A Marinized Computer Could Replace Your Chartplotters

In the last couple of years, the notion of bringing a fully integrated personal computer aboard anything smaller than a megayacht has become not only possible, but might even offer some significant advantages to the traditional solution of dedicated chartplotters.

Bringing a modern, marinized PC aboard your trawler might just be a gateway to enhanced navigation, communication and entertainment capabilities that would have cost many thousands of dollars just a few years ago. It can also be intimidating, with a bevy of choices to make and no clear path to follow for solutions.

Argonaut's Avalon mini computer. Many marine machines are petite, built for a boat's small spaces.
Argonaut’s Avalon mini computer. Many marine machines are petite, built for a boat’s small spaces.

Yet buying a computer for your boat need not be any more difficult than buying one for your home or business. It merely requires a modest investment of time and perhaps a somewhat less modest investment of money.  The first choice you are apt to face is whether to buy a “marinized” computer or a standard, landlubber unit from one of the big manufacturers like Dell, HP or Gateway. Both have advantages and are worthy of investigation.

OFF THE SHELF

If you have a stately pilothouse trawler and you take weekend cruises on quiet waters, you might be able to get away with a laptop or desktop from a big–box store.  The primary advantage is cost: they can be dramatically cheaper than a purpose–built marine computer.  There’s also a familiarity factor – most of us have done this before and know the drill.

But that choice is not without risk.  What happens to your electronic charting system if your nephew knocks the machine off the chart table, or you drop it yourself while traveling between house and boat?  Another constraint on a standard laptop is the screen.  Most are not designed for use in bright sunlight, and may require a special shade.

But there is no debating that the cost of standard computers is lower – and one could argue that it may be efficient to simply replace a laptop every few years, taking advantage of the latest technology, rather than spending substantially more for a dedicated marine system.

MARINIZATION DEFINED

So what do you get with a “marinized” PC?  The truth is that there are no universal specification standards for marinization, and so the term means different things to different companies.

AmbientNav marine displays and computer installed on a Grady-White 360. Modern marine computers are capable of doing heavy duty navigation work.
AmbientNav marine displays and computer installed on a Grady-White 360. Modern marine computers are capable of doing heavy duty navigation work.

But there are some things you can expect.  Most marine computer manufacturers use some form of solid connection – usually solder or glue – to secure wiring and components.  Circuit boards are often coated with silicone or some other non–conducting material to protect them from corrosion, which is probably the biggest contributor to early death among marine electronics.  And hard drives and optical drives are usually shock–mounted to combat everything from the normal vibrations of the engines to the shock of landing in the trough of a large wave.  Many units are also far smaller than their land-based counterparts, and have connections placed strategically with a marine installation in mind, such as the Argonaut unit pictured above.

Most marinized computers also run on 12–volt DC power, with power supplies that can adjust to the varying DC voltage that is common on boats.  Some of these computers can be powered by either DC or AC systems.  Many are also designed to handle the extreme thermal environment of a boat cabin, using fans, passive cooling tubes or heat–sink components to draw heat away from the processor and circuit boards.

There are many vendors of marinized PCs. Some companies, such as VEI Systems and Big Bay Technologies, grew up providing high–end systems to the megayacht industry, with some commercial and military business too.  Others came from the community of passagemaking sailors, and were focused on inexpensive, low–power units that could do yeoman’s duty at a nav station without draining the batteries.  Some of these latter suppliers use basic processors and chipsets intended for mobile computing because of their inherently lower power requirements (and lower heat generation), while others swear by full–powered Pentium chips to handle the requirements of a fully networked system.

What you need will largely depend on what you intend to do.  If you’re going to install your system on a sailboat with a limited electrical budget and a snug nav station with limited air flow, a mobile chipset might be a good idea.  If you have the juice and the space for cooling, go with a full–blown Pentium Core Duo or higher.

Similarly important is the video processing capability.  Today’s vector charts are rich with detail, layers and colors and most experts agree that you need to have at least 128MB of available video memory in order to ensure the machine will re–draw the screen reasonably quick.  A computer with a dedicated video processing card is the best choice, as opposed to the integrated video offered on many budget systems.  As with most things in the computer world, more video memory would be even better.  Ask your vendor specifically about this and let them know the type of navigation software you plan to use.  (If you need help choosing, read Mad Mariner’s multi–part series on electronic charting software.)

The same more–is–better philosophy goes for RAM.  Simply stated, buy as much as you can afford. Nothing on any PC runs worse with more memory – it all runs far better.  Modern standards call for a minimum of 1 gigabyte of RAM.  Big charts and multiple programs will benefit from 2 gigabytes of RAM but it’s cheap enough that you should buy as much as the motherboard will accommodate.

Many marine PCs are still shipped with Windows XP because of its maturity and stability and the fact that drivers for most peripherals are readily available.  The complete switch to Microsoft Vista in marine computers may take another year or more while vendors finish writing drivers and users get more comfortable with the system.  If you do get a unit with Vista, make sure the software you want to use has been updated to run on Vista.

VEI Systems installed this full computer system with displays on a large sportfishing boat.  Monitors that can be seen in daylight are one of the most expensive components of an onboard system.
VEI Systems installed this full computer system with displays on a large sportfishing boat. Monitors that can be seen in daylight are one of the most expensive components of an onboard system.

One of the major advantages of the marine computer alternative is that today’s units can take inputs from nearly every traditional marine sensor — radar, depth and fishfinders, weather sensors — that a chartplotter can, but they can also integrate sophisticated new monitoring systems, like those from Krill Systems, and the nearly unlimited entertainment hosting of the modern PC.  In short, you don’t have to settle for the tiny video window on a chartplotter to see your engine room or swim platform; you can have the boat’s computer display it full-screen on one of your multiple displays.  In fact, the notion of a “glass-bridge” need not be confined to the superyacht society any longer.  A typical higher-end PC will host many displays and easily integrate dozens of sensor and system inputs simultaneously.  Your imagination and helm space (and your budget) will be the only real limitations.

MONITORS

Indeed, monitors are among the most costly items required for an onboard computer rig, whether you buy a marinized unit or something off the shelf. But help is on the way.

 

Speaking of displays, these will be where you end up spending most of your money.  The nautical world has yet to catch up to the size and resolution capabilities of the consumer units most of us are familiar with from the office or home.  They do face stiffer technical challenges, however, and that contributes significantly to their higher cost.  Chief among these is the requirement to be visible in extremely bright light, yet also capable of being dimmed to almost nothing for night operations.  Add to that the challenge of dissipating heat somehow through a waterproof enclosure and you understand where the higher costs come from.  AmbientNav has some of the most impressive displays, with passive cooling technologies and mil-standard waterproof performance.

To–date, these monitors have been prohibitively expensive, on the order of $3,000 or more for a screen big enough to be useable. That is finally changing, as both technology and market demand combine to inspire new designs and lower prices. Argonaut, for example, one of the bigger marine PC companies, is now offering a 15–inch, waterproof, sunlight–readable display for less than $1,000. That may seem like a lot, considering you can buy a 32–inch widescreen monitor for your home with that kind of money. But it is a breakthrough in marine monitor pricing and bodes very well for the future.

WHERE TO BUY

So, who to buy from? There is an abundance of companies offering marine PCs, and the number is growing. For example, MarineNav, of Canada, is a relative newcomer but their founder, Kevan Merson, is a serious sailor who demands reliability and capability. His company, on Prince Edward Island, builds small PCs with lots of front connectors.  The company’s latest model, the Leviathan, has four processing cores, 4 TB of storage standard and can run up to 16 monitors in any combination of independent or cloned displays.  Vice President of production, Jean Guy LeClerc, uses his own company’s equipment, which is always a good sign.

LeClerc has the company’s Nautilus Extreme installed at the nav station of his Hunter 40.5, with all his sailing instruments and real–time weather services connected. The MarineNav systems can accommodate up to 1.5 terabytes of hard disk storage, which is nice if you, like LeClerc, keep your kids’ movies and music on the PC as well. MarineNav also makes a unique line of monitors that are gorgeous, wood–framed mirrors when unpowered but transform into full–featured, high–definition displays when needed. These make handy extra display stations in salons and staterooms. MarineNav PCs start at $1,395 for a very basic setup, including 60 gigs of storage, 512 megabytes of RAM and a 1.5 gigahertz processor.

Another possibility would be Comark Corporation’s unique PCs, which use flash drives for basic storage – conventional hard disks are optional. Comark President Steve Schott says recreational boaters often use Comark PCs as complements to dedicated chartplotters. Comark’s higher–end DuraMobile PC is a special, fanless unit that uses a finned aluminum heatsink to dissipate heat. The result is a quieter, less power–hungry and slightly more reliable unit (fans can fail). Comark says that their PCs will run even Nobeltec’s top–of–the–line Admiral navigation software with just an 8GB flash drive, although one may want to store charts on a hard disk instead of running them from discs.

Motion's larger LE1700 tablet computer is suitable for onboard use, at a base price of $1,699.
Motion’s larger LE1700 tablet computer is suitable for onboard use, at a base price of $1,699.

For a high–end approach, Big Bay Technologies offers a dual PC Book system in which one of the units operates as a silent “mirror” in the background, ready to takeover instantly in case the first unit fails. That setup costs about $3,000.  You could add a 19–inch monitor for the pilothouse and a 17–inch waterproof monitor for the flybridge for about $3,000. The two displays cost $1,495 each (the smaller one is waterproof, hence the same price as the 19–inch).

Most marine computers have numerous USB, Firewire, LAN, modem and VGA connectors, as well as multiple video outputs.  Be sure the computer you buy has what you need. You should also look into the tech support offered by your manufacturer ahead of time.  You may even want to call the tech support number and see how long it takes to get a knowledgeable helper on the line.  If it takes an hour, you know what you are dealing with.  You don’t want to discover that tech support is by email–only if you’re offshore somewhere with only a satphone for communication. Similarly, make sure you understand the warranty, whether it includes all system components and what the repair and return policies are.

Some of the bigger, longer established vendors like VEI Systems have earned their business with a stellar support reputation.  They are unlikely to be the cheapest solution available, but if reliability and support are important, consider buying from them.  Don’t ignore some of the smaller companies, though.  Many have also been around for more than 10 years.  The easiest way to get to know them is to visit at a boat show near you; they’re usually at all the big shows.  Visit as many as possible with a good notion of what you’d like to do and then ask them all for recommendations about “how” to do what you want.  Avoid going into a discussion with pre-conceived notions about the solution.  You might be surprised at the creativity and capabilities you might get.

Copyright ©  2008 by OceanLines LLC 

Posted by Tom

Tom Tripp is the owner of OceanLines LLC, the publisher of OceanLines and founder of Marine Science Today. He is an award-winning marine journalist, science writer and long-time public communications specialist. His PR career and much of his writing stems from the fact that he loves to explain stuff. It all began when he and his brother Mark threw all of Mom’s tomatoes at the back wall of the house. . .