Sorry, marine electronics industry…

20 Jul

…but I've gone to the dark side.

I have shunned one of your fine products and moved my electronic navigation onto my iPad. Every sailing magazine and website seems to have something about this every month, but I'll give the blow-by-blow of my personal experience:

1. My beautiful wife gave me an iPad last Christmas. I thought, what the hell am I going to do with this thing? I'm a Luddite. I like paper books and keeping my calendar on a calendar.

2. What? I can get a navigation/chartplotting program for this thing…that's something useful.

3. Oh no! My wife, although beautiful, bought me the slightly cheaper one that doesn't have the built-in GPS. I've already played with it for a month and I can't exchange it or trade up.

4. It turns out the built-in GPSs aren't so hot anyway–at least not up to snuff for marine navigation–so most people go with an external GPS.

5. I purchase the iNavX program for $50 in the App Store. This is one of the more expensive apps (most seem to be $5-$10). It downloads easily, and when it's done downloading it asks, "Would you like to have all the charts for the West Coast of the United States and Hawaii for free right now? Make sure you've got a good WiFi connection, because this may take 20-30 minutes." I leave the thing downloading, come back in half an hour, and I've got every chart…every little stream, slough, bay, river, detail chart…you name it…ready to go, the latest from NOAA, for free. I can browse any chart in seconds.

6. I purchase the Dual XGPS150 external GPS for $100. This thing is about the size of box of matches. It's rechargeable, or you can leave it plugged in. It connects to the iPad through Bluetooth, so now I have a little wireless network onboard. I can go anywhere aboard with the iPad and it will be getting up-to-the-minute, 65 channel GPS data wirelessly. This too sets up easily.

The cost of the iPad, the external GPS, and the iNavX program are about the same as a low-end chartplotter/GPS/display, but the iPad does all the other things an iPad does. The suite of products costs a fraction of a high-end chartplotter display, and charts are free.

7. Meanwhile on channel 2 I'm installing a nav system for  a customer. He has purchased the latest, greatest from an esteemed marine electronics manufacturer for about $1800. I don't want to trash anyone, so I'll leave the manufacturer nameless.  It doesn't work the first time. We call technical support, but end up on hold for over 20 minutes and leave a message. We do this many times. They call us back and try to be very helpful, but by the time they call us back we're either away from the boat, or it's 6 a.m. California time and I'm lying in bed. After a month of this–a month!–we send the thing back for a software update. It turns out the display and the external AIS both need software updates. After the updates the display works fine, but we never are 100% sure about the AIS…it receives fine, but doesn't transmit very well, it seems. We have spent may hours troubleshooting and on hold. My customer isn't dissatisfied with his purchase; he just wants to get it working the way it's supposed to.

The pros and cons:

  • First of all, the iPad is not waterproof and marine electronics are. You can get a waterproof bag for the iPad for as little as $30, or a waterproof case, good to 100 meters (scuba diving with your iPad?) for $450.
  • The other major problem with the iPad is the screen. In direct sun you will be looking at a very expensive dark mirror. Likewise, if you're wearing polarized sunglasses, as I do all daylight hours at sea, you will also be looking at an expensive dark mirror. Supposedly the latest iPads, with their "Retina Display" are fine in direct sun. My boat has a wheelhouse, so I always view the iPad in the shade…but I have to take off my sunglasses.
  • A marine display can take inputs for radar, depth, AIS, etc. The iPad can do this using a wireless multiplexor, but this is still on the geeky fringe, and expensive.
  • If I were to take off cruising again, I might go for a marine display, but at this juncture in my life I want simplicity. I don't want to set up an onboard network with devices that require software updates, internetworking technologies, and l don't want to learn a whole new device. Try as they may, marine electronics manufacturers will always be a bit behind the curve in their software and menu navigation, and using them will seem clunky compared to say, the iPad. The relatively small marine electronics industry can't be expected to come up with menu navigation and operating systems that are as sexy as, well, Apple. 
  • The iPad and the wireless GPS will both hold a charge for a good day of sailing, but then they need to be recharged. This is fine for daysailing, but if you want both to be working day and night on a cruise–like a regular chartplotter–then both will need to be plugged in all the time. You'll have to run some cables, and the whole thing gets a bit more complicated…just a bit.
  • The latest new chartplotters talk wirelessly to iPads, so you can have both.
  • Everything that's true for the iPad is true for the iPhone and iPod touch, so you can have all the same functionality on a smaller screen.





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