When I started sailing, 50 years ago, electronic gear was a rarity. In fact, a knotmeter was the only electronic device aboard the first boat I sailed on. Obviously, things have evolved a lot since then. An onboard TV was once the sole province of the wealthy, but now they’re becoming increasingly common, even on fairly small boats. Some cruisers hate the idea, while others can’t do without one.
The advent of the flat-screen TV has been a boon to those who want to have a set belowdeck. Today’s LED and plasma TVs are lightweight and compact; they can be easily installed with brackets on a bulkhead or another flat surface.
The first consideration when choosing a set is where you will mount it, as this often dictates the most practical size. Second, consider what the TV will be used for; for example, you might connect it to a DVD player or use it as a belowdeck repeater for your chartplotter. If you’re planning on the latter, make sure that the set you buy has the correct type of inputs, allowing connectivity.
Another choice is between LED and plasma. There are several reason why LED TVs are often chosen over plasma for onboard use. First, the viewing angle is wider, allowing visibility from a variety of seating options. Second, an LED screen has better visibility in daylight and thus will work more effectively as a repeater. Third, LEDs use less power than plasma. On the other hand, plasma sets have better color rendition.
Electronics manufacturers are trying to get boatowners to stop referring to those screens at the nav station and the helm as “chartplotters.” The current term for a nav-station screen is “multi-function display” (MFD). Many of the newer MFDs can display cartographic information, radar, and depth, as well as TV signals from a compatible tuner. Raymarine’s E and G series both have video inputs, allowing you to watch TV on the MFD. This is convenient if the screen is properly positioned for viewing while relaxing belowdeck.
You undoubtedly know that all TV broadcasts after February 17, 2009, will be in a digital format. This change is intended to free up air space; digital broadcast uses far less bandwidth than an analog signal, so frequencies currently being used for TV transmission can be reallocated to other uses. The bottom line is that if you’re planning to buy a new HDTV for your home and put your old analog set on your boat, it won’t work there either unless you have a converter box. It’s also unlikely to work as a repeater for your chartplotter.
Marina-supplied cable Many marinas offer cable access at the shore-power receptacles at their docks. If you’re a marina user, this is a cheap alternative. Once it’s plugged in, your TV will operate just as it does in your house.
Omnidirectional antennas A second—and still inexpensive—option is to connect the TV to an omnidirectional antenna. This saucer-shaped antenna is the maritime equivalent of the rabbit ears of old; it collects terrestrial signals and directs them to your TV set. Some people swear by omnidirectional antennas, but they can be frustrating to use because they pick up signals from all directions; weak signals will produce either a poor-quality picture or none at all. These antennas are also susceptible to movement, so you may have no luck while you’re under way or even at anchor. Omnidirectional antennas come in various sizes, and this is an example of bigger being better. These antennas should be mounted away from sources of interference and as high as possible; they are often mounted on a bracket at the top of the mast.
A 14-inch omnidirectional antenna weighs less than 5 pounds, so weight isn’t really an issue for most cruising sailors. The downside to having the antenna at the top of the mast is that the coax cable to the set is long and may pick up inductive interference from light, data, and other cables that are routed close by inside the mast. If you’re going to mount an omnidirectional antenna at the top of your mast, make sure that the various cables are kept as far from the antenna’s coax cable as possible.
Satellite dish A satellite dish connected to a receiver/tuner, in turn connected to the TV set, is the best (and most expensive) option for cruising boats. The heart of the system is the satellite dish, which is contained inside a plastic dome. Satellite domes start at about 14 inches in diameter and cost around $5,000; they go up from there in both size and price. In general, the larger, more-expensive dishes collect signals from greater distances, have a higher gain or amplification, and are less likely to suffer from interference. The smaller domes can be comfortably installed on a pole or atop an arch at the back of the boat. Note: It’s important to mount them in a spot that’s clear of the boat’s radar-scanner beam.
Unlike analog signals, which are free to anyone who can pick them up, digital signals are sent via a service provider and require a subscription, which adds to the cost and complication. Because of this, you’ll also need an Image Signal Decoder (IRD), the black box that unscrambles the signals sent by your service provider.