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Onboard Computers

Computer Generation

If you feel your helm electronics should do more, maybe it’s time to bring a PC aboard.

As today’s multifunction displays grow more powerful, they handle their respective tasks with relative ease: Charts redraw in the blink of an eye. Split screens share data from four different sources in the proportion you want. Radar shows targets that are miles away, and tracks them. Compared to how helm electronics used to be, the new units just seem so capable. If only we could get them to do more.

Computerized Helm Photo Courtesy of IMS American

Actually, it’s their singular focus that makes those electronics so good at what they do. They’re stable, reliable platforms that provide a specific function. What we give up in many cases is flexibility and expandability, and most of the time we’re fine with that. But are we missing something? 

“Whether it’s in a software program that may be different from TimeZero Trident, which is just like what Furuno runs in the NavNet 3D,” says Tom Isaacson, cofounder and owner of Big Bay Technologies ( “When you look at the Garmins and the Furunos and Raymarine and on and on, they’re great products, but they’re solely focused on that one concept, where we don’t limit the customer. You may say ‘I want to try this new Rose Point Navigation software,’ or ‘I want to try this Active Captain,’ or any number of different software products.” Big Bay makes computers and displays that are built to be installed on boats, and offers turnkey solutions including a CPU, marine-grade monitor, AIS, GPS, a mouse, plus software and charts for $4,500. And Isaacson has been around to see the evolution of the species.

Need to Know

Computers Onboard: Expert electronics installer Dave Laska of L&L Electronics gives his take on onboard PCs.

“We view PCs as an addition to the system instead of a replacement. There’s a lot of different things that you can do with a PC that you can’t do with dedicated equipment. I’m not a fan of having the entire boat wired just to a PC. On the commercial side it’s not allowed by the code either, so we follow the code on the commercial side back to the recreational side.”


“PCs are still very popular but the trend more on the smaller boats is the option of bringing your iPad aboard and using that to bring information across—that’s a nice feature.”


“Trying to bring your laptop back and forth and bringing viruses with you and dragging it off the boat and changing exchanges every time you plug in the device—that’s a problem. A dedicated PC installed properly with surge protection and a little forethought is nice—you can get some different-style charting out of it that you can’t get on some of the built-in machines and if you’re doing some long-range cruising it’s nice to have a second or third opinion onboard.”


“Back in 1995, it was a CRT monitor on a massive stainless steel bracket and a great big ol’ tower that was running a 186 processor,” he says. “Today we’ve got multitouch all-in-ones, and a lot of the adaptation that you see in the industry that’s done, from these simple little plotters to Furuno’s state-of-the-art premier product—they’re all computers.” What Isaacson means is that the capabilities are in the hardware, but the programs they’re running don’t allow the user to make the most of that computing power.

Computers of course have gotten smaller today and the vibration control is more effective as boats have improved. Does it make sense for you to consider a PC system?

“Right now there’s a big push starting at 45-foot boats,” says Keith Cariani, sales manager at KEP Marine (, a supplier of marine PCs and monitors. “That’s where you start to see more and more black-box systems, and they bring in a separate navigation computer.” So the system still has that dedicated machine for navigation.

“We’re seeing customers go to more sleek-looking bridges,” Cariani says. “We’ve seen lots of glass-bridge installations with fewer controls on the components.” Computers are ideal for that application because they run multiple programs and easily switch between them. KEP Marine’s KEPM-PC starts at $2,795.

And the software is keeping pace with what the hardware companies are doing. “The software companies are coming out with new products that move them from single touch to dual touch,” Cariani says. “By running a Microsoft Windows 7 platform, now you have dual-touch capability.” Dual touch—which allows zooming in and out by pinching fingertips or spreading them apart on the screen—means a greater range of control and also one that’s more intuitive for many users now.

So with all these capabilities, what does today’s PC setup look like? Of course it depends on what you want it to do. The simplest system is a PC dedicated to navigation.

“For navigation hardware, give the size of the unit careful consideration because there’s usually limited space to be able to put the computers,” Cariani says. “In many cases it needs to be a DC computer, and you want variable voltage, which is a nice feature because just like any office computer, if you turn the computer off and on freqently, that’s when you’re going to experience problems because that’s going to affect your hard drive.”

Buyers should also look at vibration control and heat management for any onboard installation. “And you usually need additional serial ports to manage the data flow in and out of the computer that you’re going to be receiving from all the devices, your autopilot, your AIS, and your weather programs,” Cariani continues. “Most of the programs need a better video card because the graphics are going to require it. You want a fast processor. You want enough storage, to be able to handle all the charts.”

Navigating by PC is not for everyone. “To get the most out of a PC system, it needs to be the fifth monitor where you walk up and stand in front of it,” says Dave Laska of L&L Electronics, a dealer and installer in Branford, Connecticut ( “You grab the mouse, do your plotting, get your information, and walk away from it.” Laska says too many features and functions could draw attention from other concerns. “Do you want to go on your boat or do you want to sit behind a keyboard all day long?” he says.

A dedicated PC can also be used to manage communications through a VSAT system, including e-mail. Another standalone PC can be programmed to handle vessel monitoring—best to let an installer handle that setup, start to finish. Still another PC could be employed managing onboard camera systems with ease.

“The camera systems have grown in the last two years,” Cariani says. “Yachts use it for security and monitoring. Want to go ashore for a long dinner? Click a button and have it go into security mode—the cameras go into motion activation and if someone breaches the camera range, a picture will get e-mailed quickly to the owner’s cell phone.”

Still other systems put multiple functions on one computer, “partitioning” the drive to isolate the navigation function. “One side of the drive is a dedicated system simply for navigation,” Isaacson says. “The second partition is where you manage your business, or you manage your photos, your personal e-mail, your web browser.” Partitioning the drive keeps the critical navigation section protected from problems with other programs.

“And that’s just what Furuno and all these manufacturers do,” Isaacson says. “They sort of shut their architecture down to run just their program.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.