When it comes to Wi-Fi’s role in shuttling navigation and performance data around a boat, there are two schools of thought. One approach lashes a wireless router to a proven digital charting system; the other links Wi-Fi capability to an iPad or some other tablet packed with navigation apps. The former is more costly, but the value of having a dedicated digital charting system, based in a durable, waterproof multifunction display (MFD), can’t be overstated.
Many manufacturers have recognized the rapid acceptance of smartphone technology and have decided to join the revolution rather than fight it. Raymarine was the first to jump on the bandwagon, developing a Wi-Fi link to its e7 MFD. Since then, Wi-Fi connectivity has spread throughout its product line. The company’s approach allows a smartphone or tablet to serve as both a data-input mechanism and as a remote repeater display that copies what’s on an MFD screen.
Navionics was another early player in the game of creating digital charting apps for smartphones and tablets. With a Navionics mobile app installed on a smartphone, you can plan a route for a weekend cruise or race and then input that data into Raymarine’s or Furuno’s built-in digital charting system as soon as you step aboard your boat. Once underway, your phone becomes a repeater that’s usable anywhere on the boat.
Most recently, Furuno’s new NavNet TZtouch took smartphone and tablet functionality a step further, offering hot-spot connectivity and download capability that allows access to all forecast information from the Ocean Prediction Center and National Hurricane Center. A smartphone can even be used to control what is displayed on the system’s touch screen.
There’s no question that tablet-based digital charting has grown by leaps and bounds, despite the equipment’s less-than-waterproof non-marine provenance. Some sailors have even linked their tablets to wireless routers in order to send navigation data to every member of the crew—or at least those with the right apps on their smartphones. Radar, sounder, wind, boatspeed and other data can now all be networked via NMEA 2000 and 0183 cabling to an iPad or some other tablet instead of to a traditional MFD.
Those taking this approach tout the cost savings, and there’s no question that an iPad’s GPS receiver is up to the task of accurately fixing a position on a digital chart. But there’s more at stake here than economy. For example, while tablet screens offer plenty of resolution, they are much harder to read in direct sunlight than a marinized MFD. Wearing polarized sunglasses will further exacerbate the problem. Also, when using tablets in warm weather many users have experienced unwanted shutdowns due to thermal overload—the electronic equivalent of having your entire chart library suddenly blown overboard.
Don’t forget that smartphones and tablets were never designed with the marine environment in mind. Even when using a waterproof iPhone or iPad case, relying on one of these devices as the mainstay of your electronic navigation system can be a gamble—especially when it becomes the hub of a digital network and puts all of your eggs in one not-so-waterproof basket.
Ultimately, the approaches taken by Raymarine and Furuno seem the most secure. These companies know that their tech-savvy customers are fond of their smartphones and have upgraded their product accordingly. The result is a flexible but still robust wireless system that provides the best of both worlds.
Photo by Tor Johnson