Using a WiFi Bridge to connect your boat to the internet, interfaces compared

1 Aug

A few of the devices lined up on a rail on Have Another Day

There are a lot of WiFi bridges that can connect your boat to the Internet, though as I mentioned in my article on marine internet, depending on WiFi for connectivity while travelling can be hit and miss.  But, without a WiFi bridge the chances of a usable connection decline dramatically because your laptop’s or tablet’s low-power WiFi radio and small internal antenna have limited range, and especially so lower in the boat.  Once you’ve decided to add a WiFi bridge the variety of prices, features, and sizes is wide, but I believe the most important factor is the user interface (UI).  In this entry I’ll illustrate the difference between general purpose and marine specific interfaces and also some differences among the latter.

In WiFi bridges (and most other networking hardware for your boat) there’s a choice to be made between marine specific products and general purpose equipment made for homes or offices.  Many of the marine specific options are actually general purpose hardware with power, mounting, and a user interface designed for use on a boat.  The UIs on general purpose products are made for a set it and forget it type use.  Typically at home or at an office you won’t be connecting your whole network to different sources of internet connectivity on a regular basis.  On a boat, if you’re travelling, you may connect to a new network for internet connectivity every day.  Because of the different way they’re designed to be used the user interfaces are pretty different.  Most of the marine vendors, and both that I talk about below, have created software designed for boaters and the way boaters use WiFi birdges.  Down below I’ll also discuss price, hardware and support differences between these two main WiFi bridge categories.

I’ll walk you through the process below on a Ubiquiti Bullet, my example product for general purpose, and two marine specific products.  One, from Wave WiFi, which has a highly evolved user interface highly focused on the job at hand, the other, from Winegard, is a more bare-bones experience.

Ubiquiti Bullet (M5HP)

From the moment you connect to Ubiquiti’s Air OS you will realize this isn’t an interface designed for the way you will use it on your boat.  Connecting to a WiFi network consists of the following steps:

  1. Login
  2. Home Screen (1st screenshot above)
  3. Wireless Tab (2nd screenshot above)
  4. Press the “Select” button
  5. Select a radio button in a popup of all networks (3rd screenshot above)
  6. Scroll to the bottom of the list of networks & confirm
  7. Select the security type and provide network password
  8. Press the change button
  9. Screen reloads, now select the apply button from the ribbon across the top (4th Screenshot above)
  10. Return to the home screen to check the status of your connection and see if you were successful (5th screenshot above)

Ubiquiti’s Air OS is a mature and well thought out operating system, but it’s designed for a user who will set up the unit once and not interact with it very often.  There’s no concept of favorite networks, no easy to digest home screen, and connecting to a network involves all the steps above.  Now, layer in the reality of cruising where you frequently have to try multiple networks before you find one with a decent connection.  That 10 step process can become truly onerous.

I should be clear, I’m not trying to single out Ubiquiti.  Ubiquiti makes great hardware with a powerful and (for the intended purpose) user friendly interface.  But we mariners, promiscuously connecting to gobs of networks, aren’t the intended purpose and some time using the UI will remind you of just that.  As can be seen in the screen shots above, there’s a ton of information presented by Ubiquiti and a lot of features.  But, this comes at a price and that price is simplicity.  The device can be configured in multiple modes (bridge, access point, repeater).  It also supports the latest wireless standards, advanced networking features, and extremely in depth logging and status information.  Many of the marine specific companies use or previously used Ubiquiti’s hardware.  It’s very cost effective and capable hardware.

If you want the cheapest solution out there it’s likely to be from Ubiquiti, Microtik or Engenius, but at the expense of the preconfigued kit, purpose built software and support.

Wave WiFi dual band pro

Wave’s interface is the antidote to Ubiquiti’s.  If Ubiquiti’s complexity is overwhelming, Wave has done a nice job presenting enough information to make a connection in as simple a manner as possible. Let’s take a look at the steps for the same process on the Rougue Wave Pro Dual Band’s interface:

  1. Open the home page (Screen shot 1 above)
  2. Click on the network to which you’d like to connect (Screen shot 2 above)
  3. If it’s a secured network, enter the password
  4. Press connect, wait a few seconds and see the results of your connection attempt (Screen shot 3 above)

So, what took ten steps on the Ubiquiti took four on the Wave.  Wave seems to really understand that the main reason you would load the interface is to connect to a network.  So, rather than bring you to a welcome or status page they jump right into a list of networks.  If you’re connected, the current network is on top, otherwise, you’re shown a list of networks available with the option to sort it by signal strength or security type.  This focus on efficiency delivers the four step quick connection process.

Once you’ve connected to a network you can click the star icon shown in the first screen shot above and add it your list of favorites.  Now the connection information, including network password, is remembered and anytime the bridge sees that network in range it will connect.

Wave employs this interface across their product line so you only have to learn one interface.  Wave also supplies a graphical view of the RF spectrum which visually depicts the channel location and signal strength of the networks it sees.  Once connected to a network, Wave offers a graph showing signal strength and noise for a connection.  In a crowded RF environment watching the level of noise on a connection can indicate if interference is overrunning the signal of your network.

When the Wave device works well it’s easy to use with a pleasant interface.  When things aren’t working there’s very little for a more advanced user to go on.  The system logs aren’t exposed to the user so you’re left to wonder why things aren’t working.  I think this is sort of consistent with Wave’s thinking, if the network you’re trying isn’t working, move onto the next one.  The good news is that on the Wave end I found the unit to be reliable and able to connect to properly configured networks with a minimum of fuss.  I did see the “Connection Lost” error from screen shot 6 above somewhat frequently, despite a strong connection to the bridge.  I think it’s likely that the marine specific offerings with a much smaller user population and smaller development staffs are likely to have a few more bugs.

 

Winegard Connect

Winegard’s Connect, 4G1xM is a little different product than the other two we’ve looked at so far. The 4G1xM has a 4G/LTE radio built in as well as the WiFi bridge so it can be used when away from land, though within the limits of cellular range.   Winegard manages all aspects of the LTE bandwidth so there’s no SIM card to install and bandwidth is purchased from Winegard directly.  The Connect 4G1xM has a no nonsense interface with just a few pages and options to work through.  Connecting to a WiFi network with the 4G1xM requires the following steps:

  1. Login
  2. Home Screen (Screen Shot 1 above)
  3. Press the scan button
  4. Select the radio button for the network to which you’d like to connect (Screen shot 2 above)
  5. Press connect
  6. Enter password if required and press confirm, wait a few seconds and see the results of your connection (Screen shot 3 above)

I found the Connect to have the fewest bells and whistles but all of the core functions worked well and proved reliable.  The Connect seems to pull in the most WiFi networks and showed consistently strong RF performance.

During the time I’ve had the Connect on my boat I’ve gotten quite a few questions about the unusual looking device on the boat.  Some people seem uninterested in it because of the looks of the unit.  Winegard has come out with a new Connect product for the RV market that is a more traditional shape, looking a little more like an enclosed radar unit.  They haven’t yet come out with a marine version but may well.

Comparing costs, not the whole story

There’s frequently a large cost difference between general purpose and marine specific bridges.  Let’s compare a Wave WiFi Rogue Wave  and a Ubiquiti BM2HP.  The Rogue Wave can be purchased online for about $335 while the BM2HP is available for just $72.21. That’s it, right?  Case closed, buy the Ubiquiti Bullet and save $250.  Not so fast, first, let’s not forget the difference in user experience we talked about above, but second, with the Bullet all you get is the Bullet itself.  No POE injector, no antenna, and no means of mounting.  The Rogue Wave comes with all that.

Item cost
Ubiquti BM2HP $72.21
Hawking 9db Antenna $69.49
Ubiquiti POE Injector $16.17
Total Cost: $157.87

Now the $250 difference is more like $175 and we haven’t figured out a mount just yet.  I’ve “engineered” my own mounts for Bullets quite a few times.  They tend to range from copious quantities of zip ties to PVC enclosures.  The PVC enclosures work quite well, but are probably another $15-25 in PVC bits to make it happen.

But, I still haven’t talked about what could be the most important difference of all, support!  With the marine specific products you’re dealing with someone who understands how you will use their product.  If this isn’t technology you’re comfortable with, that difference alone probably bridges the rest of the price gap.  Amplifying this difference is the support of professional marine installers familiar with the marine products, and for most boaters, I suspect the decision is easy.

If you have a background in technology, a desire to tinker, and a need for more control than you’re afforded with the marine specific products, then there’s a good chance general purpose hardware outfitted on your own is a good fit.  If you’d like to get on your boat and have things just work, there’s a great chance you’re best served with one of the marine specific providers and their pre-configured solutions.

Wrapping it up

Each of these options will improve the range and signal strength of WiFi connections from your boat to shore.  The choice of interface, capabilities, support, and mounting options is likely to impact your success using the product and quite possibly your level of frustration as well.  It’s been my experience that a product that is difficult to use is less likely to be used.  Based upon the number of boaters I’ve talked to who have a WiFi bridge still in the box or installed but never used, my experience isn’t unique.

 

This article was syndicated from Panbo

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