By Ben Ellison
|Part 2: Online Manuals, Bulletin Boards, Newsgroups|
Hence, it's a good idea to get familiar with the Web sites for all of your boat's gear manufacturers. Bookmark them, and check in from time to time. Aside from upgrades, you may find other helpful material. Raymarine, for instance, recently added a series of instructional videos (courtesy boattest.com) that are quite useful if you have a fast Internet connection and the required media player. Several manufacturers have put all their product manuals on the Web, usually as downloadable portable document files (PDFs). To use them you may need to download and install Adobe's free Acrobat Reader, but you'll end up with a manual that looks exactly like the original printed version. This, of course, can be darn useful if you've lost the manual that came with your equipment. Less obviously, this can also be a good way to check out a product before purchase. Manuals, by their nature, are low on hype and high on product detail, and one that is well written and illustrated is evidence of a company that does things right.
Another effective--though thus far rare--method of customer support is the product-specific online bulletin board. Here customers post questions about their electronics or software that are addressed by either by company representatives or other users. The beauty of this scheme is that questions usually get answered even if the tech support folks are busy, and the discussions ("threads") stay available for anyone to peruse. If you go to such a bulletin board with a problem, you are apt to find information about it already posted and likely to learn about aspects of the product you weren't even aware of. Hosting such a board takes a certain amount of corporate moxie, as it creates a public place where your customers can gather and gripe. Hats off, then, to Nobeltec and Maptech, the two marine software companies I know of who have such forums as part of their Web presence.
If you spend a little time on one of these bulletin boards, you'll soon realize that certain participants are true enthusiasts. Typically they have strong technology backgrounds, are "early adopters," and take pleasure in using their marine electronics and software to the max. Many spend a lot of time online and--most important--are willing to help the less experienced. Some enthusiasts even have their own Web sites. A moderately well-known one--and I say moderately because these are not the sort of sites that advertise--is Joe Mehaffey and Jack Yeazel's GPS information Web site joe.mehaffey.com. These two gentlemen, both retired engineers, have been testing and writing about GPSs for years, just for the hell of it, and their site contains massive amounts of information, like careful comparisons of the various charts and maps available for handhelds.
The mother lode, however, of free and informed electronics advice exists on a part of the Internet that's actually separate from the Web and somewhat mysterious to many. I'm referring to newsgroups, or the Usenet, a system designed to facilitate the discussion of any and all subjects. There are thousands and thousands of topic groups arranged in a hierarchy, some moderated by volunteers, others wild and crazy free-for-alls. The various groups under rec.boats are quite civilized, with junk posts about "hair growth hormones" and worse a rarity. At rec.boats.electronics, someone might ask about how to track down radio interference or which radar to buy for a certain boat and receive a lot of intelligent feedback (and a little bull).
An easy way to see what newsgroups are about is via the search engine google.com, where you can click on "Groups" to search and view a huge Usenet archive. To fully participate in newsgroups, you'll need to set up one of the "newsreader" modules that come with both Internet Explorer and Netscape.
You may have to suffer a few downloads to get to all this info--the phrase "no pain, no gain" comes to mind--but winter is nearly upon us. The time is right to hone your Internet navigation with an eye to next year's boating season.
This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.