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Old 19-12-2004, 09:51   #1
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Using a desktop computer aboard an offshore boat

I'm looking for comments from those of you who have switched to desktop computer systems onboard your cruising boats, and from those of you who are actively investigating this issue.

I can see some real benefits to such a switch, including easily replaced, low cost peripherals (e.g. keyboards and screens seem to have short lifespans in laptops), the lower cost of the computer itself (for comparable capabilities), and the freeing up of chart table space for other chores - it seems like the chart table is inevitably where the laptop has to live. So...some inviting reasons to move in this direction.

But as is so often the case in cruising and with boats, the devil is in the details. At the least, the issues that concern me - and that I'd welcome ANY first-hand comment on, based on your own experience - are the following:
1. Boats at sea often live in a salt-laden sea fog environment, especially when conditions are active and/or temps are warmer and the finite amount of moisture (along with its contaminants) that air can hold increases. But desktop units are constantly force-ventilated (unlike laptops which disperse a lot of their heat build-up by contact transfer and only run their fans occasionally). So we've got a bigger volume of salt-laden air bombarding the components of a computer; what do we do about it? Spraying the boards (with what?), connectors etc. is a partial solution, I assume...but it doesn't address CD/DVD drives, fan motors and such.
2. A suitable 'home' for the computer has to satisfy many requirements. My list includes access to ports & trays, relatively decent ventilation, protection from moisture (to include crew stumbling below in their foulies to use the chart table), and shock-protection & restraint. What am I missing? And what have others done to address these?
3. Finally - inevitably! - there is the issue of electrical demand. Laptops by their battery-powered nature are designed to work on little power. Choosing a relatively low-power CPU chip for the desktop is one option, but can others speak to the real-world DC overhead that a desktop unit imposes on the boat? For a 'basic' system (one that does charting, SSB email, Office and similar tasks; not gaming or serving as the boat's entertainment center), can anyone speak to the relative increase in DC power consumption that it would seem reasonable to expect?

I'm hoping that some of you cruising sailors can share some real-world realities on this topic with us. Thanks!

Jack
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Old 19-12-2004, 10:43   #2
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I have the laptop as the planning tool, weatherfax tool, and as a back-up only for chart plotter. The chart plotter runs 24/7, the laptop a lot less. Thus power consumption is optimised, It also means that the laptop can be stowed more securely and in a drier environment (although interior of my boat remains very dry - otherwise the carpets would get wet!)
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Old 19-12-2004, 13:17   #3
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From a "techie"

Hi Jack,

Here is a little bit of advice from a "techie" who bought his first computer in 1979 and has been in the industry his entire career:

I would not overlook the benefits of a laptop in areas such as power consumption and also reliability of the display. While I agree that keyboards and drives certainly do end up deteriorating, an investment in a laptop, with the right protection, should not break down until such a time as you are ready to upgrade anyway.

After carefully weighing the options before a 6 months liveaboard on my old boat, here's what I ended up doing:

1) Bought a laptop for conveninces such as size, power consumption, and portability.

2) Bought a waterproof, air-tight case from http://www.fuertecases.com. The thing is amazing! I could drop it in the water with my laptop in it, and have no trouble. They even float.

Before I had this case, my old laptops used to go on the fritz after only a couple weeks of crusing (granted I was crusing in Maine, the fog capital of the world.... ha ha ha).

I also went ahead this time and purchased an extra bit of protection on my laptop, which happens to be a Mac. I got something called AppleCare which covers "random" problems with your hardware. They don't know your computer lives on a boat, and if it stops working due to condensation and corrosion, they are not likely to tell you to take a hike. They will fix it, paying for shipping, even on an international basis.

That said, I have had the computer I'm writing this from on boats for a total of 3 out of its 7 months of life without any difficulty. I owe it all to that waterproof, airtight case I bought.

Basically, you want to use the computer only in DRY conditions, as even humidity will start affecting it, regardless of salt, which only makes matters worse. Try to use it only when your cabin is dried by AC or by heaters in the winter. Make sure when you put the computer away in its airtight case, it has dry air in the case as well. Closing in fog/humidity for a week or two would be worse than leaving it outside the case.

I hope this isn't too long, but I do have one more idea I was toying with, when I was thinking about having a desktop computer aboard: Building a special housing for it.

With a lot more effort than just buying the laptop case, you could also build a spot on the boat that is cooled (and more importantly dried) by the AC by running a hose from the AC to the area containing the computer. Downside is that you are consuming even more power, and it's not going to protect your monitor and keyboard.

Hope some of this helps. I had gone through the same bunch of questions about a year ago after some harddware failures due to the moisture aboard. Best bet: Laptop and case.

Good Luck!

Sean
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Old 19-12-2004, 14:53   #4
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I think a having a laptop computer on a boat makes sense and gives you tremendous power in terms of accessing the net, email, SSB WeFax and electronic cartography. I have one aboard my boat.

I do not rely on it though. First and foremost, even low power chips use A LOT of power. My Pentium 4 has a draw of 5 AMPS! It is not in my power plan to run it for long. Also keep in mind the comments of the posters above...even high humidity can kill these machines. Water and forget it. Even a few drops on the keyboard can render that part inoperable.

This is not to say that MANY sailors and cruisers do not rely upon and use laptops extensively, just giving you the upside and the downside. If you rely on it extensively for cartography and it goes out...where are you then.

I use dedicated chart plotters for navigation. And have no less than two backups which are battery powered. Also carry all needed charts in paper form.

For email AND internet I use both the notebook AND a PDA. I have a portable keyboard for my PDA and can write extensively and then transfer to my notebook. PDAs these days can surf into most sites, trade stock, track your portfolio, access weather etc etc. Cheap too...you can get a color Palm that does all that for $200 and a cable to hook it to a cell phone for $30. They of course use very little power.

I keep the notebook computer in a pelican case with desicant. Also my nav sta is integrated into the port settee and thus is just about amidships...way back from the companionway. The boat is also very very dry.

Make an energy plan and see how you would work it. You might plan to use the computer mostly during the day when you might have excess power from solar panels and then only use it at night on battery power (many new notebooks have longer batt life now).

Hope this helps

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Old 19-12-2004, 16:47   #5
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Laptops and Desktops

Laptops are not very efficent. To charge a laptop the 110 power is converted to a lower generally around 15 volts for most laptops. Inverters are usaully 70-80% efficent in the conversion. This means that you waste AMPs to keep the batteries charged.

We currently have two laptops and love the mobility. But it would be nice to be able to add and change the various pieces. There are several companies that produce a 12 volt desk top that I am thinking about adding if we ever get back to the US.

Our laptops have been onboard and working for the last 10 months. In fact I am typing this on my Dell (primary) sitting in a 3rd world country!
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Old 20-12-2004, 03:56   #6
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Let's zero in a bit...

I appreciate the posts this topic is getting, but I'm afraid the thread's purpose needs to be restated.

This is not about whether to carry a computer onboard while cruising, nor is it about laptop vs. desk top. Also, I posted the thread here because this is a Cruisers' Forum that addresses cruising needs, so the best discussion is that which is relevant - in a real world sense - to using a computer on a cruising boat.

I'm hoping to solicit specific feedback on the three challenges I outlined above when using a desk top on a boat: protection from the forced-air contamination, a suitable location (trays & ports accessible but distant from wet conditions & wet crew) and the concern about higher DC power consumption.

Yesterday evening I got several emails from friends that offered some interesting info on this topic, beginning with an option to step away from the large form factor of a desk top. For an instructional on-line video (broadband helps...) on buildling up a Small Form Factor (SFF) desktop unit, visit CNET at http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-10163_7...1.html?tag=nav This gives a good overview of how to build this type of desk top unit choosing your own peripherals, suggests products that are compatible, and it also shows how small and therefore boat-friendly these units are. It leaves me with a nagging question about heat dissipation, altho' you will notice in the video how they have addressed the heat generated by a P4 CPU which is an interesting approach.

On to power consumption: Visit http://islandtimepc.com/ for a 'cruiser-ready' SFF desktop unit. You will note the slower P3 CPU, which is intentionally chosen both for lower power draw and also heat. Hop to their FAQ and read the comments on CPU speed vs. power consumption. I've asked them to provide an average amp load for their unit, and also for the M chip they say they will be shifting too. I'll report here what I hear from them.

Finally, on a hunch I sent off an email to friends down in Belize as they just finished a big refurb project on DRIFTWOOD which seemed to spare no expense. It turns out he purchased the Island Time PC described above. I've emailed him a request for the same info on amp draw as he uses a Link 2000R and I will post what I get here. However, they are running a big motorsailer and do mostly short hops in settled weather while sailing in a temperate climate, so their current use is not directly relevant to offshore cruising.

Let's presume that the computer has to be available 24/7 (no 'dry case', no 'stow & forget'), since it's used for weather downloads, position reports, email, wx fax - all the ways a SSB/computer set-up is used on an offshore cruising boat these days, regardless of its chart plotting use if any. Now...how do we make a desktop as compatible and as utilitarian for that kind of active, offshore environment as we can?

Jack
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Old 20-12-2004, 10:57   #7
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Looking at the post a 2nd time... with focus...

Hi Jack,

Sorry for the mis-guided post. I do have some more input, however, it seems you are not 100% decided on a type of computer (ie: desktop), as you are posting links to various types of machines that only loosely fall into the desktop category.

Upon looking in more detail at your concerns, I see that they are:

1) High System Availability (24/7)

2) Longevity (resistant to moisture, etc...)

3) Heat Dissapation

4) Power Consumption

With these precise issues in mind, as well as one I would like to add: 5) Conservation of space, I came to a conclusion that is slightly outside your strict parameters, but one you may want to consider anyway.

An ideal candidate would be the following item:

http://www.smarthome.com/63010.html

This unit can be mounted flush on a bulkhead at or near your nav station, and could be enclosed, behind the wall, in a waterproof housing (ie: a simple plastic box!) During installation, you could also do a good job of keeping most of the moisture out by wrapping everything that is NOT the actual display (including the frame around the display) in some protective plastic, which goes through the hole in the wall to provide a tight moisture barrier.

I hope this isn't too far off the topic, but I had to put this idea out there, since it meets all of your requirements better than any engineering job of a desktop ever would, and also frees up a lot of space.

Here is how this system would meet your concerns:

1) Availability - this system has a feature that upon power interruption, it suspends all activity to the disk and can resume normally. You could simply yank the power any time you were not using the machine, and still have very high availability. Also, being bulkhead mounted, there is no need to take the computer out of a case or stow it. It is always there waiting, like a desktop.

2) Longevity - This comes down to your installation. Make it watertight, locate it away from the companionway, etc.. You know what to do to keep something like this dry... I won't go into detail.

3) Heat Dissapation - This unit is designed for wall mounting and is self-contained. It uses a special low-heat CPU that allows it to run in its case without any additional cooling - much like a laptop would, but ever cooler, I suspect. Using this device, there is no worry about heat dissapation.

4) Power Consumption - The heat a CPU produces is largely a direct indication of its power consumption. I would contact the vendor of this system to be sure of the exact power consumption. It is likely to be relatively low. Also, I would check into what the pin configuration is going into the unit. Although many computers have an adaptor to change AC to DC for use, you can bypass this adaptor and run your house DC directly into the machine (through a step-up transformer if required to achieve 15 volts DC)

5) Space Savings (my addition) - This unit will save you an enormous amount of space, since it will take up some area of a bulkhead that isn't even being used. You can't beat that for being compact. It takes up NO nav station desk space!

Ok.... I'm crouching down here waiting for a reprimand, but even though this is not a desktop, there is nothing that meets your requirements better than this type of system.

Sean
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Old 21-12-2004, 04:13   #8
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Yet another option...

Sean, thanks for pointing out yet another option. The URL doesn't say much about the 'innards' - where the fan/hard drive/etc. live; I'll dig a bit deeper. And I apologize if it sounded like I was reprimanding. I guess I'm just trying to maintain as much clarity of purpose to the thread as is possible; thread drift seems inherent in many BB's.

A follow-up on the Island Time PC: Eric, skipper of DRIFTWOOD, sent me a note after several trials and reports that his SFF desktop unit draws about 3 amps DC from the house bank, spiking a bit higher for shut-down activity. This unit is powered directly from a 12V source.

Sean, one other thing you might be able to comment on: I notice that the car PC that is 'fanless' was marketed with a suggestion a 'flash drive' be used for the large storage device, making it totally 'non-mechanical'. I don't know anything about 'flash drive' products; can you enlighten us a bit? The more non-mechanical a computer can be, the better for living on a cruising boat, I would think. Thanks!

Jack
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Old 21-12-2004, 12:36   #9
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Re: Yet another option...

Quote:
Euro Cruiser once whispered in the wind:
Sean, thanks for pointing out yet another option. The URL doesn't say much about the 'innards' - where the fan/hard drive/etc. live; I'll dig a bit deeper. And I apologize if it sounded like I was reprimanding. I guess I'm just trying to maintain as much clarity of purpose to the thread as is possible; thread drift seems inherent in many BB's.

A follow-up on the Island Time PC: Eric, skipper of DRIFTWOOD, sent me a note after several trials and reports that his SFF desktop unit draws about 3 amps DC from the house bank, spiking a bit higher for shut-down activity. This unit is powered directly from a 12V source.

Sean, one other thing you might be able to comment on: I notice that the car PC that is 'fanless' was marketed with a suggestion a 'flash drive' be used for the large storage device, making it totally 'non-mechanical'. I don't know anything about 'flash drive' products; can you enlighten us a bit? The more non-mechanical a computer can be, the better for living on a cruising boat, I would think. Thanks!

Jack
Hi Jack,

No worries about the "reprimand" comment. I was joking and neglected to put the obligitory after it. Sorry about that.

A "flash drive" does indeed reduce your chances for mechanical failure. I'm going to go basic, to benefit others, so please excuse me if this seems a little below your level:

In most desktops, laptops, iPods, etc... there is a small disk (the hard disk) which is a magnetized disk spinning at high RPM. This disk can hold your data even while the computer is powered down, unlike your RAM memory, which blanks out without power. Much like a record player, there is a "stylus" commonly referred to as the "head." Large drives have a number of heads on them. These heads move back an forth across the magnetic disk writing and reading data off of it. They are what is responsible for making the only real sound a computer makes, that grinding noise. These heads are extremely sensitive to bumps, jars, humidity, etc... and their failure is typically the cause for a mechanical hard drive failure.

The Flash Drive simply replaces this entire concept with a different type of data storage, flash memory. This is a type of memory much like standard RAM, except that data remains intact when it is powered down. A great example of this type of memory is the Compact Flash card in a digital camera. Essentially, the system you speak of will use a very large capacity version of the Compact Flash card in place of the traditional hard drive.

I would be sure to check into the heat factor with this automotive unit, becaue a hard drive does not produce a great amount of heat, (comparatively) to the CPU. Upside is this is one less system to fail in the computer - no hard drive means no chance for mechanical disk failure due to problems with the heads.

It sure is a complex problem, in that there are so many solutions. If you (or anyone on this board) has any technical questions (no matter how in depth) regarding computers on board, please feel free to ask. While I am only just learning about proper blue water vessels, I have a good 20+ years playing around witih computers, and am looking to help out here in exchange for the great input I have recieve to date here.

Sean
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Old 22-12-2004, 02:57   #10
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A bit more on DC consumption...

The owner of Island Time PC sent me a lengthy, helpful reply and, to the basic question I asked him about DC amp consumption, gave me amp loading for a series of different activities. They all drew between 2.5 and 3.1 amps, with 3 amps being a very reasonable overall estimate.

Sean, thanks for the flash drive answer; about what I expected and an interesting option if one wants to make the computer as immune as possible to shock and the effects of salt & other contaminants.

Jack
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Old 06-01-2005, 07:10   #11
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Worked in defese contracting for awhile they would haul these all weather laptops out for demo's a couple times a year. They can be a bit pricy but they are pretty much waterproof.

http://www.ruggednotebooks.com

Hope it helps.
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Old 03-07-2005, 16:03   #12
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Contact cleaner

All very interesting.

Let's not forget a very simple and effective cure for all corroded contacts etc on board.

RadioShack Contact/Control cleaner & lubricant, otherwisely known as ghostpiss.....

It works magic on all electronics to re-establish electronic contact.
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Old 03-07-2005, 22:18   #13
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And now doing this myself...

To add to this thread:

Now that I'm about to move aboard, I have been looking at all the various computer systems out there and have determined that the laptop is indeed the most cost effective solution.

The main reason is that my P4 approx 2GHz desktop draws a whopping 600 Watts AC power (not counting a monitor). I don't think running a genset to use the computer is very practical.

So... I have noted that my iBook G4 Mac laptop uses approx 48 Watts while charging its battery or running off AC power. Since the voltage going into the computer is 24VDC, I am planning to use a DC-DC converter to "step" up the 12V from my boat system to more effiently power the laptop without use of a generator.

Also, it will be able to draw on power generated from the engine, 12V portion of the genset, solar, wind, etc....

I'm actually running a fairly extensive network on board (since I'm a computer geek) and will be using DC-DC converters for the whole thing. No AC...

This might be the best solution for anyone out there, if you are electrically inclined.

Sean
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Old 04-07-2005, 01:14   #14
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Great topic

When I looked at using a computer on board I was concerned with all of the issues out line in the other previous posts.

Power use
· Power supply problems (spikes and outages
· Salt water from air
· Salt water from human contact

Based on my knowledge and research the “solution that I came up with was:

Power use
· Power supply via cigarette lighter socked powered from the house bank.
· Charge battery when not in use and use with power supply disconnected.
· Use Pentium 3 processors for reliability and power usage
· Up graded RAM to reduce hard drive access (i.e. virtual ran functions)
· Remove CD/DVD drive to reduce power use (use “usb / flash drives)

Salt water
· Reduce direct water contact – wireless keyboard and mouse (SOB which I am using for navigation works from mouse commands for this reason.)
· Changed from CD to Flash Dive to reduce salt transfer from hands.
· Mounted laptop on bulkhead next top map table,

Ask me in a year and ill tell you if I think that I might be right

Paul
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Old 04-07-2005, 22:24   #15
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You're on the Right Trail…

Jack,

The IslandTime looks promising as far as power-efficient direct DC feed, reasonable active amp draw, a move away from easily corruptable moving parts & SFF are concerned.

Installation for easy access to slots/ports (read "exposed") while protecting from the elements (read "relatively inaccessable") will depend on your boat's individual cabinetry configuration and your own ingenuity, and you may have to strike a balance between protection from splash-in from compannionway & easy access for slipping in a CD. With that outboard-facing Pearson nav station, you can't cram it in that low bay in the back & still open up the chart table: what about bolted up against the bottom of the chart table, oriented to provide fingertip, albiet, blind, access for CD/USB ports? Don't like the idea of working blind? Orient so the CD slot (surely this CPU doesn't have a sliding tray?) is most accessable, then run USB extentions that give you plugs above the table. Not perfect, but that slim-profile IslandTime looks like the best starting point.

Protecting against a generally salty & humid environment is a more ticklish question. As Sean illustrated, heads reading a spinning HD is just a high-tech phonograph record. The IT's flash drive, which has no moving parts to crash, seems a step in the right direction. The FD also protects against problems from sudden power interruption, so it gets good marks on both those accounts.

One of your criteria is instant access 24/7. Until computers spring on like PDAs (won't that be a great day!), there's going to be either the wait while it boots up (impractical), or the power drain while it sleeps. Does IT tell you what the power draw is when the thing is asleep? If the 24-hr total amp appetite is acceptable, it seems you're well on your way to creating a satisfactory system.

Flat screen display technology makes clever placement easier than ever. You may even consider a swinging bracket to protect it when not viewing. And of course a wireless keyboard thrown inside the chart table leaves it both protected and easily replaceable.

We sense your frustration. You're looking at evolving technology that is "no quite" robust enough, flexible enough, & miserly enough to make you fully content. Please update us about any new info. you come across, and of course, of your final decision.

And the rest of you with laptops and forward nav stations, don't feel too cocky: the gap is closing.

Fair Winds,
CJ
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