PC Onboard?

Electronics — March 2005
By Ben Ellison

PC Onboard?
The ever-dwindling differences between marine computers and embedded electronics.

 More of this Feature

• Part 1: PC Onboard?
• Part 2: PC Onboard?
• Electronics Q&A
• Northstar
• VEI-Systems
• Nobeltec
• Nauticomp

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• Electronics Column Index
• Electronics Feature Index

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• Big Bay Technologies
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• Nobeltec
• Northstar
• VEI Systems

It was a few Miami boat shows back, and I was using the peaceful hour before the gates officially opened to nose around the in-water exhibit area. As I’d hoped, I was soon sitting at the helm of a fine yacht, checking out the electronics and enjoying a relaxed conversation with a company principal. By and by this forward-thinking gentleman declared himself to be quite the fan of PC charting programs, though chagrined that his own electronics guys were a bit inept at maintaining and upgrading his personal boat’s computer. At this point another fellow, who coincidentally turned out to be the service manager for this substantial builder, popped his head up from down below and delivered a passionate harangue about the unreliable nature of marine computers. “But, isn’t this a computer?” said I, pointing at the yacht’s Northstar 962, which had actually just shown a fleeting Windows splash screen as it powered up. “Absolutely not!” he said, absolutely wrong.

I’m being somewhat unfair; even today, Northstar doesn’t market the 962 as a marine computer—in part, I suspect, because of still commonly held negative feelings about the breed—and it surely doesn’t “look” like a computer. The button controls and bright screen of the 962’s waterproof “control head” casing are easily mistaken for a dedicated chartplotter; there’s no mouse or keyboard cluttering the helm. But behind the scenes, interpreting those button pushes and driving that display, is a separate processing unit containing a conventional Intel chip set, a hard drive, and various standard I/O plugs, and the whole operation is managed with the Windows operating system (OS), albeit mostly hidden from view. Northstar had to use this architecture to achieve the 962’s primary feature: the display of raster charts that are like digital photographs of the paper charts so familiar to its users. Raster charts are huge files, and it would have been prohibitively expensive to engineer a box from scratch to handle them, especially back in 1999 when the original 961 was introduced.

In fact, there’s still no such animal as an “embedded” raster chartplotter, embedded meaning that all the navigation and operating software is custom-designed right into the device. However, the differences between embedded and PC navigation have moved from black and white to many shades of gray since 1999. Northstar’s 960 family was a highly innovative “gray area” design in its time—actually it’s still a beloved tool on many a bridge—and a look back at it is useful for understanding what’s going on today as well as what the company is up to with its new 972.

An old saw I’m fond of defines a gentleman as a fellow who can play the bagpipes—but doesn’t. Well, one definition of a nicely mannered navigation computer is a machine that could run Word or Internet Explorer or whatever—but won’t. An industrious hacker could probably get even an old 961 to run PC games, but Northstar never intended such use; its designers locked up the OS—that momentary boot screen is the only sign of it you’ll see—and devoted the PC power to the job at hand. The same is true of Maptech’s i3, the marine computer also known as the Sea Ray Navigator, and the new Waypoint, not to mention the big ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System) boxes on ship bridges. PCs that only run the software loaded by their manufacturer are much less likely to crash or slow down over time.

You could argue that this characteristic—Northstar calls it purpose built—is a limitation; you can’t, for instance, just plug one of XM’s or WSI’s cool satellite marine weather receivers (see “New Times Two,” August 2004) into a 962 and load the companion software. But it’s hard to argue with success. I regularly run into boaters, often seasoned types, who simply love their 962, even if it’s a bit slow compared to today’s PCs and embedded plotters. Kevin Rickets, Northstar’s director of engineering and an enthusiastic fisherman, has a relevant anecdote. Apparently there’s a hot spot north of Cape Cod Bay traditionally known as “between the Ls” because it happens to lie betwixt the two Ls in the label “Stellwagen Bank” on the paper chart of the area. The NOAA cartographer who placed those words there years ago never intended to mark a precise spot, but an oldtime fisherman who can bring up that exact image on his 962 and drop a waypoint “between the Ls”—with just a button push, Windows be damned—is apt to be a happy guy.

Next page > Part 2: All these specialized marine computers suffer from high prices. > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

This article originally appeared in the February 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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