Category Archives: Computers and Data Exchange

Computers and Data Exchange Technologies

Article updated February, 2017.

Computers (PCs) and tablets:

By now, everyone is aware that “personal computers” come in desktop and laptop styles.  Some cruisers specifically equip their boat with a desktop computer which they reserve exclusively for use with boat-specific navigation software and boat-related-only use.  Preserving these “critical systems” at arms length from “the Internet” is perceived as a strategy to keep them safe from the reach of malware and other corruptions.  By far the majority of computers aboard cruising boats are laptops.   And, laptops used for everything from navigation to email to document and spreadsheet creation to social media to music to games.  One aspect of the choice of computer manufacturer/brand (Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony, Toshiba, etc) is the defacto choice of the Microsoft Windows operating system software and manufacturer-specific application package that come pre-installed on the computer.

For PCs, the two most common operating system alternatives are Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X.  I am not a Windows-basher or a Microsoft-hater.  Some years ago in my career I was a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE).  However, I do think Apple OS X is a superior software design.  Furthermore, I do not like Microsoft’s OEM support policies or their business practices.  It is true that Apple buyers pay a “premium price” for Apple PC hardware.  That premium is generally more than offset by greater durability, longer service life and lower application software and support costs.

Emerging among today’s cruisers is the rapidly increasing use of tablet PCs (tablets), sometimes in-addition-to and sometimes in-place-of laptops.  The choice of tablet brand also involves a defacto choice of operating systems, including Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and recently, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platforms.

In the desktop/laptop world – for two key reasons – Microsoft has the predominant market share.  First, most adult PC users today learned to use PCs in their workplace.  In our generation, we remember rotary dial multi-party lines, plastic 45 rpm records and 8-track tape players.  We also remember a time before computers.  We got introduced to computers through our employment.  Second, for many years, the Windows platform was viewed as the up-and-coming platform by application developers.  As a consequence, Windows had a broad availability and selection of application program software.  Windows was “the only game in town.”  In the tablet world, Apple enjoys the market share advantage, again because of unmatched reliability and simplicity, and the widespread support of app developers on the iOS platform.

News Flash: people have strong preferences for computer platforms.

Aboard Sanctuary, I switched to Apple/Mac from Microsoft Windows in December, 2009, after a 30-year career working with the early evolution of PC software platforms like IBMDOS, MS-DOS, OS2 and MS-Windows platforms.  I had come to dislike Microsoft’s business and technical support practices, and will not be making future investments in Microsoft products.  I keep a Windows system (Vista Windows 10) at this time because I have four Windows-only applications (Coastal Explorer for navigation, WxWorx for tracking weather, Garmin utility for creating Garmin firmware updates, and Lotus Freelance which I use for creating electrical and plumbing diagrams).  Our Mac runs OS X Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8); OS X Maverick (OS X 10.9); OS X Yosemite (OS X 10.10); OS X el Capitan (OS X 10.11); OS X Sierra (OS X 10.12).  We use Parallels Desktop on the Mac to run the Windows system as a virtual guest operating system on the Mac platform.  I feel Apple’s OS X operating system has several very significant advantages over MS Windows:

  • OS X is rock solid,
  • OS X is NOT designed around a “Registry,” so there are no registry corruption or registry-aging technology or performance issues,
  • uninstalling old or unneeded software is easy,
  • while likely to change, at this time there is relative freedom from malware designed to targets the operating system,
  • there are excellent, free antivirus solutions for OS X,
  • OS X connects to new, previously unknown wi-fi networks seamlessly and reliably with little to no dependence upon human intervention,
  • most application software for Apple OS X is very much less expensive than Windows software, or actually free,
  • operating system software maintenance is a major time and bandwidth consumer, but far easier on OS X than on Windows,
  • data backup and recovery using Apple’s “Time Machine” utility is easy and efficient,
  • if Apple’s “Time Machine” is used to back up a Mac computer, restoring an entire user-id to another computer is simple and automated using Apple’s “Migration Assistant” utility, and
  • If a Mac user should ever need help or technical support, s/he calls Apple and Apple will help.  There is none of the queue-bouncing and finger pointing between Microsoft, the hardware manufacturer, and the application software provider.
  • In OS X, there is no “Device Manager,” no “Add/Remove Programs,” and no “Device Drivers;”  Mac owners spend a lot less time poking around in the Operating System, because in OS X, “stuff just works.”
  • I find Apple’s website knowledgebase harder to use than Microsoft’s.  But then, I’ve only needed it once<;strike> a couple of times in all the time I’ve been using a Mac.
  • For those with an iPad, OS X fully integrates with it, iTunes provides a file system technology for selected iPad apps, and OS X backs up the iPad via iTunes.

Our first tablet PC was Android-based Galaxy 10.1.  After about 8 months of use, the display failed.  We then changed to an Apple iPad.  Frankly, the Android was a technologically superior operating system platform.  The undeniable reality is, however, that the preponderance of app development has historically been focused on Apple iOS devices.  I’m more interested in the overall usability of the tablet platform than I am in the elegance of the operating system design.  Platform usability is dependent on app functionality and availability, so I gave up and switched.  That’s the same thing that happened years ago when I switched from IBM’s OS2 to Windows.  OS2 was demonstrably superior; Windows was more popular.  IBM didn’t get it, and lost the PC leadership game, big time.  Some lessons just have to be learned more than once, I guess.

Laptop Batteries and Power Packs:

Laptop batteries and power bricks have – in the past – been associated with some fires.  The term “Lithium Ion” is inclusive of several different battery chemistries, including Lithium Cobalt Oxide, Lithium Manganese Oxide, Lithium Iron Phosphate.  Manufacturers of batteries for miniature and hand-held electronics say that fire issues involving Lithium  batteries are now resolved.  The anecdotal power brick stories almost always involve the brick being enclosed in a pile of clothing or knitting, where it has been subject to severe overheating.  Always fully unwrap the cord from around the power brick and make sure the brick is well ventilated!  Leave it fully exposed in the open air.  DO NOT drop your sweater or loungers on top of it.  Laptops are not the only devices these days that have power bricks!  Treat all bricks with respect.

A charged laptop battery should not be overly warm to the touch.  A charging/discharging battery may become quite warm.  Most laptop heat actually comes from the processor chip.  Some manufacturers to a better job of cooling the processor chips than others.  My Macbook Pro gets just slightly above room temp, but it has an aluminum case that acts as a super large heat sink.  IBM/Lenovo units with titanium cases do pretty well, too.  Plastic cases, well, not so well; my Toshiba laptop gets quite warm.  “Ya gets what ya pays for.”  (Note: the preceding brand-specific statements were true at the time of writing [2012-13].  They may no longer be accurate.  Do your own due diligence.)

There is a small cooling fan on the processor chip heat sink of most laptops.  If the laptop seems to be getting hotter than it once did, check to make sure that fan is still spinning.  The fans do gunk up.  They hate cat dander, puppy shed and other airborne dust.  When they do stop turning, the computer may generate error messages or start shutting itself off at miscellaneous time intervals, usually annoying to the owners.  That’s a symptom that it’s time to check the internal cooling fan.

Using a Tablet to Remotely Control a PC:

Physical space on Sanctuary’s flybridge is very limited.  Mounting our 13″ laptop and keeping it safe from environmental hazards was never something for which I could design a satisfactory solution.  But there is a way to have all of the software functionality of the laptop on the flybridge while at that same time keeping the laptop safely tucked away, below, secure and protected from rough seas, wet weather and bright sunlight.  I use Wyse PocketCloud (http://www.wyse.com/products/software/mobility/PocketCloud) to remotely control my laptop PC from my iPad tablet.   What I see on the tablet screen is the actual laptop’s screen.  PocketCloud gives me remote control of the laptop’s mouse so I can manipulate the laptop, remotely, from the tablet. Unfortunately, Wyse PocketCloud is no longer available. However, the same functionality I describe for PocketCloud is available with Parallels Access.

Our laptop hardware platform now runs OS X Sierra.  I have Parallels Desktop 12 virtualizing an aging Windows Vista guest system and a Windows 10 guest system.  Coastal Explorer runs on the Windows systems.  I use Wyse PocketCloud on a Virtual Network Computing (VNC protocol for native Mac OS X, RDP protocol for native Windows) connection between my tablet (iPad) and the PC.  PocketCloud is the Remote Control software.  PocketCloud has a Companion (client) app that runs on the tablet (Android and iPad) and server-type application software package that runs on the laptop.  The laptop and the tablet connect wirelessly through VNC via my VerizonWireless Mi-Fi broadband card.  Any on-board router will suffice.  It’s also possible to connect the tablet to the PC across an Internet connection via a Google account, so if you’re traveling for the day or for the weekend, you leave the PC at home, powered on, and connect through the Internet to remotely control the PC from the tablet.

Wyse provides software packages for Mac (OS X) PC platforms as well as native Windows (Vista, 7, 8) PC platforms.   Wyse also has companion apps for Android Tablets (Samsung Galaxy 10.1, etc.) and the iPad.  From either the Android or the iPad, I can run my laptop remotely.  The laptop stays nice and warm and dry in the Salon, and the tablet travels with me to the flybridge.  Maximum computing function, minimum computer infrastructure risk.

As I stated above, Parallels Access provides the capability to remotely control our PC from our iPad.  However, in the years since we implemented that solution, another application software development occurred which made the remote control capability unnecessary.  We adopted the use of a navigation app called SEAiq on our iPad.  For a product review of our SEAiq experience, see our article, here: SEAiq USA navigation app on an iPad (iOS7) platform.

We are extremely satisfied with SEAiq functionality and reliability.  SEAiq has developed native application packages for both Mac and Windows platforms.  SEAiq is rapidly overtaking Coastal Explorer for functionality and capability, and I feel I will be able to migrate to SEAiq as a replacement for Coastal Explorer in the near future.  When that happens, I will no longer need a Windows system, so will no longer need Parallels Desktop either.  That will reduce the resources I now commit to software support required by my current configuration.

Smart Phones, Internet Broadband Technology, wi-fi:

I’m not going to write about cell phone technology in this category, except to say it is something Great Loop cruisers must face.  Cell phone technology changes so rapidly that anything I write will be obsolete in 90-days.  I will, however, draw attention to three related issues.

First, I routinely see cruiser’s questions about hardware solutions that will extend wi-fi signal strength.  Where wi-fi is available, my MacBook Pro rarely has problems connecting to marina access points .  We used unassisted MacBook Pro wi-fi quite successfully in the Northern and Central Bahamas in 2009.  The reality is, finding open wi-fi these days is very difficult and getting more difficult all the time.  For boaters interested in wi-fi range extenders, I have an article on that topic, here: Computer Connectivity and Data Security.

Second, broadband cards based on cell systems are getting faster and more reliable all the time.  With their Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) technologies, they are far more secure than 802.11 b/g/n wi-fi protocols.  Broadband technology does not have the security issues that wi-fi has.  Our current 3G mi-fi card from VerizonWireless provides data coverage virtually everywhere we cruise.  In 2012, its usefulness pretty much faded away by the time we reached eastern Penobscot Bay and Mt. Desert Island, Maine, but at least one local cell provider does offer some data coverage “Down East.”   I can manage the bandwidth stressors of the operating system and application program updates that come my way.  The Admiral enjoys Facebook time, and I follow all of the boating lists and fora that I enjoy.  We may have a day or two on the inland rivers, the salt marshes of the southeast, or Down East Maine with poor coverage, but it’s never a problem; we have nothing that won’t wait a day or two…    Or a week or two, for that matter…  Up to now, we have stayed with 3G because we are on a grand fathered unlimited data plan that meets our needs.  We are looking at options for 4G.  Frankly, Walmat is looking very competitive in that market, with the major carrier networks as their data backbone and no requirement for long term contracts.  More to come on that.

Finally, US cell phone carriers do have reciprocity for cell phone use in Canada, but nothing is available for cell-based data plans.  It’s not an accident; it’s a public-policy business choice not to make it available.  As with cigarettes, wine, beer, and meat, Revenue Canada wants all the tax money they can raise.  And, there are real (or perceived) Homeland Security issues buried in this conversation, too.  Without a Canadian address and a Credit Card issued by a Canadian Bank, it is just plain difficult.  There are creative solutions available; every few months I see posts about people who’ve found ways around it.  But, these circumventions seem to change from year-to-year, and new ones emerge from year-to-year, so in the short term, each cruiser will have to work their way through that morass based on their own personal needs and their own personal tolerance for bureaucracy.

Forums, Internet Lists, Blogs, Social Media:

Forum, blog and Social Media activities are very, very time intensive.  They can be helpful, but can also waste a lot of time.  The value of information received is always subject to interpretation.  Be very selective in whatever you choose to do.  If you do it at all, do it for your personal enjoyment, and that of your family.  Don’t take posting on a daily basis as a personal obligation, because it will get in your way and create stress if you do.  If you really want to keep it simple, just keep a personal journal in text format.  I use Apache’s OPENOffice for Mac on my OS X system.  With OPENOffice, I create Word-compatible document files, Excel-compatible spread sheets and PowerPoint-compatible presentations.  OPENOffice is free, and it works just fine for us.

Navigation software:

All navigation software products – Windows and Mac – bring significant learning curves with them.  The more complex the product itself, the “steeper” the learning curve.  They all handle GPS devices and import/export function differently.  “Drop down lists” are all different.  “Right click” function does different things on different platforms.  Option settings/configuration is different.  Learning a new Navigation Program is analogous to learning a new Operating System or a new Office Suite.  The steps are:

  1. you first must know what you want to do.  This is not an easy task in its own right for a beginner/novice navigation software user.
  2. you have to know a function/capability is actually implemented in the nav package
  3. you have to locate where the developer put the access to the function you want
  4. you have to do this repetitively until you get all the little details committed to memory
  5. you generally have to do this twice: once for planning mode and again for on-water navigation mode

The half-life of my aging memory, including inevitable distractions, is short, which makes the above process challenging.

For navigation software, I like and use Rose Point Navigation System’s Coastal ExplorerCE is the reason I still have any Windows operating system software at all.  I do also use a windows-based satellite weather system called WxWorx-on-the-Water for tracking weather in real-time.  When a native Mac application comes along that can provide Coastal Explorer’s level-of-functionality, I will sacrifice WxWorx, and quit CE and Windows for good.

I use Coastal Explorer primarily as a planning tool to create, perfect and archive my inventory of route files.  I save route files in .gpx format.  I transfer my routes to my Garmin GPSmap® 547 chart plotter, from which we drive our autopilot.  To transfer the routes saved from CE to the Garmin chart plotter, I use Garmin’s HomePort™ application software.  I need HomePort™ to create the Garmin proprietary files needed by the chart plotter.  Once loaded to the chart plotter, I can use the wi-fi functionality built into the GPSmap® 547 to transfer routes to my iPad, on which I run Garmin BlueChart® Mobile.

Rose Point (Windows-only) recently announced that Coastal Explorer now has the capability to drive an autopilot via their new USB-to-N2K hardware adapter.  Unfortunately, CE does not support Garmin’s proprietary interface, so there are several data interfacing restrictions/limitations when working with Garmin chart plotters and autopilots.  The problem here seems to be Garmin’s business strategy to maintain proprietary data transfer protocols as a means of forcing customers to buy Garmin-branded boxes.  I share Rose Point’s frustration with that business strategy, and I believe Rose Point is truthful in saying they have tried to get Garmin’s cooperation but have been unsuccessful.  Rose Point’s USB-to-N2K adapter is quite a lot more expensive than the Actisense USB-to-N2K adapter, which CE does support.

I use Coastal Explorer on my Windows system to convert tracks to routes, and have several years of experience with the product.  I also have a considerable inventory of routes in CE.  If tracks are converted to routes with CECE will name each new route’s waypoints with sequential numbers.  For example, if 30 tracks are converted to routes in CE, each of the routes in the resulting collection will have a waypoint named “001,” each will have a waypoint named “002,” and each will have a waypoint named “003.”  When all 30 tracks are converted to routes, the route library will have 30 waypoints named “001,” 30 waypoints named “002,” 30 waypoints named “003,” etc.  Garmin HomePort doesn’t care about the waypoint names, but unfortunately, MacENC does.  To use those routes in MacENC, all of those name fields have to be cleared.  I’ve not found way in CE to clear multiple waypoint names at one time; they must be cleared one-at-a-time.  That process is very tedious on routes with a large number of waypoints.

I have tested MacENC on my Mac, but at $180, find it not ready for prime time.  The most severe limitation of MacENC™ is the requirement for unique waypoint names.  This requirement creates a huge problem for cruisers with a large inventory of routes.  If several routes do have waypoints with names that are shared in common, MacENC™ will interconnect the routes into an unusable and meaningless jumble of lines.  When importing routes, both MacENC™ and Garmin’s HomePort™ will assign numerical name values to waypoints with null name fields.  CE does not care if waypoints are named or not.   This alone makes migrating to MacENC™ tedious and very time-consuming, and rather impractical.

In MacENC, I have found connecting and managing the GPS to be confusing and cumbersome.  I play with it for some time, and all of a sudden it starts working, and I have not idea what I did to get it to work.  MacENC™ is apparently a one-man-show, and tech support is difficult.  I feel MacENC™ is not as robust or usable as competing Mac and Windows-based navigation products, but it does have one plus.  The good news is, MacENC™ claims it will drive NMEA2000 network attached Autopilots – like Garmin’s – via a USB-to-N2K adapter.  The bad news is, I have not gotten far enough with MacENC’s™ quirky route manager to actually try this out.

Garmin chart plotters will allow users to offload the charts loaded into them to a proprietary file.  On the Mac, those charts can be imported into Garmin HomePort™, a very handy feature.   Garmin does all this with proprietary file formats, which is extremely annoying, but it does work.  HomePort™ Is only $30, but it still has some usability needs, so great for planning at home, but not so great for on-water navigation.

As of July, 2013, none of the native OS X navigation products offer the functionality of Coastal Explorer.

Data Backup:  Regardless of where you save data or how you save data, it is absolutely essential to provide a means by which your data gets backed up.  Because we are Mac users, we regularly use Apple OS X built-in “Time Machine” facility to back up our data.  I have successfully used Apple’s “Migration Assistant” and a Time Machine backup to completely restore an entire MacBook Pro.  I do not recommend online (Cloud) backup technologies for cruisers.  The problems is, of course, that you will periodically experience slow, error re-transmission prone connectivity.  During those periods, backup and/or recovery activity will be greatly prolonged or impossible.  Now you know, this will only happen at the very worst time!  If you need to keep Cloud-based backups, then I strongly suggest you also make hardcopy local backups in addition.

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