12 April 2011

Options for a wireless navigation display

A few years ago I had the almost-perfect wireless display setup for accessing Microsoft Windows based navigation software.

It consisted of a fixed X86 computer running Microsoft Windows XP and a Panasonic CF VDW07, or Windy, as they were affectionately known. They were completely portable, IP54 or better rated, and were really useful for use outside. In the image at the right it's me using one at sea:

The Windy was really portable, made from magnesium, waterproof enough for outdoor use. On the not-so-good side, the display was somewhat difficult to read outdoors (I had the 'high brightness' version, as the transflective version was not longer available by the time I bought it.) It had a 800x600 display which was really the lowest resolution that is acceptable for a chart display, had the tendency to run down on the battery at inappropriate moments -- I soon learnt to recharge the battery before coming to a difficult part of a trip.

The worst part of it is that it uses its own software for creating the remote desktop, and that this software is not compatible with Microsoft Windows versions beyond Windows XP/2003.

So what alternatives are there? Surely five years later a better solution must exist?

Let's examine a few of those.

Remote Displays

The obvious successor of the Windy is the Panasonic CF08 which was released in 2007. It uses a slightly bigger screen (10.4"), has more ports (bad, more chance of water ingress), better resolution (XGA -- 1024 x 768) and uses Microsoft's Remote Display Protocol, making it compatible with any Windows version. This is even more expensive than the Windy was though, I think it was about $2000. It is no longer being made, as far as I know.

I tried other wireless displays such as those offered by Philips and Viewsonic, but the ones that I tested were not suited for marine usage. It does look as if these devices are fading from the manufacturers minds, with the market being too small.

Portable computer (tablet)

Instead of just remoting the display you could also use a wireless computer, i.e. a tablet. There are a number of rugged solutions such as the XPLORE iX104, but that again is quite expensive; the online prices that I found started above € 2000 but climbed rapidly to € 4000!

So how about one of those iPad style devices, but still running Microsoft Windows? The slates coming out in 2011 as alternatives to the iPad are much friendlier priced. A string of these have been announced at CES 2011, but none are available yet.

As our new boat has a doghouse where we can use the device the waterproof aspect has become a lot less important; we're using our iPad to good effect inside. Using it inside also solves the fact that LCD displays just aren't good enough outside, unless you power them with huge backlights or use transflective displays that ruin the color fidelity.

The "portable" aspect of these computers would allow occasional use outside in benign conditions, and being able to use them from the port bench when my daughter is asleep on the starboard one (which is where the current fixed computer screen is located.) What I don't know at this stage is how robust these Windows tablets are going to be, and whether they need ventilation. Since anything with vents will be ruined in a few days in a salt water environment, that would rule them out completely.

Remote USB devices

It used to be that using a completely wireless computer was not feasible since you needed USB or serial connections for the navigation data, but as the readers of this blog may now I've cracked the navigation data problem, and I also found a solution for remoting other USB devices, which is the Eltima USB over Ethernet software. This allows you to keep stuff like those pesky license dongles plugged in to a different computer.

Using an iPad or Android tablet

Since we've already got an iPad, why aren't we using this for the remote display? Good question! A tablet is pretty good at running apps like iNavX, AyeTides and my home-built remote control web application.

Unfortunately, the display is very hard to see in direct sunlight and the box is not water resistent, needing an extra (cumbersome) case.


Five years on, and still the ultimate navigation display doesn't exist -- unless you have a better solution? Let me know what you think!