The Van Gets All High-Tech

Buying a used Class-B motorhome was a way for me to get the freedom, comfort, and convenience of a van conversion in no time flat. I got a 2011 RoadTrek for about what it would’ve cost me to get a brand new Sprinter and DIY it, or to buy a used Sprinter and have it professionally up-fitted. Buying the used van let me skip ahead a few months to the fun part – traveling! The big drawback was that the technology in my van was a bit outdated. A 5-year old vehicle can have downright ancient tech these days!

The Stereo

Check out the old stereo my van came with.


The Eclipse

I don’t know what else to call it but “The Eclipse.” It was the worst. I mean, there’s a reason Eclipse went out of business. This thing played the radio (after we replaced the antenna), it had station presets, it played CDs (remember those?), and it worked with my back-up camera. But for many many reasons it was awful. The worst was that it had no Bluetooth audio. It had a Bluetooth phone setup, but the audio quality was so poor that it just stressed me out to use it. And the only way you could play music from your phone was through the old 20-pin iPod jack in the glove box. I bought an adapter for that (20-pin to Lightning), which worked, but the whole thing would cut out if you went over a bump in the road. So…we busted out a giant binder full of CDs from my first #vanlife experience, in 2002. The situation was dire.

Well, problem solved! I bought a gorgeous new piece of technology and junked that old thing. Check it out!

After a less-than-enjoyable process of shopping for a head unit, I finally settled on the Pioneer AVH4200-NEX. Danny, from OE Plus, came out to do the mobile installation for me. I definitely recommend working with a mobile installer for an RV or conversion van. It’s great to have someone come to you! Just make sure they’ve worked on your type of vehicle before. Danny inspired a lot of confidence as he told me he’d worked on Sprinters before, was familiar with this head unit, and that he thought it would be a good choice for my needs. He also told me which wiring harness, antenna adapter, and installation kit I needed, which was a huge help!

In choosing a stereo unit, what I wanted most of all was something with Apple CarPlay built-in. I mistakenly thought it would mirror my iPhone entirely, which sounded like dream come true. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite do all that. It is pretty great though! The integration with the phone, messaging, Spotify, Audible, and even MLB At Bat, is pretty fabulous.

My biggest complaint about Apple CarPlay is that – unsurprisingly – it won’t mirror Google Maps. I definitely prefer Google Maps to Apple Maps, but I can make do. On my first few drives so far, I’ve tried both – using Apple Maps on the screen, and using Google Maps on my phone just like always – using my air vent phone mount. I’m a bit ambivalent, so we’ll see how that fight shakes out.

CarPlay will take some getting used to. It’s just a different way of interacting with both the stereo (new to me anyway) and the phone (so so so familiar, so this is the hard part). Touch something on the stereo and it shows up on the phone. Touch something on the phone and it shows up on the stereo. So far it kinda hurts my brain, but it should start to feel more intuitive, right?

This unit overall is such a huge improvement from what I had! The HD radio is so much better, the screen is crisp and much larger than on the Eclipse, which means that even my backup camera looks better. Also, the new microphone for the Bluetooth phone set-up solved a huge problem for me, as the previous one was so terrible that I never used it.

One final gripe: I just want a volume knob! Call me old fashioned, but one thing I love about my stock radio in my Subaru is that it has a knob that you can turn to control the volume or push to turn the unit on/off. Hardly any of these new after-market head units have a knob. They have volume +/- buttons, and a “mute” button. Volume +/- buttons are sleek, but don’t offer the same speed and satisfaction of adjusting the volume with a knob. They’re more of a distraction, and they still take up real estate in their own way. Furthermore, a “mute” button is not the same thing as on/off. If I push mute, my music or audiobook keeps playing, and the screen stays lit. The only way to stop what I’m listening to is to tap the pause icon on the touch screen, which requires more finesse than just poking an actual button. And even then, the screen stays lit up. My perfect unit would have all these great new features, and that one classic old feature – the knob.

The Cell Signal Booster

Since we’re going to be out in the mountains, woods, and other wild areas that probably won’t have cell service, I’ve been thinking for a while that we should try a cell signal booster.  When I finally went to order one, I discovered that weBoost was about to release a brand-new booster specifically for RVs, the weBoost Drive 4G-X. I pre-ordered it on Amazon and got it the following week. The same awesome mobile stereo install guy, Danny, came by to install it.

The only place we could think to mount the external antenna was on the metal bracket that holds up the awning. This met the requirements of 1) being metal and 2) having the entire antenna sitting above any other objects.


External antenna for weBoost

The instructions specify that you should drill a hole in the side of the RV, feed the cable through it, then cover the hole with a small flange to help keep water out, while also filling the hole with sealant. Danny shared my hesitation and anxiety about drilling a hole in the van. He suggested we might be able to drop the cable down through the rear door opening, and simply tuck it behind the weather-stripping. It worked! He ran it all the way down, then under the skid plate at the bottom. It was then tucked along the corner where the floor and wall meet, then run up into the A/V cabinet. Danny capped the hole where the cable enters the cabinet using the flange that was provided for the exterior hole we didn’t drill.

We mounted the booster itself inside the top of the A/V cabinet, above the DVD player. From there another cable reaches the anterior antenna, with lots of length to it, so we can place that antenna wherever we need to inside the van in order to get a good signal.


Sorry for the lousy photo… The booster is on the top of the cabinet. That black antenna is the internal one.

The day after the installation, I tested the weBoost in San Francisco, in a place where the signal is already strong. I already had a maximum signal on Verizon, and when I ran the performance test with the booster on, there was no change. Glenn is on AT&T, and he only had three bars. When we turned on the booster his signal went up to the max! So I guess it works.


Performance test results

I tested it again this past weekend out at Memorial County Park in Loma Mar, CA. This is a beautiful redwood forest campground with absolutely no cell service. When I fired up the weBoost, it went from No Service to one bar of 1X, but then that disappeared again, and that was that. I guess you still can’t just conjure up a signal out of thin air. I’ll keep you posted on boosting power as we get more chances to try it out.

The MiFi JetPack

Between two adults and two kids in the van, we will have potentially 2 laptops, 3 phones, 2 iPads, a Kindle, and an Apple TV. I got the unlimited plan from Verizon for my phone, but thought a dedicated mobile hot spot might be a good idea too. Coincidentally, Novatel was *just* releasing its latest Verizon-enabled Jetpack, the Jetpack MiFi 7730L. So I nabbed one of those and added it to my unlimited plan for another $20/month. Now our weBoost can beef up our reception and we can pump out a secure wifi signal to all of our devices.

What’s Next?

I do still have one issue. There is no Bluetooth audio in the rear of the van, running through the sweet little surround sound set-up back there. I love the sound these speakers offer compared to the automotive speakers in the front, but I hate having to plug my phone into a mini-jack (especially with my iPhone 7 requiring a Lightning adapter) and leave it in one spot to play music. I want my phone handy for taking photos, texting, playing games, whatever. So I need to find another solution. We did have Bluetooth transmitter that worked for about a week. We haven’t been able to get it to work since. So, maybe a new “home theater system” is in order.

Overall, I feel ready to hit the road without too much risk of technology withdrawal. At this point, if anything, we’ll face the opposite problem – too much technology temptation! Seriously, if you also consider the fact that we’ll be taking (and therefore editing) photos and video, and I’ll be blogging along the way, we might need to take some side backpacking trips just to get properly unplugged!

3 thoughts on “The Van Gets All High-Tech

  1. Pingback: The Van Gets All Spiffed Up – Hello to Adventure

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