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Electronics

Early Adopter

Mark, Natalia, and Alexis Levey enjoying Camden, Maine, from the flying bridge of Alexis.

Capt. Mark Levey is my kind of guy. When he took ownership of a new Azimut 55 in early 2007, he immediately had the factory-installed electronics replaced with the just-introduced Simrad Glass Bridge 60 system. "Why learn an older technology?" he explained...or rationalized. In fact, I’d just covered the GB60 here ("Electronics," December 2006) and Levey’s install may have been the very first in the United States. In other words, he hadn’t waited for user reviews or the inevitable version 1.0 bug fixes; he simply liked what he saw in Simrad’s boat show booth and brochures and bought it. Levey is a classic "early adopter," the kind of technically astute and enthusiastic sort who’s willing to try interesting gadgetry the minute it’s available.

I feel qualified to brand Levey with this stereotype because I’m an early adopter, too. I’ve experienced the joy of finding great technology on my own, and also the agony of only imagining I had! And I know that folks like me are often able reviewers because we tend to try every aspect of a given product with a critical eye. Which probably explains why I’m into my eighth year writing this column and why I jumped at the chance to interview Levey aboard Alexis in August 2007. Unfortunately I came away wondering if the GB60 had been a good choice, even if it might put a damper on the Levey family cruising dreams.

At that point, Alexis’ GB60 was experiencing a system crash about every two hours of operation! That meant that as Levey and his wife Natalia drove up through Maine fog to the Kennebunkport marina where we met, they’d often lost chartplotting, radar, depth, cameras-the works-for long minutes at a time. Oh, they had a portable Garmin as a backup plotter and had learned to share navigation and lookout responsibilities well. But I thought, "Yikes, this is a lot of boat for two people to handle, especially with dicey electronics, and especially while also minding her namesake, their four-year-old daughter." As attractive as the GB60 had struck me-a do-it-all integrated system of Simrad-reliable hardware running Windows software based on Nobeltec know-how-maybe it was too much system adopted too early?

Alexis’ CCTV system includes a "napping-kid camera" and Flir nightvision.

But the Leveys were relaxed about the situation and even laughed as they told me how the system had failed completely earlier in the trip, and the odd way they’d fixed it. They were docked in Nantucket when they discovered that every time they powered up the GB60 it shut itself down a few minutes later. Mark, a successful software developer by trade, correctly deduced that an "init" file, just a temporary record of the latest user settings, was corrupted. The fix for this old-time Windows problem is to delete the file and start the software fresh. But ironically, the file system on the GB60 is locked away for better "reliability," and so the Leveys were stuck waiting for a Simrad technician to fly to the island. That is, until playful little Alexis accidentally hit the "secret" keyboard combination that provides installer access to the system. Mark completed the fix, called off the technician, and the family was on its way.

As much as I admired the Leveys’ spunk, I wondered if their patience with the system would hold up, and what I could write about its apparently unfinished state. My notes went forgotten for a year, when I was surprised and pleased to find Alexis tied up at my local public landing with three salty Leveys onboard. They’d already been cruising New England for almost two months, on top of many weeks in the Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic last winter. Their GB60 has had several software upgrades and is quite stable these days. Levey showed me one small remaining bug that he works around and remarked wryly, "I’m happy with the system, but it’s good that I’m technical." And during this visit we even had time to go through some of the entertainment system innovations he’s adopted, like the biggest iPod interface I’ve ever seen (which is detailed at my blog).

Levey uses a wireless mouse to build routes on his GB60, but sometimes it causes an unwanted dialog box to pop up.

At any rate, my worries about the Leveys and their flaky GB60 were unfounded; they were early but patient adopters of a system that’s now working pretty much as they had hoped. When it wasn’t, they didn’t get jangled, didn’t get into trouble, and didn’t lose sight of their goal. "We feel the happiest when we’re on the boat," Natalia told me last summer, and I felt the contentment there. I realized that I’d forgotten how important drive, intelligence, and good judgment are to this thing we do-and egads-how relatively unimportant electronics are to the big picture (though they are so much fun). And it was a particularly good time to be reminded. You see, some early adopters of this year’s latest and greatest integrated navigation system, Furuno’s NavNet3D that was featured in my August 2008 "Electronics," have been howling about various perceived shortcomings, and I think they’ve lost perspective.

So I bring up the GB60’s early instability not to turn you off on it or to embarrass Simrad, but as a reminder to my fellow early adopters that big new marine electronics systems like this-and Furuno’s, and Garmin’s, and Raymarine’s, etc.-almost invariably have birthing issues. If you want the latest and greatest, you better have the right disposition. Sharing criticism with each other and manufacturers is good for all, but going ballistic is generally good for no one. If you find yourself getting bent way out of shape about new electronics that don’t quite do what you thought they would, consider Mark Levey out in the fog enduring system crashes. Sure, he could have hassled the heck out of Simrad, but to what end? I think he’s having more fun planning this winter’s Alexis trip and/or trying one or more of the Bluetooth VHF and cell innovations detailed later in this section. When I pointed these out to him, I sensed some early adopter sparks.

Q&A: Electronics

Got a marine electronics question? E-mail PMYElectronics@powerandmotoryacht.com or visit the Electronics forum.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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