ELECTRONICS - Virtual reality
Touchscreen tablets help sailors on the dock and at sea. KEVIN GREEN reports on the latest laptops, slates and apps to take you places other than the virtual world…
Growth in tablet computers is staggering, with nearly all major PC manufacturers and Apple releasing models for general use, as specialist builders continue to innovate with ruggedised models ideal for boating. But, interestingly, the tablet is an old invention that came and went several years ago without much fanfare. So what happened this time around?
Well, the iPad arrived and it has created a whole new platform for running applications, while the new iPad2 has kept competitors feverishly chasing Apple as both hardware and software companies realise they can sell lots of product on this new touchscreen platform. For marine use, 10in and 12in screens allow high-resolution charting, passage planning, weather routing and a myriad of other nautical applications.
Of course, cynics have said that the tablet PC is a solution looking for a problem, but you’ll have to make your own mind up on that based on what you use it for: reading the Sydney Morning Herald or viewing routing software for your world cruise. It’s in the later guise that tablets are gaining a toehold.
CHOOSING A TABLET
The tablet market can be split into three main categories: general consumer tablets, ruggedised, and others, with prices rising in that order. But before considering the hardware its worth understanding the main differences between the many tablets currently out there — the main one is the operating system.
The heart of any computer is the operating system, which dictates what software you can run. The tablet market is currently divided up into Apple, Android, Windows, and others. Apple’s iPad accounted for about 80 per cent of the 2010 market, while Android products are steadily emerging with Navionics charts, marine weather and compass apps. That said, marine solutions remain limited.
Microsoft Windows has a long history in tablets and continues to be used by many nautical hardware manufacturers such as Panasonic, ComNav and a raft of other builders of ruggedised systems so there’s plenty of software. A major difference between them is that Windows and its Android competitors are open systems with generally unlimited development constraints, unlike Apple.
So it’s by no means plane sailing with the iPad as there are quite a few limitations. The main one is the proprietary environment with applications only available from the Apple Store, but that hasn’t prevented thousands being developed.
Another limitation is connectivity as there is none apart from wireless, and it’s also choosy about its Bluetooth hook-ups as well. The other big minus is that GPS is only fitted to the 3G models, so the Wi-Fi versions would require an Apple approved hardware plug-in from companies that include Bad Elf and Dual XGPS 150, both costing around $100.
But for millions of users the pluses have far outweighed the minuses and there are plenty of marine apps to download.
Screens on tablet computers can often outshine an average chartplotter so are ideal for downloading strong visual data such as weather information in GRIB files (check out www.weathertrack.com for global GRIBs). Typical GRIB files give layered data with wind speed, barometric pressure, precipitation, temperature and even wave heights. Scrolling over a touchscreen and drilling down into data is an ideal use for tablets and you can be lying in your bunk while browsing.
Charting is the major use with companies including Imray, Navionics, Memory Map and others now supplying special versions for some tablets. For example, Australian Navionics HD charts cost $169 for the iPad.
Passage planning is another good tablet application. PC-based software, such as Navionics NavPlanner ($297) and Digiwave, allows sailors to create waypoints and routes on a tablet PC and then transfer to chartplotter (and Navionics charts in the case of Navplanner).
A major player in the PC area is MaxSea, a high-end product with charting and passage planning incorporating rich graphics. The high screen resolution on the tablets allows full advantage of 3D charting, for instance. Other popular apps include AIS, anchor watch, and race software.
Raceboats often have a tablet PC for the navigator, typified by leading software B&G Deckman V8, which runs on a tablet. Competitor Expedition Software can work in a similar way. Both these packages use Windows exclusively.
Electronics books and almanacs are one of the major reasons for many consumers buying a tablet, with dedicated products such as Kindle pioneering the market that the iPad and others now have enhanced with rich displays of tidal data and other almanac information.
Controlling onboard systems is also increasingly the domain of tablets with many manufacturers building apps for electrics, tankage management, autopilot and even engine controls.
The tablet as a mobile office will suit many sailors who simply need to use email, type-up a Word document and browse the web. The iPad’s soft-touch keys make typing effortless and it can automatically synchronise your Word documents with your PC for keeping the business running while under sail.
Tablet PC’s come in two general forms, referred to as slate or convertible, the latter being a laptop with a swivelling screen as opposed to the screen-only slate. The responsiveness of the touchscreen and general ergonomics are major considerations but hybrid tablets can use both button and finger so give the user a bit more flexibility — handy when it comes to zooming on charts for instance.
For navigators, an inbuilt GPS would be important. In terms of data comms, linking with onboard systems might require an Ethernet port, Bluetooth or a USB connection. Wireless comes as standard but an SD card slot might be another consideration and a mobile broadband wireless connector allows web browsing on the move. For onboard use, offshore linking the tablet to wireless below decks system is common practice and this in turn may be linked to satellite phone connection.
Other important tablet features are ruggedness, weight and battery life. Looking at popular models, battery life can vary from only about three hours on a Dell Inspirion to 10 hours on the iPad2. The key factor here is storage hardware, with those using flash drives being miserly and those using traditional hard drives, battery guzzlers. Storage is a major limitation on the iPad with 64GB maximum, whereas windows PCs typically come with 100 to 500GB.
Finally, readability in direct light is an important feature for the on-deck navigator, so look out for a high NITS figure for the tablet screen.
Protecting standard tablets is a challenging task at sea, so essential accessories include a waterproof cover such as the tough Otterbox available for the iPad. Another useful item is a holder, such as the Talon/RAM mount that was showcased at this year’s Sydney International Boat Show, which is also worth the cash.
Similarly, a docking station for easy handling and inputting is worthwhile and you can mount the tablet to act like a PC for keyboard input with this gadget. For typists and us journalists, I favour Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard, which worked well with my iPad 2, with instantaneous reactions to my keystrokes.
Pretty much all the major PC manufacturers are building tablet PCs at the moment so the choice has never been wider. In the general consumer market, the iPad2 is king thanks to a combination of functional design and unrivalled applications. It comes in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB varieties with both 3G and Wi-Fi models, and the entry level model sells for $579.
Google’s Android operating system has spawned a whole raft of hardware manufacturers to go with it and these include the Samsung Galaxy Tab, said to be one of the biggest competitors to the iPad, with millions of sales globally.
Other strong contenders include the Motorola XOOM, which uses the very latest Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system to ensure apps run speedily. Another proven manufacturer is Asus, who pioneered the net PC category, and now is selling the new EEE Pad Transformer for around $499.
Pedigreed laptop builder Toshiba is just entering the market with its Thrive Android (Honeycomb v3.1) model, selling for $429. It boasts a HDMI video, 5MP camera, 10.1in screen and GPS. It looks a useful tool for navigators, with
inbuilt gyroscope, accelerometer, e-compass and GPS. Unusually, it also has a replaceable battery so it’s ideal for remote users to recharge with a spare.
Elsewhere, both Dell and Lenovo have Windows and Android tablets, with Lenovo claiming a whopping 18 hours battery life for its convertible X220 Tablet. Dell and HP also list GPS support in their tablets.
If your budget is around the $2000 mark and above, the ruggedised tablet market should be examined. These tablets are generally double the price and weight of their standard brethren but built to much more exacting standards, often to military specification for some of the niche US manufacturers that include Xploretech (xplore model) and General Dynamics who make the Itronix model. Also, Comnav’s CT10 and CT12 are tough-looking tablets and distributed here in Australia.
A big favourite with yachties is Panasonic’s Toughbook range, so the upcoming Android Toughbook Tablet could be worth waiting for when it launches in the summer. Early information indicates that it comes with integrated GPS, 3G and a healthy eight hours of battery life. It will join the existing Windows CF-19 Toughbook convertible tablet, which is a proven performer with an LCD screen that’s protected by a scratch-resistant magnesium alloy case. Its hard drive is enclosed in a shock-absorbing damper and the CF-19 is waterproofed to IP65 standard.
The bottom line is that tablet PC is undoubtedly here to stay this time around and for us boaters it can increase our enjoyment of being on the briny, even if it’s not strictly essential.
TOP 10 TABLET CONSIDERATIONS
3G or only wireless
Your software requirements
Choice of operating system
Basic or rugged system
1). Tablet PCs allow fast information processing for deck crew and is especially essential for top race navigators.
2). Weatherproof and shockproof your iPad with a tough Otter Box.
3). The ubiquitous iPad2 can go anywhere but daylight viewing (even with full backlight) can be a challenge.
4). Weathertrack is a purpose-made global weather application for the iPad.
5). This RAM mount makes the iPad2 a stand-in chartplotter.
6). High-end charting and planning software such as Maxsea can display well on the high-resolution tablet screens.
7). The basic iPad2 requires a GPS dongle like this one from Bad Elf to make it a useful charting tool. It sells for around $100.
The new Toshiba Thrive Android comes with GPS and electronic compass so a useful tool for charting.
9). The Panasonic Toughbook Android tablet will launch during our summer and has inbuilt GPS, making it an excellent mobile chartplotter.
10). Motorola’s Xoom is the latest Android-powered system and has had good reviews.
11). Securing the iPad2 can be done safely with the new Tallon-RAM mount, as seen at the Sydney International Boat Show.
12). Tallon’s external power source is a handy way to keep your tablet powered on deck.
13). This Panasonic Toughbook uses wireless to link to all the boat’s sensors via below-decks software.
14). The Itronix is the latest ruggedised tablet from General Dynamics.
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