Using phones and tablets for marine applications is very attractive. Applications are a fraction of the cost of dedicated marine products that seem to perform the same function. But the marine environment is very difficult and there are problems with both phone and tablet applications. There are many articles on the Internet showing you which 10 apps are the best. This is not one of those articles. This article explores some of the problems people don't talk about and points out what to look for to get the best experience with your phone or tablet. The things that turned out to be important onboard were not the things that seemed important checking out the application at my desk.
My goal is to have a race application that will help me get to the starting line on time, going fast, and provide navigation to the mark in a way that is easier to use and easier to see than my hand held or wristwatch GPS. I have reviewed some of the stepping stones toward that goal in other articles and will post more as I make progress. In the process of testing out the various solutions, I found that the things that were important were not obvious. This article ponders that side of the problem. These are features of tide table programs, map programs, or my elusive race app that you should be aware of when selecting the prefect app for use onboard.
I would classify applications in three categories. Tide Tables are a good example. There are tide table apps that just call a web site which returns the information. This class of app needs an Internet connection to work. Weather sites are obviously in this category. In the case of a weather app, you expect that. But why should you need to be connected to the Internet to get tide tables. Turns out you don't so be careful of these. It is hard to tell when using them at your desk but get onboard away from your WiFi and they no longer work. Put your phone in Airplane mode when doing your testing. Better to find out sooner rather than later.
- Ad supported applications can use WiFi or your data plan to fetch ads. This supports many free apps. The ones I have tried work fine without Internet connection, they just don't have ads showing. I don't find this a problem but it might be confusing at your desk as this is not a category 1 app. It will work just fine. "Tide Prediction" is an example which also uses your phone or tablet location if you want.
Finally, there are completely stand alone applications that do not have ads or require Internet connection. Navionics Marine Map programs are a fine example although they suffer from another shortcoming that makes using them very frustrating.
Next I built a waterproof box out of a food container with the lid cut away being replaced by a crystal clear Acrylic window. Still too strong a reflection of the white deck to make out the tablet when mounted in the cockpit. Finally, I mounted the unit below deck. That works (see picture below).
|| This is the 1000 pound gorilla in the room. You just cannot see these screens in bright daylight with a white deck reflecting in the background.
You can move your phone around to get a "good" background reflection and kind of see what is on the screen.
Put your phone or tablet in a waterproof bag like the one at the left and you now have two reflections to deal with, one of which is wavy so you can't even find a good angle to see what is in on the screen.
Try and mount a tablet on a bulkhead in your cockpit and forget-about-it. Permanently mounted, you cannot move it around to get that good angle. If you are using a tablet onboard, you really need to use it below deck.
First thing I bought after my tablet was a waterproof bag to keep it dry. The problem is that if I am anywhere where I might get wet, I am out of the cabin and I can't see the with the double reflections of the tablet pouch. The phone pouch was a bit better as the clear plastic is smaller and doesn't have as much space to develop wrinkles.
I have used navigation and map apps that have fonts that are just too small to read. It is amazing how much easier it is to read stuff at your desk than it is on a moving boat. I just don't understand how Navionics can decide to make the print so small on their maps. Zoom in and for just a micro second you can read the print before they re-size it so that you cannot see it. No problem at home, but on a race trying to figure out who had the correct mark in their GPS it was painful. If you are mounting a tablet below deck for view in the cockpit, the font needs to be really large.
The best setup is said to be black lettering on a white background. I found white lettering on a black background about the same and research shows them close. White on black uses a lot less battery power so is what I would recommend. I have used iRegatta which has some muted red and green buttons on a black background and I can't see them no matter how I tilt the phone. They look great at my desk, but onboard you want something you can see period, not something that looked cool back home.
Touch screens are nice but with a lot of reflections sometimes all you can see are fingerprints. Try and keep your screen clean at least to start and this will be less of a problem. Have a way to control it remotely (bluetooth mouse) is even better although it isn't easy to use a mouse on a moving boat. I am using a mouse-presenter in the application I am writing but that is not an option for most apps.
Phone or Tablet?
On a moving boat where you need one hand for the job an one for the boat I actually find the phone a bit easier to deal with. The tablet is big and harder to hold onto while trying to do whatever else you are needing to do. Watching movies in the middle of a race or crossing is probably not on my list although I guess it might be on yours. On the other hand, if you are mounting the tablet below deck, it needs to be a tablet. At a nav station, tablet might be fine. Put Velcro on the back and on the nav station and you are set. Put the loops on the table and the fuzzy side on the tablet. Easier on the hands.
The Ideal App
What are the qualities of an "ideal" app?
As I could not find a start line app like this so I am wrote one. You can see a photo of the app running on a 7 inch tablet above. In the picture, it is just telling me that I have over 5 hours until my race start, which is at 18:15. The screen gets more exciting on the race course but things get too exciting to take a picture as well. If you would like to participate in a beta test please contact me. This application is for racing, starting and moving between the buoys and runs on Android devices.
- Tablet mounted below deck where you can see it easily
- Large lettering, 1 inch high or larger.
- High contrast white lettering on black background for easy read and good battery life.
- Simple background -- functionality over beauty
- Controllable from the cockpit with a remote so you don't have to touch the screen.
- Easy to move around between pages with easy to understand and use screens.