s photo studio at the far edge of the manufacturing campus. Whitehouse has been in the RV industry for over three decades and, until recently, was the head of the company’s sales team. When the opportunity presented itself to jump into product management, he dove in head first. “After all these years, I’m really excited to help shape the direction of our products and really focus on the ownership experience,” he said as we admired the clean white exterior of the first Intent off the line.
In the next thirty minutes, apprehension turned into appreciation as Whitehouse gave me a detailed tour. “Let’s start here,” he said, after lifting up a front step to reveal shoe storage underneath. Looking up from the step I scanned the pleasing gray-toned interior. My honest first impression was, “This is much, much nicer than I had ever expected.”
And from there, it got even better. My eye was immediately drawn to the huge window next to the dinette. Actually, all the windows are generously sized, giving the interior an even greater sense of spaciousness. The well thought out decor scheme and clean lines of the cabinets, counters and seating definitely made this new coach feel very contemporary.
All good so far — but then things really amped up with some very unexpected finds. The first, was impossible to miss: a residential refrigerator. That is definitely not something you find in this class of RVs. It was the centerpiece of a very generous galley with pantry storage.
Up front in the cab area were many subtle design adjustments that first-time buyers may not initially appreciate, but experienced Class A owners will. The dash layout placed switches in easy to access locations, the in-dash GPS/Radio/Backup camera screen easily pivoted from side to side for better driver and passenger viewing, and the “dog house,” the cover for engine access, is mercifully devoid of cup holders and shelves that can impede access in and out of the front seats. Clearly Winnebago had been doing their homework in talking with owners.
There were no compromises in sleeping accommodations either. An optional electric studio loft bed quickly lowered from the roof above the cab seats. And for the master bedroom, a full walk around queen bed with unique headboard treatment left a very positive impression.
Wrapping it all was Winnebago’s standard steel cage construction, cool-white solar reflective roof, and industry-best driver sight lines with narrow A-pillars. No shortcuts there, either.
Outside brought two other impressive revelations. The first was a complete re-think on LP gas. In the “why didn’t someone think of this sooner” category, Winnebago has come up with an LP system that uses two 20-pound standard LP tanks (like what you use for an outdoor grill). You can swap them out with ease and it opens up many different options for buying LP fuel. It’s really quite brilliant.
Then the other feature that shocked me was an outside galley complete with a compact refrigerator and fully operable sink. I thought to myself, “Uh, and this is an entry level RV?”
I pressed Whitehouse hard on how Winnebago could profitably build such a full-featured RV and remain price competitive. His answer was as impressive as the rig he was proudly showing off. “We started with a clean sheet of paper,” he began, “and put down all the things we wouldn’t compromise on. From there we looked at how we could design and then build each coach more efficiently. We streamlined the design process, made our floorplans more modular, and completely retooled one of our assembly lines to make every step more efficient without cutting quality.”
While it’s not rocket science, anyone with a manufacturing background will tell you that this kind of change is hard to do. And the result speaks for itself. The Intent really lives up to its name of Winnebago wanting to reinvent old-line thinking and create a modern, highly affordable Class A motorhome without compromise.
A million dollar look for a fraction of the price. Watch as product manager Ryan Roske introduces Winnebago’s new Class A, which boasts a sleek, contemporary style.
Read more about the Horizon here.
Several years ago, when we attended the annual California RV show in Pomona, we found ourselves at a restaurant dining table with platters of sushi, tuna rolls, edamame and seaweed salads all neatly arranged. Around the table was a collection of RVers including then super-bloggers Jason and Nikki Wynn.
Jason and Nikki have now traded their RV life for one of sailing, but over a period of a few years we got to know this winning and taste-setting couple. It doesn’t take long when RVers get together before rig talk and road tales begin. That night’s spirited and laughter-filled conversation still remains memorable, especially with the talk about the depressing state of RV interior design.
To their credit, Jason and Nikki tried mightily with their sponsoring manufacturer to update that company’s interiors. They even made a video about it, but sadly the manufacturer’s idea of contemporary design was little more than changing out the fabrics and countertops.
Owning a couple of Winnebago Navions, we were used to a much more contemporary interior style that is found throughout all European RV designs. These euro-styled compact coaches are top sellers for Winnebago and the modern, clean interior is one important reason why. Everyone that evening lamented that there were absolutely no true contemporary decor choices in Class A motorhomes – from any manufacturer, including Winnebago.
A year later we were in Tampa at a large dealer walking through a collection of custom rigs built on Prevost chassis. Several interiors took a stab at modernity that was cringingly laughable. Why an under-lighted bathroom sink was supposed to be classy was beyond me. Couldn’t anybody come up with something better?
Well Winnebago just did. And boy did they ever. Working exclusively with their same Italian cabinet designer and putting a special internal team together, the company embarked on a complex two year design process that is, mark my words, going to precipitate a major change in American RV design thinking.
As part of introducing this sleek new design approach, the company returns to one of their most cherished model names with the Horizon. And here’s the real stunner: these sophisticated interiors are in a mid-luxury product that sells for a third to one-quarter less than premium coaches like Foretravel or Newell. Now granted, million dollar plus coaches have unique features and refinements that you won’t find in the Horizon. But if you want an excellent motorhome that looks like a million bucks, but for the fraction of the cost, your Horizon awaits.
The company is going to start out with two floorplans. The largest is 42′ long with a TAG axle and a smaller 40 footer without. Both are built on Winnebago’s Maxum Freightliner chassis with 400-450 HP Cummins diesel engines and Allison transmissions. All standard stuff for a good Class A pusher. And while other manufacturers use Freightliner chassis, Winnebago’s custom designed Maxum gives the coach a better sense of centering in weight and offers huge, pass-through basement storage.
But it is upstairs where you live, and honestly, there’s no photo, video or VR tour that prepares you for the sense of tailored sophistication that hits you when you physically step into these coaches. The linear expanses of the the windows, the graceful molded arcs of the cabinetry, and the color palettes that, for all their conservative tones, seem to glow brightly. It’s like stepping onto a yacht anchored off St. Tropez. And it should feel that way, as Winnebago’s exclusive cabinetmaker located in Italy has lots of nautical design experience.
A couple of years ago, in a nondescript workshop at the Forest City campus, I saw a full mockup of the 40A. What stunned me was that, two years later, they actually built it. Usually when you see a concept or mockup the final result somehow seems to be a close, but compromised product. Not the Horizon. Of all the interior architectural details your eye will be drawn to, I encourage you to look up. What do you normally see in most RV ceilings? For lower-cost Class A’s, it is the air conditioner and maybe a low-profile ceiling fan.
For more expensive coaches it’s usually a drop-panel that is trimmed with lacquered crown molding. And what is it about some super-expensive coaches where they love to use mirrors on the ceiling? The Horizon ceiling panel, with its thin backlit LED light dividers looks like something that you’d see in Starfleet.
The 42Q felt like the more traditional of the two floorplans with the extra length being put to use in a larger master suite. The 40A’s dual entry bath (from the master suite and the hall) is cleverly designed to make you forget that this floorplan doesn’t have a half bath. However, what you do get is a double vanity that would be very much the equal of what you’d expect to find in a high-end modern urban hotel.
Beyond Winnebago’s well honed floorplan designs, other key features for a coach in this class won’t disappoint: a residential refrigerator, dishwasher, stacked washer/dryer, induction cooktop, and full multiplex wiring. Up front, the slim A-pillars offer the most unrestricted driver’s view in this class, adjustable pedal heights, easy reach controls, and the 10.5″ Xite infotainment, GPS and camera monitor system – the largest available.
While the laser focus of the Winnebago design team was to bring an RV interior truly into the 21st century, the exterior design team added many subtle styling cues that maintains Winnebago’s famed broad sightlines for the driver. And in an act of near heresy, you can actually buy a motorhome that doesn’t have big swirls painted on it. Yes, there are more traditional exterior paint schemes to choose from, but the relaxed simplicity of a dark wraparound band on a clean white base speaks to the signature elegance this coach will have going across the Interstate.
And finally, the maraschino cherry on top of the icing on the cake: Winnebago has now extended a three-year or 100,000 mile coach warranty on all their diesel pusher products.
Success favors the bold, and as the Horizon shakes off the design dust of the past it’s about to shake up the industry, and bring a lot more new owners into the Winnebago family.
We gave the keys of our brand new 4×4 Revel to Winnebago owner, and full-time nomadic adventurer, Kyle Kesterson and his faithful dog Bean. They took it to 12,000ft in the Buena Vista range in Colorado to show us where they’d push life in an RV, and met some friends along the way.
Executive Producer: Don Cohen
Written by Kyle Kesterson
Production Company: Armosa Studios
Produced by Heath and Alyssa Padgett
Director: Wes Wages
Director of Photography: Eric Herron
Editor: Lee Taylor
Audio Editor: Lee Taylor
Color: Jackson Townsend
Composer: Least of Creatures
Talent: Kyle Kesterson, Kathleen Morton, Will McKay, Bean
Art Director: DKY
Finally, a 4×4 sprinter-based motorhome. Watch product manager Russ Garfin explain why this adventure vehicle will change how you use your RV.
Read more about the Revel here.
There just comes a point in almost every outdoor adventurer’s life that a downpour through the tent has gotten the sleeping bag soggy, the weight of an early fall snow means dusting off eight inches of powder to get to the gear you stored outside, or the rear of the Outback was a little too cramped for a comfortable night’s sleep.
Roll in the Winnebago Revel. It’s the first manufactured Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 in North America. Since Mercedes introduced their off-road van a little over a year ago, outdoor adventurers had two choices. They could take a do-it-yourself approach to creating a living space or send the van to an up-fitting business for expensive modification.
The Revel is a true manufactured RV which brings Winnebago’s sixty years of experience inside the limited confines of a van and produces an extremely space-efficient and flexible living space. It’s the product of several years of intense investigation and scores of interviews with climbers, bikers, paddlers, and backcountry enthusiasts to determine the best balance of features.
Of course the story begins at ground level with tougher sidewall BFGoodrich tires and increased ride heights of 4.3” on the front axle and 3.1” on the rear. All of this is driven by Mercedes’ proven 3.0 V6 Turbodiesel engine that delivers the low torque required for picking your way up a rock strewn two-track. And with beefed up stabilizers, electronically engaged drive system, low-gear assist, and advanced braking system, the Revel may be up to taking on roads that you might decide aren’t worth the risk.
Right to the edge of the stream. Definitely a fun assignment for Don Cohen.
We spent a couple of weeks putting the Revel through its paces taking it up to 13,000’ feet in the Colorado Rockies and up sandy draws in the desert southwest. The collective opinion of seasoned four-wheelers was that it’s truly up to the task. At 19 1/2′ in length and a short wheelbase, it was highly maneuverable. Unlike Jeeps and 4WD pickups, the high viewing position for both driver and passenger coupled with the very short hood-line offered exceptional road visibility for picking the best path through tough tracks.
But there’s also the good manners of the Sprinter on paved roads for those long drives until pavement turns to dirt. It hums smoothly along at Interstate speeds and feels nimble in the city, too. And at the heart of it is Mercedes’ tight and true steering qualities. Depending on your driving style and terrain you should expect 14-18 MPG.
The real “special sauce” is what Winnebago’s experience brings to the “home” experience. Tables fold out of the way, yet pop up easily for camping use. Secure storage doors lock contents in place and use almost every square inch of space. A compact wet (shower) bathroom can be quickly turned into a closet by the owner for one trip and turned back into a bath for the next trip.
It’s worth noting that Winnebago has gone with a European style cassette toilet system that makes waste dumping a lot easier than you might think. It can be removed and discharged without breaking down a campsite. It’s also part of the Revel’s all-weather plumbing design that keeps all water piping inside the coach so, as long as you maintain reasonable heat in the van, the pipes won’t freeze.
In talking with potential buyers, Winnebago learned that owners wanted power and heat without the noise and smoke of a generator. They also wanted a single source of fuel. That’s why you won’t find a generator or LP appliance in the Revel. Heat and hot water are run by an exceptionally quiet diesel system. Both the refrigerator and induction cooktop are electric and are driven by three high capacity AGM sealed batteries along with 110v and several USB convenience outlets. Batteries are charged by the engine’s alternator when driving and by the 200 watt solar panels when camped. There’s also a shore power connection and heavy duty cord for use on friends’ driveways and at campgrounds.
What you get in a highly engineered and manufactured design is a much higher degree of space utilization. The compact shower is a great example where you have a seamless, easy to clean mono-piece enclosure with custom molded shelf mounts.
And it’s with the bed that Winnebago’s expertise really shows up. The sleep grade foam mattress sits on a euro-style slat system. All of this is encased in an electrically mounted frame that, with the push of a button, raises to the ceiling to provide secure interior storage for a couple of bikes or other large items in what we call the Gear Garage. When lowered, you sleep crossways in the bed. Because of the narrow width of the Sprinter, Winnebago added two asymmetric bump outs, so a six-footer can comfortably stretch out. Another nice touch is the operable window near the head of the bed for ventilation on cool nights, and double insulated protection on cold ones.
A rooftop air conditioner is optional and some owners may choose to forego having one with the benefit of picking up more roof storage options for more cargo carriers, kayaks, or racktop tents for the kids.
Finally, one of the biggest pluses with the Revel has nothing to do with features. It’s all about affordability. The cost of a Revel (depending on options) is just a little north of $100,000. For DIYers you have the cost of the van itself and the cost of modifications. If you use a custom up-fitting company, the modification costs can easily climb well above the “ready to go” cost of the Revel. And that two-part cost of buying the van and then fixing it up can be a challenge to finance. Revels are much more financeable because they are considered to be a manufactured RV. That means you can get good rates, long amortization, and can even deduct interest as a second home expense. This makes monthly payments perhaps more affordable than many people realize.
For over thirty years Winnebago has been the leader in making compact, fuel efficient motorhomes and the company has made more Sprinter-based vans and motorhomes than all other manufacturers combined. That’s a lot of experience that shows up in the thoughtful details of this entirely new class of adventure RV products. With it’s ability to go just about anywhere, great interior flexibility, and decidedly high level of recreational comfort, the Revel is going to convert a lot of “I’d never own an RV” folks into believers.
Today the desire for being connected in your RV is more popular than ever. And you’re pretty much going to get connected one of two ways: either via a cellular or wifi signal.
On the cell side, you’ll either use your phone (directly or as a hotspot for shared devices – if your phone and data plan support it) or a dedicated hotspot device (often called a mi-fi) that has its own dedicated cell connection and extra monthly cost. On the wifi side, you usually will try to connect your device to a hotspot at a coffee shop or RV park.
The more you come to depend on a data connection the more you probably start thinking in terms of getting a good signal. In the five years that we’ve been traveling in our Navions, I seem to be on a parallel journey in search of good mobile bandwidth. While at home I think nothing of web pages simply popping up on my screen or movies streaming in seconds. On the road, the information highway often can feel like Rural Route #3 filled with potholes and blind corners.
The minute you start tangling with Internet connectivity you step into a corner of the world that still can bedevil and perplex most everyone except the super technical. At its best, the arcane process of connecting to the Internet has been pretty well simplified by companies like Amazon for setting up an Echo device or Apple with their clean Airport routers. Taming complexity is very, very expensive and hard to do. And because it is, when you start working with niche products that are targeted to the RV market, they can feel unwieldy and frustrating.
Winegard is a mobile antenna company and I’ve used their satellite dish receivers for five years with consistent success. So when I saw their upcoming wifi and cell antenna system last November at the RVIA industry show I challenged them to “do better” than other products I had bought and tried. I’m pleased to say that they’ve come a lot closer to hitting the mark.
This wasn’t a simple “send it to me and I’ll plug it in” request. To really test the unit would require me to get the drill out and do a permanent installation onto the roof of my Navion. But what price better connectivity?
Officially the product is called the ConnecT 4G1. It’s a unique hybrid and that what makes it both intriguing and different than other products on the market. Atop a white or black plastic dome is a small farm of three wifi and two cellular antennas. Winegard already has a less expensive wifi-only unit with just three antennas. What makes the 4G1 so interesting is that it has a built-in 4G cellular modem. In software (more on this in a moment) you can switch between using the wifi or cellular modem for your data.
There are two pieces to the system. One is the external antenna and the other is the internal router. They are cabled together by an Ethernet cable that passes both power and signal between the two boxes and greatly simplifies installation with one cord.
All the hardware you need is included. Everything is very easy to assemble.
Installation was very straightforward and took about an hour. After determining the proper position for the antenna, I drilled a 3/8” hole to pass the thicker Ethernet connector through. I bought a much shorter 3’ Ethernet cable because I was doing a very short run and didn’t need a lot of excess wire. I liberally spread Dicor sealant in and over all holes. The white square plate (supplied) covers the cable entry through the roof, which was screwed into place after a liberal coating of sealant was applied underneath the plate.
The interior router unit can sit on a shelf, be propped up on a table or mounted to the wall. The molded case neatly covers the cable and power connection, but it also makes the status lights hard to see. Of course, most of the time the router is going to be mounted inside a cabinet, but I personally like the comfort of seeing little power and activity lights. However, this is pretty much a set-it-and-forget-it type of router box.
This system is designed to establish an Internet connection and then have all your in-rig devices connect to the net through the router. For us, that can mean six devices (2 iPhones, 2 iPads, and 2 MacBooks). You manage all of this through a web browser.
Yeah, that pesky ol’ management through a browser thingy. For non-techies, this process isn’t quite the 7th circle of hell, but it’s definitely a couple of rings in. And it’s here that Winegard, to their credit, has done a much better, albeit not perfect, job of making configuring the ConnecT fairly easy.
For the uninitiated when you administer a device through a web browser the actual software controlling that device is embedded inside it (firmware). Your browser is merely a viewing screen looking at controlling the internal programming. Like almost all routers, Winegard may offer improvements over time by having you download and install new operating updates in the firmware. This is pretty standard stuff in the world of routers.
Fortunately, the Winegard interface is pretty easy to understand. Like other mobile router products, the ConnecT scans for all the wifi connections it sees and reports on their signal strength and security status. Once you choose the wifi hotspot you want to connect to you more than likely will have to enter a password to connect. This is a little confusing, but compared to other software/hardware products I’ve tried it’s not that bad. Furthermore, the ConnecT seemed faster at connecting to and logging into wifi hotspots than other products I’ve used. It also did a better job of maintaining a consistent signal link once connected to a hotspot.
This scan/login/connect process is where these kinds of devices can be very, very frustrating to use and the Winegard did a remarkably good job of removing a lot of friction from the experience. Furthermore, I could actually use my iPad for the administration tasks (though a laptop is less cumbersome). Other products I’ve used were next to impossible to use with an iPad. This is still a bit of weak spot, but Winegard seems committed to improving the product’s capabilities and a more streamlined administrative interface would be nice.
Where the ConnecT really won me over was in a Walmart parking lot in Western Iowa. My iPad didn’t see any wifi hotspots. My MacBook saw a couple of weak ones. After the ConnecT did a quick scan of the “neighborhood” twenty devices appeared. Among them was the open Walmart customer hotspot in the store a good five hundred feet away. Late in the evening, I was impressed with the overall speed of my Internet signal. In subsequent connections during various trips over the past several months, using the external antenna has made seemingly unusable RV park hot spots actually useable. And I find that there’s much less muss and fuss to scanning and connecting to wifi hotspots.
Antenna quality and signal strength can make a big difference in your data speeds.
But wait! There’s more! I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the wifi features of the ConnecT, but what makes this model really different is the built in 4G LTE modem. Again, using a browser window to connect the router you can switch the ConnecT to attach itself to a cellular network. Winegard uses a top national carrier with uniformly good coverage for this service. It works very smoothly and especially along Interstate highways, this is a great way to stay connected to the net while in motion (for a passenger, of course).
If you’re a full-timer or power road warrior, the cell feature isn’t probably for you as you most likely have a robust data plan and a separate mi-fi hotspot. However, what the ConnecT is perfect for is the seasonal traveler who wants the broader (and often faster) benefit of cellular data service. You simply can buy a bucket of data from 1GB up to 20 GB through Winegard ($20-$150). The beauty of this is there’s no contract, activation fee, or monthly bill. While the cost of data is higher than having a larger data plan for your phone, it really can cost less if you simply want some degree of data service for a big trip or small ones throughout the year. And with the two optimized antennas on the roof, you’ll also get a much better data signal than you will through your phone.
For heavy data users, like me, the perfect product would be a ConnecT with a dedicated cell modem that would replace my current hotspot and have the benefit of sucking down a better signal with the outside antennas. That currently costs me $20 a month as an extra device on my AT&T unlimited data plan. When traveling we tend to consume nearly 1 GB of data a day, so a carrier data plan is much more cost effective than a pay-as-you go plan. Like many RV power data users, I also have a Verizon hotspot on a lower data size plan for those times I can’t get an AT&T signal.
I know from experience with my satellite antennas that Winegard’s quality and technical support are excellent and the same holds true of the ConnecT wifi and wifi/4G LTE units. The software administration and relative ease of connection to a signal is a solid step forward in user experience. If mobile data connectivity is important to you, then the ConnecT products should be at the top of your list for consideration.