A couple of weeks ago we wrote a newsletter segment about how we keep databases of projects, logs, parts, and fuel purchases. It generated a lot of emails and responses. So we thought we'd dig into the subject a little deeper and give the next set of ideas about the things we've learned by keeping these databases at our fingertips over the last 13 years.
We're using off-the-shelf database tools to create our solution. While there are many solutions that are laptop or web-based, they have severe limitations. Our databases are used almost every day because of one incredibly important feature – they are fully functional on our phones. Laptops and online solutions aren't good enough because there are too many advantages to having the information accessible and with us all the time.
For example, just recently we found ourselves in one of those "Dollar" stores. The same thing happens in every store we visit – out pops the phone to open the project database. That database is a catch-all place listing the projects we're working on and a reminder list of the things we need. Opening it on this day reminded us that we wanted a couple of those large cellulose sponges for the engine room. There is no better place to buy them than a Dollar store. And there's no way we would have remembered we needed them. But having the entire list of projects in a pocket? Now the sponges are off the list.
Online usage is a problem too. We want full access to all the data when offshore, in remote locations, or in our engine room where cell phones rarely work. The solution has got to be mobile and that means it must run on iPhone and Android, somehow.
A lot of people had the idea to use Google Docs for the platform today. Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms are a web-based word processor, spreadsheet, slide creator, and form processor. It's collaborative between users or locations. It's free. And there are free apps for Android and iOS from Google that synchronize the data and keep it offline on the mobile devices. We've used Google Sheets for online task lists with other developers and it has worked incredibly well.
If we were starting over with our databases, we'd likely try using Google Docs first. It's something you should be aware of for many different reasons. So let's dig deeper into a couple of the databases to show how simple this whole thing is.
First, that Projects Database currently has 20 projects listed. There are some simple things – we need 5 more hose nozzles because we have no more spares after having 2 go bad in the Bahamas. Then there are longer-term projects – we want a bow eye installed at the waterline to significantly reduce the rode we need when anchoring because of our 10 foot bow.
The project list usually grows to about 50 items in the fall when we typically start our "season" of cruising. The database is a simple list of records. Each record stores fields of data. We used to have about 8 fields for all types of special data collection. But that has filtered down over the years to records with only 3 fields now:
Item – the name of the project. This is used for sorting the list of all projects. Whenever the Project database is opened, the list by item name is displayed.
When – a popup list allowing selection of any month, season, "now", or "long term." This field designates when we'd like the project to be completed. With a couple of taps, the list is sorted by this field allowing us to make sure that all, let's say, Fall and October projects have been completed by the time we start heading south.
Notes – a free form text field where we type notes about the specific project. For things like sponges, there's not a lot of need for notes.
But for the bow eye project we've been thinking about for 4-5 years, it's a great place to store tidbits as we learn new things.
And that's it. It's ridiculously simple. The goal is to eliminate all small pieces of paper. A secondary goal is to make it so easy to use that it actually gets used. A complex record structure with all types of computed fields might seem highly functional. But simplicity makes it highly useful.
Another requirement for the database is Searching. In our database, any field can be searched for text. Having that capability is a time saver by forcing the CPU to look for things in the database instead of manually scrolling and looking. Search "Bennett Brothers" in Projects and up pops the quotes they gave us on two of our larger projects. Search "River Dunes" in the Captain's Log and up pops a list of every time we visited, all personal notes, and what our trip was like to get there. It's pure value to us.
The Projects Database is the simplest one. It's a good one to show how easy this whole thing is to put together. You don't need to buy an expensive yacht management system. Instead, create requirements and build the simplest record structure possible. Usability matters.
In the next continuation of this series, we'll explore a couple of the other databases. They all have more fields while still being simple.
By the end, we'll provide templates of all the databases for HanDBase if you haven't been tempted by Google's apps.
Continuing with our summer series about WiFi on boats, we're going to turn our attention to the central display most of us use when viewing information – a laptop, or quite commonly today, a tablet. We surely don't need to talk about iPads or Android tablets again. If you have a pulse, you know all about them.
This week we want to discuss an important WiFi concept for laptops and tablets – how you should connect them to the internet over WiFi. There are some new devices out that we'd like to expose you to because a new generation of computer hardware has come out recently and it will likely affect the computers you use onboard.
First, whenever you are using WiFi internet on your boat, you should be connecting your laptop and tablet to WiFi through your own central router. That router connects to the internet and then all attached devices, computers, TV's, cameras, and more can access the internet through the router.
The WiFi strength at your computer should be very reliable – 5 bars of strength – because the distance between the laptop and the router is less than the length of your boat. Gone are the days when you'd need to move around your boat trying to find a connection to a marina's WiFi.
Instead, one high gain WiFi modem should be installed outside your boat that connects to the marina's WiFi. Your central router then distributes that connection locally on your boat. This is a critical concept. It will make your WiFi experience significantly better.
Next, let's look at some of the new devices that you may not know about.
The overwhelming success of the iPad shook up the entire computer industry. Microsoft was sent into a spin as the first real challenge to Windows seemed to be viral. Android hardware manufacturers rose to the fight as well with a tremendous number of new tablet offerings.
Quietly, Intel was also at work producing the next set of CPU's to power these new computers.
Back when we re-built all the electronics in our boat, we left a space for a Windows display. Microsoft's Surface was just coming out and we thought it would be great to have a Windows PC at our helm. But Surface had its issues and we waited. And so did a lot of others.
Another couple of models were released including the most recent Surface 3. The specs seemed great and we wanted that Windows display at our helm, but the $1,200+ price for the system we'd need was just too expensive. So we waited.
Recently, a few things have come together – new Intel CPU's, new Windows 8.1 with some better touch capabilities, and a variety of hardware manufacturers realizing that they could create a new Windows tablet. Price is critical – we were not going to spend double the price of an iPad for another tablet.
And then the shocker. There are a few, reliable new Windows tablets with powerful new quad core i5 CPU's. The killer is that they're not the price of an iPad. They are one-half the price of an iPad.
We recently picked up one of these for our helm to see how it would perform with real navigation software. We purchased a Dell Venue 8 Pro with 64 GB of disk space, 2 GB RAM, and a 1.8 GHz i5 core CPU ($279 list). It has an SD card slot, USB, Bluetooth, WiFi, high resolution camera, and everything else you'd expect on a laptop.
Once we had it, we threw every PC navigation product we could get our hands on into it. It ran every one perfectly. There were no installation issues and everything ran the first time. We cannot say enough about this table – it's just spectacular.
Of course, there are a couple of negatives to it. It's small and parts of Windows will require fine fingertip control. You can solve that by getting a Bluetooth keyboard and Bluetooth mouse to make setup easier.
There is no GPS built in, but it'll connect with normal Bluetooth GPS's. We have different plans however.
We'll be interfacing this little tablet to all of our instruments onboard – GPS, AIS, depth, wind, etc. And because PC navigation products are generally higher end, they support the autopilot as well.
We'll use that too. We'll do all of this interfacing over WiFi. Yes, WiFi. That's the whole point of this series – you can do it all with WiFi today. There are some things to be aware of and we'll continue with those next time.
If you'd like to see some screenshots from Coastal Explorer and a video of what Nobeltec Odyssey looks like on the little tablet, go to the ActiveCaptain Facebook page and follow the thread at the top.
The previous segments of this WiFi series have tried to provide some WiFi background information. The devices to use today on your boat for WiFi are changing and there's no one set of products that will meet everyone's needs. We'll write more about some background technology later but it's time to start showing some of the incredible things you can do today with WiFi. We'll be writing a few segments throughout the summer describing some WiFi devices that you might not know about.
Today's segment is about Slingbox. Slingbox is a $150 – $250 device that we find few boaters know about. It creates some great entertainment capabilities for your boat when you also have a house with cable, satellite, DVD, TiVo, DVR, or other video capabilities.
What it does is allow you to use your home video capabilities remotely and especially on your boat. Whatever video capabilities you have at home – including added cable packages like HBO, Showtime, NFL Ticket, or even a DVD left in a player – can all be viewed remotely. You can watch it on your phones, tablets, computers, and even the TV's on your boat.
With Slingbox you don't need a cable TV hookup at a marina especially since marina cable provides only the most basic service. No HBO. No NFL Ticket. No Showtime. Instead, with a Slingbox, you'll watch your own home video directly on your boat with all your favorite channels.
Here's how it works. At home, you connect the Slingbox into your mix of video equipment. The exact configuration depends on the equipment you have and Slingbox provides articles about connecting everything. HDMI components are pretty much required because they allow full control over the video to be remote too. Today, it's hard to find a TV or cable TV controller without HDMI.
The Slingbox also connects to your internet at home. The main difference between the lower cost 350 and 500 model is that the 350 uses Ethernet to plug in at the house. The 500 will work with Ethernet or WiFi. Slingbox puts the HDMI control and video display out over your home internet connection. Now when you're away, you can control and view whatever is playing on your home system. It works anywhere and especially on your boat if you have good WiFi capabilities at the marina.
This is the time to say that these high bandwidth uses will work over cellular too – directly on your phone or using MiFi's and other cellular connectivity solutions. But don't do that. 4G cellular is plenty fast enough to watch the video but you'll easily blow through your cellular plan. That free World Cup match will end up costing $20 of cellular cost. Mad Men Season 7 will be more than a fuel purchase!
In order to make this work, you'll need to have upload internet speeds of 256 kb at a minimum at home although the display is barely usable at that speed. If you have 2 mb upload at home, the display will be perfect. That's usually not a problem for home internet.
On the boat, the faster the connection, the better. Streaming video seems to like 1.5 mb WiFi connections or faster. This level of WiFi speed should be available at EVERY marina, everywhere. If it isn't, have the marina contact us – we'll show them how to make it happen.
In the next segment we'll talk about viewing Slingbox video on your boat. That'll start to tie in a variety of other video capabilities you might not know about for your boat like AppleTV, Roku, and a bunch of apps.
One other thing. All of these devices are options. They are meant to make it more enjoyable to stay onboard. They aren't required and we definitely get the idea of using a boat to get away from it all. And that's why every device we talk about will have an Off button. Make sure you know how to use that button too.
Every internet access solution onboard has to consider cellular connectivity. So when you're planning a full WiFi solution, the way that you'll connect to a cellular provider has to be a major part of your decision and planning process.
There was a time when we'd anchor and find many open WiFi routers enabling us to access the internet. Our personal log from spring 2004 shows that we found over 200 open WiFi sites near Melbourne, FL. By spring 2005, there were 4 at that same spot. In 2007, there were none.
Internet WiFi is now available at most marinas. That's a trend that will continue and we're working today with a dozen marinas to help guide them to provide very high bandwidth WiFi for streaming video, app updates, and high data usage. But there are times when you'll need other connectivity options – marinas with poor WiFi, at anchor, and while underway. And don't discount the idea of being connected while underway and moving because so many upcoming capabilities will work better when you're connected while moving.
Ignoring exotic and expensive connectivity technologies like satellite internet, cellular is your only option because cellular can hand off the connection from tower to tower as you move along a waterway. That currently limits the connectivity to coastal and nearshore use.
As we've written before, no cellular solution is complete onboard without the ability to power amplify the signal along with an external antenna. Using that, it will only be in very remote areas where you will lose connectivity. We were surprised that even 6-10 nm off the coast of Georgia this spring we had full internet access overnight.
That only happened because we have a 4g amplifier. Today this amplification requirement causes issues when configuring a complete internet solution. You'll see why.
There are three ways you can currently obtain cellular connectivity:
MiFi – this has been very popular with boaters over the last 5+ years.
A MiFi device connects to a cellular network and creates its own WiFi network allowing other devices to connect. Some MiFi's are limited to connecting 10 or fewer devices to the cellular network. MiFi's are easy to amplify and are wonderful solutions. But they don't create a router for your other WiFi devices and because they are semi-routers themselves, they are more difficult to connect to a system-wide router.
Phone hotspots – many phones today will allow you to connect to the internet and then share that connection over their built-in WiFi with other devices. This makes them similar to MiFi's. They can be amplified easily but they have the same router issue as MiFi's.
Aircards – these are USB dongles that connect via cellular and provide internet access to the single computer they are plugged into. These dongles are difficult to amplify unless they have an external antenna connector (few do). The aircard can also be plugged into some routers that support these USB devices. The market leader for that type of capability is CradlePoint but there are other routers starting to add USB/aircard support.
Our suggestion is that you should have a router for your boat that creates a LAN for all the WiFi devices onboard. You'll need cellular integration with that router causing a conflict – easy amplification or easy cellular/router connectivity. It's why we're not naming devices to purchase – there's no perfect solution for everyone today. Instead, we're hoping to provide you with some background about the issues so you can evaluate new products as they appear.
For our boat, we use a central router (a MikroTik today) with a long range WiFi modem outside. We have a MiFi for cellular connectivity but we're not adverse to changing the modem configuration to allow the outside modem to connect wirelessly to the MiFi. It's quite complicated and requires changing the modem into bridge mode – the issue is having multiple DHCP servers which is way beyond what you should have to understand. It's likely that the USB cable on a MiFi will be able to attach to a central router although USB distance limitations will effect our installation.
This summer, we're evaluating the Verizon UML295. That's a USB 4G cellular aircard with external antenna connectors. The problem is that using this would require a new 4g amp for our boat as well – it's never easy.
The next few segments of this WiFi series are going to discuss some of the capabilities possible with onboard WiFi that you might not know about. After that, we'll provide some sample configurations to show some specific options. That'll give some time for some newer devices to come out and solve all of our onboard WiFi issues.
There are a few newsletter subjects that always generate a lot of emails, questions, arguments, and debates. WiFi is one of them. But last week's response of 400+ emails and comments was, well, a little too much love! It's our policy to respond to all questions and comments. If you've written to us before, you've seen a pretty quick response. But we're going to have to change that. You're welcome to write to tell us about your experiences with WiFi but please don't expect a response. With so many users, there's just no way we can respond to all of the comments.
Our goal is to give you the information you need to understand your options and make intelligent decisions about WiFi for your boat. Over the last 7 years, we've written about a variety of technology subjects.
Invariably, technology moves on and the wizbang product of today becomes old within a few months. So we're not going to talk about many specific products – there are too many of them. Please don't be offended if we don't mention your favorite product or company. This isn't about showing you exactly what you should buy.
There are a couple of companies that we think can provide you with help if you need to buy something now. These are companies that we have had direct experience with. They know what they're doing and can provide exceptional solutions. Those companies are:
Island Time PC – they're great at putting together pure WiFi solutions that are inexpensive and a little do-it-yourself. The WiFi solution on our boat is from Island Time PC:
Wave WiFi (Rogue Wave) – they modify other WiFi products to make them easier to use, adding some cost to the solution. If you have absolutely no idea what you should use and are completely non-technical, Wave WiFi has a solution for you.
These are not the only excellent companies out there. But they're the ones we've had contact with. We know that both companies provide fantastic support which is so important when you're installing anything on a boat.
So moving on to this week's subject…
After last week's segment, you should be convinced that you're going to need a router on your boat so you can have a real local area network onboard. Having that router will allow all devices to connect together, share information, and provide displays on many different screens. This is a much different environment from current marine electronics where few things were networked unless they are all from the same vendor.
What we're moving toward is a world where all of the information on your boat can be viewed on any screen. Add the internet and you can even view information from other boats in proximity – like the depths they're experiencing while avoiding a shoal (it's coming). WiFi is the common network interface needed to make that happen and a router on your boat is the first step to getting there.
One of the first things to consider with a router is the mechanism used to connect the router to the internet. If the router is connected, then all devices on your boat will be immediately connected to the internet too. Instead of having to connect your phone, tablet, laptop, and TV individually, you'll be connecting over WiFi to your router and your router will be connected to the internet once.
There are two main ways that we can connect the router to the internet today while onboard – cellular and WiFi. There are other exotic ways but they're too expensive or too rare to talk about. This newsletter segment is going to discuss WiFi connection to the internet. Cellular is just as important and will be covered in a future week.
If you look at the connections on the back of a router, there are often LAN connectors and one WAN jack. Some specialty devices also have USB connections to connect other devices. LAN jacks are for connecting other local devices to the router over Ethernet cables. As normal chartplotters start to add Ethernet networking, you'll be using the Ethernet LAN connections to bring your chartplotters into your boat's network. All of our Garmin equipment today connects over Ethernet and we have the capability of connecting one cable, hardwired from our pilothouse, into our router. Doing this all wirelessly is a much nicer solution since you don't need to run network wires and chartplotters of the future will certainly have WiFi. You'll see the advantages of wireless/WiFi devices when we talk about video cameras onboard.
The WAN connection is for a Wide Area Network. This means the internet.
One of the most common uses for that WAN jack is to connect it to a long-range WiFi radio with a larger antenna mounted outside your boat.
When that outside antenna connects to a marina or other hotspot, it will feed that internet connection down to your router and distribute it to all devices on your boat. This is the way that most long-range WiFi works and certainly the way we've been doing it for the last 5 years on our own boat. We connect that high power, outside WiFi radio to the hotspot once. Then every phone, tablet, laptop, and TV, along with other devices connected to our router have internet access. And because of the router, the different devices can also communicate with each other within the boat.
The key to having a great long-range WiFi radio is to select one that can be mounted outside with an omnidirectional stick antenna. The radio should output at least 500 mW to get good 4+ mile range when used with a larger antenna. Ubiquiti and Mikrotik are example manufacturers of these high gain radios. Other companies like Wave WiFi also use these radios in their products.
There is another device that is worth mentioning – Pepwave Surf On-The-Go. This is an interesting combination device that bundles a WiFi WAN radio with a router in one box.
Pepwave Surf On-The-Go is a $99 box allowing you to connect to a marina that feeds into its own integrated router within a device that fits in the palm of your hand. We have one onboard that we've been testing and it works pretty well within most marinas. It doesn't provide long range WiFi because it has a small built-in antenna, but it can be the perfect thing to distribute a marina WiFi connection to all devices on your boat. It also has cellular connectivity solutions which we'll discuss another time. Pepwave info can be found at:
There are multiple companies that have other long-range WiFi with router solutions too. Island Time PC and Wave WiFi would be starting places to learn more along with a good Google search.
One warning for cruising boaters – don't run out and get a router and long-range radio yet until you understand cellular connectivity issues.
Cellular internet has become the most important way to access the internet from your boat because it provides reliable connectivity in many locations while underway and even offshore (to 10 nm). Having a way to add cellular connectivity has to be considered today – so if you start looking for products and talking to companies now, make sure you understand how to connect cellular into your router.
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