Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mobile Marine WiFi Entertainment

This blog post is not about a specific app but was written about my quest to develop a wireless entertainment system for my boat. You could also use this design in your car, RV or van too.

I have been trying to design an entertainment system for my boat for some time. The design had to use readily available hardware for audio and video, it had to be wireless, it had to be reasonably priced and mostly plug and play if possible.

I did not want to have to run a bunch of speaker wires and video cables around the boat along with a separate stereo unit which would be out of date in a few years. I was looking for a total wireless solution that would work with the way I listen to music these days.  Nobody drags around CDs or DVDs around anymore. With the advent of mobile devices and tablets almost everyone now carries around all the entertainment they will ever need in the palm of their hands.  

At home I have a wireless network, an Apple TV and a stereo all connected to my flat screen TV.  It allows me to play music, radio and videos from the Internet, computer, iPad or iPhone all to my stereo and TV.  My goal was to build a wireless system like this for my boat.

If your yacht is big enough you will most likely have a generator or inverter that will provide you with 115v service.  To make this work on my smaller boat I needed a 5 volt solution for a WiFi router and a 12 volt solution for my Apple TV and flat screen TV.

WiFi Routers:

The first bit of research I did was to find a portable WiFi router that could be powered by 5 volts from a USB outlet.  It only took a quick search to find a whole slew of them that would work.  I could simply plug these into my computer or a DC power outlet with a 5 volt USB adapter.  It was that quick, my WiFI was up and running. These USB adapters only put out about 1 to 2.1 amps so make sure your router does not require more current than that.

Many of these USB powered routers act as a WiFi router, an Access Point or client. Some of the newest one also act as a 3/4G hotspot and some can operate off of a rechargeable battery.

The TP link router uses a 5 volt micro USB connector which can be powered from a computer, your phone charger or a DC outlet adapter.  The TPLink TL-WR702N is compact wireless N router with 150 mbs.

The TRENDnet  N300 TEW-654TR operates off of a 115V charger or the optional 5 volt, 3mm barrel adapter that plugs into a USB outlet.  This unit is a 300mbs N router so it should handle the heaviest traffic on your onboard network.

While your are away from the dock your on board router will not be connected to the Internet.  The network will still act as your onboard entertainment backbone.

I did have one problem with my iPad when the router was not connected to the Internet.  My iPad
kept trying to connect to the Internet through my router and would not allow me to connect through my iPad's Verizon data plan. 

To correct this I had to create a static IP address in the Wireless settings for the onboard router and leave the Router and DNS setting empty.  This allowed my iPad to connect to the Internet through my Verizon data plan while still being connected to my onboard router.

Apple AirPlay:

If you own an Apple iPhone or iPad you may be familiar with Airplay.  It is one of the coolest features that Apple has created to broadcast and control your media.  Apple designed this wireless protocol for sending data over a WiFi network to Airplay compatible devices. With AirPlay you can wirelessly stream videos, music, and photos from your computer, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to Apple TV and stream music to AirPlay speakers or receivers, including Apples AirPort Express.  There are now dozens of Airplay compatible apps and devices including Pandora, Vevo, YouTube, Netflix, iHeartRadio and TuneIn.

On your iPhone or iPad, Airplay can be turned on from the Apple services menu as seen in screen shot to the left. Simply swipe up from the bottom of your iPhone or iPad screen to display the menu. If you have other AirPlay devices on your network they will show up here. I have an Apple TV and an iHome Airplay speaker shown in the menu above. Airplay from your iOS device only allows the selection of one device at a time.  To be able to stream to two Airplay devices at the same time you will have to use the Apple Remote App with iTunes on your computer.

I found an app called Whaale that allows playing music on up to 6 Airplay speakers from your iPhone or iPad.  This app does what the Apple Remote does not. You can play multiple sources to multiple speaker too. The app gives you access to all your music files on your device.

One cool feature of Airplay is that I discovered is that I can play music on my iPad to my iHome Airplay speaker.  I then opened the Apple remote app and I was able to play movies or music from my iPad to my Apple TV at the same time.  So I could listen to music while my wife watched a movie all streamed from one device, simultaneously, Wow, now that is Rocket Science!


Music and Video can also be played from your networked computer with iTunes over Airplay.

Open iTunes and select the Airplay icon on the top of the screen.  A drop down menu will show you the Airplay connected devices and allow you to select single or multiple devices. You can control the volume of each device from iTunes also.  If I had other Airplay speakers connected they could be simultaneously selected so I could play music to all the speakers at the same time.

Apple Remote App:

Apple's Remote Control app adds some additional functionality and control from your iOS mobile device.  Make sure to have iTunes on your computer running and enable Sharing. Add your Apple TV and your iTunes library to the remote. First the Remote app will allow you to remotely control what is being played in your iTunes Library on your PC or Mac. It will allow you to search, select, control and play the movies, music, TV shows or Podcasts that are in your collection.

The remote app can also be used to remotely control your Apple TV and allow you to select Music, Movies and TV shows just like you do with the supplied Apple TV remote control.

Finally, use the remote to control and play iTunes Radio on your PC, Mac or Apple TV.

Select the Airplay icon in the remote app to control what devices you want to stream to. Listen with AirPlay Speakers, computer speakers or Apple TV.

Single or multiple devices can be selected by toggling the Single/Multiple selection in the tip right of the pop up.

Apple TV:

Apple TV is one Airplay device that allows you to connect your mobile devices to your stereo system or onboard TV display. At $99 bucks it is well worth it. The Apple TV can connect wirelessly to your WiFi network or through a wired network cable. It has an HDMI cable to connect to your TV or monitor. 

Connect your mobile device to your onboard WiFi network. Music and Movies can now be played on your mobile device and sent wirelessly to the Apple TV and monitor.  The Mirroring function of AirPlay can also be used to display anything you have on your iPad onto your TV or monitor. This includes any marine charting or instrument display apps.

The problem with Apple TV is that it has a 115 volt AC power supply in the device. You can use a small 12 volt DC to 115 v AC inverter plugged into your power outlet or you can hack the Apple TV and replace the AC power supply with a 12 volt to 3.3 volt DC-DC power supply. There are several videos on YouTube to help you make this conversion. It does involve dismantling the Apple TV and some soldering. This will no doubt void your warranty but that is the price for a mobile Apple TV.

This teardown article confirms the Apple TV 2nd generation power supply voltage is 3.4 volts at 1.75 amps. Do not attempt this if you are not familiar with electronics.  You can also power the Apple TV with a 5 volt USB cable. This involves replacing the 115 volt power supply with 5v to 3.3v DC step down regulator like this one.

Airplay Speakers:

I used to play music from my iPad to a Bluetooth speaker.  It worked fine but the disadvantage with Bluetooth is that my device could only connect to one speaker at a time.  The sound quality was not as good since the audio was compressed.

I recently purchased an iHome iW3 Airplay speaker. The advantage of Airplays is that it allows multiple speaker to be connected to and selected on the same WiFi network.  Multiple iW3 Airplay speakers can be connected to my WiFi network and can be all played at the same time.

The iW3 is a nice size at 4.6 inches square and 9.3 inches high. It has better than average sound with SRS True Bass. It sits on an 115 AC/12 DC volt charging base. I purchased this one on Amazon for $75.  The Apple Store has them listed for $199.00  It is rechargeable and comes with a USB connection on the back for charging your iPhone and an auxiliary audio input jack too.

The iHome speakers do come with an app called  iHome Connect to help connect them to the WiFi network and enter the network password if needed. The treble and bass can be set using the app while your device is connected to the speaker.

I did not cover 12 volt displays or TVs. A search of the Internet will bring up a few options for you to use.

Well, I hope I have given you a few ideas about going wireless for your onboard entertainment system. 12 volts and wireless is the way to go.  So thank me now! This setup will definitely save you from drilling a bunch of holes all over your boat.

What are you using for an onboard entertainment system? Comment below and share your stories and ideas if you like.

~~~ Sail On ~~~ /)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Transas iSailor 1.6 New User Interface

Application: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch. requires iOS 6.1 or later
Function: Marine Charting and Navigation
Rating: *****
Cost: App is Free, Charts sets $4.99 to $39.99

I spotted the Transas iSailor app years ago when it first came out.  I was one of the first to blog about it back in 2011.  It looked promising and the developers have continued to add valuable features to the app ever since. The latest addition is the New Graphic user interface. They initially started out with an icon menu at the bottom of the screen which was very intuitive.  They then moved to a bubble menu.  I was never too fond of the three bubbles menu at the bottom of the screen. I could never remember which bubble did what.

The new graphic user interface (GUI) is much more user friendly and I found it way easier to use and find all the features needed to create waypoints, routes and tracks. The new AIS WiFi functionality can be purchased for another $9.99 with an in app purchase. I like the feature but not the price. Seems a little high compared to other apps with similar features.

  • Positioning system: iOS GPS, cell tower or AIS Class B
  • Display of charts, routes, tracks and User Objects
  • North Up, COG Up and Route Up chart orientations
  • Information on vector chart objects
  • Free cursor, Point-To-Point and Own ship referenced ERBL functionality
  • Navigational data: Position, Course (COG) and Speed Over Ground (SOG)
  • Route creation by the graphic and tabular methods
  • Bearing to WP, Distance to WP, XTD, Time-To-Go and ETA
  • Time-To-Go and ETA to any selected waypoint ahead
  • Prompt return to the current ship position
  • Custom Track colors
  • Day and Night chart colors
  • Alarm monitoring functionality
  • Route, Track and User Object Export/Import via GPX, KML and KMZ formats
The new user interface has menus on the right of the screen that can be dragged out to view and access features.
Settings Page:
Tap the Gear icon at the bottom right of the screen to access all the app settings.  Settings include Charts, Sensor and AIS. The AIS features require an in app purchase of $9.99.
Additional setting for boat, alarms, import and export. Routes can be exported in GPX, KMZ and KML formats.

Charts can be purchased from within the app. An extensive list of charts covering many areas of the
world are listed for purchase. Demo, Paid and Premium paid charts sets are available. Charts can be found by using the search feature, tapping on the area where charts are required or selecting a chart folio to purchase.

Tap the Purchased Chart section to view the chart folios that you have paid for. Update to the charts appear to be free.

Routes, Waypoints, Objects and Tracks Page:

Tap the next menu above the Settings menu to show the Routes, Objects and Tracks.  Routes are selected in the shot to the right. Tap any route to start navigating. Detailed information about the route including total distance, average speed, time of departure, time to go, time of arrival, fuel consumption and estimate consumption are all calculated for you.

All the Waypoint data for a route can be viewed from this section also. Routes can be modified, reversed, exported and deleted. Select the Tracks button at the top right to display or delete the recorded tracks.

Routes are easily created by tapping the Create New Route bar in the Routing section.  A Red Flag will show the waypoint location, move the flag to the desired location and press the Green + sign.  Continue tapping the screen to add additional waypoints to your route. Tap the black check mark to delete the waypoint.

Tap the line between waypoints to add an intermediate waypoint. It is a little awkward to begin with but after creating a few routes I quickly became proficient at creating, and editing routes.

Objects can be created by tapping on the screen once to place a mark. Tap the cross hairs mark to show the latitude and longitude of the object. Tap the right arrow and the pencil icon next to select the parameters for your object. A pop up box for the symbol with come up. Tap the Waypoint line to change the object to a Text, Depth or Point of interest. The object icon can be changed to an obstruction, a wreck, buoy or service.  A list of your Objects will be displayed in the right column.

Select the Tracks button in the top right of the Routes and Waypoints section to display your saved tracks. Track name and color can be edited to make them unique. All details about the track including points, start and stop times, duration, distance, top speed and average speed are calculated.  Tracks can also be exported or deleted from this section.

Navigation Monitoring Page:

 Tap the Wheel icon to enter the navigation mode. The night mode was selected from the settings to change the chart to a darker background. 

The compass rose icon was selected to display the compass on the page. Drag and drop the compass anywhere on the chart with your finger.  The compass rose shows the north up, course up or route up configurations. The Red arrow shows the course and the black arrow shows the bearing to the next waypoint.

Back on the display at the top right you can select the orientation and view the COG and SOG readings. Bearing and distance to the selected waypoint in the route is shown along with the cross track error.  Time to Go and Estimated Time of Arrival are also calculated along the route.  At the bottom of the display Track recording can be started and stopped.

iSailor is becoming a very polished marine charting app with all these latest additions and the sleek new user interface.  I am encouraged that they have now added AIS and WiFi connectivity to display my ships data.  Next I would like to see some added weather features including, NexRad Radar, GRIB wind strength and direction, tides and currents. Google map overlays would be nice to confirm shallow areas with chart data. 

I like the update of the user interface and I am encouraged that iSailor continues to improve this app. They have developed a good following among boaters so this can only help cement their place in the Marine Charting App area.

~~~ Sail On ~~~ /)


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Navionics iOS 7.0 Issues - Navionics Boating App and Web App

Application: iPad, iPhone iOS 6.0 or later, Android devices
Function: Marine navigation, charting, POI
Rating: *****
Cost: The new Boating app is Free with in app purchases

Navionics is one of the major players when it comes to marine charts, apps and mobile navigation.  Their Marine and Marine & Lakes charting apps have been downloaded over 1 million times so they are a very popular with boaters.

iOS 7.0 Changes:

The recent release of iOS version 7.0 apparently caused some issues with some of the older Navionics apps.  If your app is no longer working you may be out of luck.

Navionics has reported that some older apps purchased between 2008 and 2011 version 5.0.4 have become unusable with the iOS 7.0 upgrade.  I experienced this first hand with the Caribbean region I purchased years ago for $19.99 for my iPhone. I recently found that it no longer works (see picture at left).  I checked the version and it is 5.0.4 so I guess I am one of the affected ones.  This is a major bummer! I am not happy with Navionics at this point. If I want the Caribbean and South American maps I have to spend another $15.00 to reload it on my iPhone or $24.99 for my iPad.

The Navionic's Marine and Marine & Lakes apps sold from 2010 are still available and will continue receiving updates at this point. I am concerned that at some point they will no longer support these apps also and I will be forced to re-purchase the charts and features yet again. All these changes are costing users money and creating a lack of confidence in Navionics.

Navionics Boating:

The older Navionics apps used to be sold by chart region. If boaters traveled to more than one region they had to buy multiple apps.  The new versions of the Marine and Lakes USA 6.0.1 now supports downloading of additional chart regions from within the app so you no longer have to purchase separate apps for different chart regions.

Navionics also recently rolled out a new Boating App.  This app appears to be Navionic's long term solution to the iOS 7.0 issue and multiple chart regions.  This is a free app much like the Garmin BlueChart Mobile app.  Charts and other upgrade features are now available through in app purchases.  Chart sets for the iPad will cost you $49.99 to $54.99 and upgrades for the Nav Module, Auto Routing and Advance Map Features are $4.99 each. 

If you want updates to your Navionics iPad charts you will have to spend $24.99 for Navionics+ each and every year. Paying for chart updates is another sore point with me. There is no way to reload any charts or upgrades that have been previously purchased in the Marine and Lakes HD versions.

Navionics Boating has many of the same features as the previous Marine and Lakes versions. Routes, Tracks, Measuring Distance, Weather&Tides, POI, Crowd sourcing edits, Fuel Prices, Sharing, Autorouting, Advanced Map Options, Sonar Charts, Magazine Guides. New features of Sych Data and Synch Plotter allow boaters to share routes, tracks and data between mobile devices and chart plotters.

There has been some criticism in the past about other apps having separate sites for purchasing charts. Some of those are looking like a pretty good idea now that Navionics users are forced to purchase charts and upgrade over and over again.  There are apps like SEAiq that charge once for the app and allow installation of the app on all of your iOS devices.  All NOAA vector and raster charts are downloaded at no charge along and free unlimited chart updates. That model is tough to beat. Check out my list of top 10 marine charting apps for other options.

So if your considering purchasing a marine charting app you should not only consider the initial cost but also take into account the long term costs of keeping charts and features up to date.
Navionics Web App:

Navionics also recently rolled out a new Web App feature that lets you view Navionics  marine charts and Ski area maps on your PC or mobile device. This application is viewed using a web browser over the Internet.

This allows online viewing of any of their charts regions worldwide for planning purposes.  The Ski area map option can be selected with the Snowflaked icon on the center left side of the screen. Map or hybrid overlays can be selected in the upper right sided of the screen.

As you zoom into an area additional detail appears much like it does in the Navionics apps.  Sonar charts of detailed depth data is also available free upon zooming in.

Well, Navionics certainly has been busy lately.  I like some of the changes and enhancements they have made while others give me real heartburn.  This marine and charting app industry is still in it's infancy so I suppose we can expect to see some shifting of marketing plans from some companies.  I think Navionics will eventually get it right so I guess we should be patient with some of these growing pains.  If your not as patient as I pretend to be there are many other options out there for marine charting apps.  So keep an open mind and try some other apps if you find the Navionics changes to much to swallow.

~~~ Sail On ~~~ /)