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Electronics

'Lectronics Lab

Most people, including my wife, call it a "basement," but I prefer to think of the area beneath our Maine home as a multifunctional work area, and a nice hangout. The carpentry shop under the original building, once used to finish off—well, almost finish—the floors above, even has south-facing windows, as the whole place is tucked into a hill. That topography also permitted a two-car garage under the addition, with a driveway extending in front of the shop creating an apron good for fair-weather boat work. But while my basement is altogether better than the word implies, the setup is still fairly ordinary for a rural do-it-yourselfer. Except, that is, for the presence of what I dub the Marine Electronics Performance and Interface Testing Facility.

During the six years the author has been writing this column, his testing operation has become elaborate.

For short let's call it "the lab," as celebrated in the unretouched photo above, though I assure you it wasn't always so tidy-looking. When I wrote my first PMY electronics column for the August 2001 issue, I had no idea how deep into electronics I would slide. Thus, in the early years, when I wanted to power up some plotter or radio or whatever, I'd push aside the handyman projects in the shop and go at it. You can guess how that evolved.

Soon I was collecting the specific tools and hardware needed to install electronics and asking some manufacturers for long-term gear loans so that once I'd tested them I could use them to test others. After all, a big issue with electronics these days is how well they work together. By and by my shop was blanketed with electronics miscellany, and tackling a domestic duty required an increasingly harder cleanup first. Even some boat projects suffered.

So what you're seeing in that photo is last winter's major lab makeover. The new electronics-only bench and the table/storage modules are all on wheels so I can roll them aside for other work or move the whole kit into the garage during the summer, even outdoors to compare screens in direct sunlight. Now look at the photo below to see what's packed into that bench. Gone is my funky power system—car batteries and cigarette lighter plugs—replaced by a heavy-duty 12-volt supply and crimped-on PowerPole connectors. I can even vary voltage to see how a device handles that common marine indignity.

The lab's versatile NMEA data system includes a multiplexer and a handheld GPS.

Below the power supply is the heart of the lab's NMEA 0183 data system. To the right is a powerful ShipModul 42BT multiplexer, able to accept GPS and other info from various sources, custom mix it, and send it out to other devices and/or a computer. It even has a Bluetooth wireless port, useful for feeding some PDA/phone software or a second laptop. Then there's the Garmin 45—my first GPS (sigh) and nearly antique at age 13—which is used in simulation mode as another position source. Farther back is the Airmar Weather Station Combiner, which along with its outdoor sensor can provide real GPS, wind, and heading data. And the laptop on the swing arm can run software that simulates a boatful of NMEA sensors or even a seaful of AIS targets.

The result? I can, for instance, fool the Uniden 625c and Icom M504 VHF radios into thinking they are elsewhere and then place DSC calls to/from a test radio or see how well an MFD wired to one of them plots such calls. With a little wiring and software twiddling, the Garmin 545s and 430sx currently being tested think not only that they're underway but that there are other boats around. And when I get my mitts on Garmin's new 4000/5000 series, the lab's network of Maretron NMEA 2000 sensors, partially seen behind the E-120, will also get a workout. And, hey, I did draw a data schematic, even put a Dymo labelmaker to work, just as we hope the pro installers do.

Pro lights and a soft box will mean more informative photos.

Of course there's much more than NMEA data zipping around a typical boat. I can't really test radar or sonar in the lab, but an old copper water tank outside, now topless, can at least wet a transducer. It's also useful as a simulated bilge. And that DVD player in the bench is handy for checking an MFD's ability to display video, while the stereo mostly hidden behind is useful for, say, trying the 545's XM audio option, not to mention lab ambience. Shown at right is the facility's latest acquisition, a proper product photography setup. For years now I've taken my own shots, trying to illustrate what's real and important about a given gadget. Now I'm going for pictures that also look good and please magazine designers. And, given that I blog about electronics almost every day, some of these pictures go from lab to Web in mere hours. That's how far I've slid.

At any rate, at least now you know how that E-120 screen image on PMY's "Stern Shot" page seems to move around the world every month and where it actually is! Of course the lab's real purpose is to let me focus on a new product without also having to mind an actual boat in motion. But the lab is not the only way I test. While I have enough man-years of underway time to just know, for instance, when a knob's so small it's going to be annoying in a seaway, getting gear out on the water can't be beat. That's why you see test machines mounted on boards that can easily go aboard my skiff Gizmo, which often sits trailered outside (and which just got a Garmin transom transducer). And when I do get aboard a bigger boat, my bag tends to clunk with electronics—i.e. the upcoming satphone comparison I am planning.

In fact, by this point you might well be thinking to yourself that what this guy needs is a cruising boat with a flying bridge for testing multistation systems, not to mention helms, antenna arches, and wire runs all designed for easy installation of revolving new gear. And shouldn't it be able enough to stay in good testing weather even when it's winter in Maine? Let's just say that the idea has crossed my mind. But I have a few house projects to finish first.

This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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