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Mini-PC based plotter system

bitbaltic

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21 Nov 2011
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Boat in Milford Haven
Evening chaps

I started a thread a few weeks ago looking for advice on a new laptop for the boat to use as a PC chartplotter. There were a few similar threads about at the time which led me down the route of installing a dedicated PC solution. As a lot of people seem to have been looking at this and as it’s a bit of a mix and match job to get a system working on a realistic budget, I thought I’d start this thread to document what I did and tip others off to some solutions that may work for them.

Objectives.

1) My boat has a Garmin 128 GPS and a Digital Yacht AIS100 both of which output NMEA0183, and wind and log data generated by Simrad IS20 (N2k; Simnet) instruments. I wanted to get all of these data streams into the PC.
2) I also wanted to avoid installing an inverter (partly because of the efficiency loss, but really because of the expense), so I wanted to keep the entire system 12 volt, with the PC and monitor running off a regulator.
3) Did I mention expense? Oh yes. I wanted to keep the hardware costs down, in the couple of hundred pounds range, and not wandering up into the several hundreds.

Multiplexing data.

The first challenge was to get the N2k wind/log data out of Simnet and into NMEA0183 so I could multiplex it into the PC. To do this I fitted a Simrad AT10 universal converter to the Simnet network. The AT10 needs (or at least, it has) two ports for connection to a Simnet network. The network already included a multi-joiner which had five spare ports, so connecting it was easy enough. The 0183 end of the AT10 is a cable with positive and negative tx and rx wires. I connected these to some spare two-core wiring (helpfully installed by Hanse when the boat was built) that runs between the garage/bridgedeck, where the Simnet system lives, and the electronics locker.

Now there were three NMEA0183 tx feeds terminating in the electronics locker (GPS, AIS and AT10) with one 0183 rx (AT10). The tx feeds needed to be multiplexed to the computer's USB port and- ideally- also fed back in NMEA form to the AT10 so GPS sentences could be fed to the Simnet network in order for the wind instrument to calculate true wind.

To do the multiplexing job I fitted a Shipmodul ‘Miniplex-lite’. I'd never heard of this range of multiplexers before but it is a smashing bit of kit. It has three NMEA0183 inputs, two at 4800 baud and one high speed port working at up to 38400 for AIS input. It has a single NMEA output which (despite some suggestion on the retailer’s website to the contrary) seems simply to re-transmit the multiplexed data, as well as a USB connection to the computer. I connected up the GPS, AIS and AT10 tx to the inputs and the AT10 rx to the output, and fitted the unit in the electronics locker alongside the AIS box. Here’s a pic of the multiplexer mounted alongside the AIS in the electronics locker.

img_0548.jpg

PC choices.

I spent a lot of time researching the appropriate PC. The first thing I looked at, naturally enough, was the dedicated 'marine PC' market, but pricing here is ridiculous so I soon began looking elsewhere. What I was looking for was a PC which:

• Ran off an external 12v DC power supply, rather than containing an internal transformer;
• Came pre-loaded with Windows 7 or above;
• Had a VGA output, either alongside or instead of HDMI, to keep my monitor options open;
• Would match the tech specs needed by our charting software, Meridian's SeaTrak;
• Was easily secured to the boat, which ideally meant VESA mountable;
• Was cheap, or at least, less than a couple of hundred notes.

This lead me to the world of mini-PCs and to the absolutely marvellous Sumvision Cyclone mini-pc, which fulfilled all the criteria. The machine is tiny, runs off an external 12v DC, has 2gb of memory, 32 gb of solid state storage, a 1.8 ghz processor, comes pre-loaded with a completely legal copy of windows 8.1, has VGA and HDMI monitor ports, 3 usb ports, a 75mm VESA mount, and is less than £130 notes on Amazon. A wireless mouse and keyboard combo, also from Sumvision, completed the PC package.

I mounted the PC is a well sheltered position on top of a cockpit locker as shown in the pic below.

img_0553.jpg

Monitor.

Finding a monitor was the most difficult piece of the puzzle. The first thing I started looking for was a dedicated 12v PC monitor. This doesn't really exist. What is out there in terms of dedicated 12v monitors can loosely be divided into CCTV or car reversing monitors (7 inch or less, too small, too poor a spec, not VESA mountable) and the caravan TV market. A 12v TV would have been OK for the job but I don’t really want TV on board, and they are all quite big- nothing smaller than 19 inches and most come with built-in DVD players. I thought one of these would be bulky mounted at our quite compact chart table.

I had a look at the current PC monitor market, hoping to find something with a 12v power supply. Those that I could find with external power supplies used laptop-like transformers, needing 14-19v DC. And again everything on the market now is quite big, 19 inches or more.

Intensive googling and ebay-ing, however, did turf up an number of leads. It seems that around 10-12 years ago, a number of PC monitors were built with 12v DC external power supplies. Mostly these were OEM type monitors around 17 inches and I guess supplied with business PCs. They are now going very cheaply (sub £30) on ebay. However, getting good descriptions of the monitors, assuring that they could be VESA mounted, and that they were in good condition, was very difficult- manuals for most of them were particularly hard to find. Eventually, however, I found a monitor called the AOC LM720. This is a 17-inch TFT with a 4:3 ratio, powered by an external 12v DC supply, and with a 75 mm VESA mount. Best of all, it seems to have sold in the tens or hundreds of thousands, and it is easy to find lots of them on ebay at any given time. It has a hardwired VGA cable of a couple of metres' length, and you can even download a manual. I paid £26.99 for a perfect example and the monitor problem was solved.

Power supply.

Lastly I needed a DC/DC regulator to provide a stable 12v DC to the monitor and computer. After a bit of googling I found a black box solution in the Amperor 12v stabiliser, a 12v DC/DC regulator with a cigar lighter type plug on one end and- excellently- two DC jack outputs on the other. The Amperor can supply multiple devices provided the total draw doesn't exceed 6 amps (this was fine, as I expected the screen to draw 2a max and the PC 1a max). You can see the Amperor in the electronic locker shot above- it's a black box fixed at the bottom of the locker.

The Amperor needed a connection to the boat's power supply, so I simply wired an in-line cigar lighter socket from Maplin to a spare switch on the boat's electronics panel. The Amperor's cigar lighter jack is internally fused so there was no need for an inline fuse. The power jack output tips turned out to be 2.1 x 5.5 mm; both the Sumvision PC and the AOC monitor required 2.5 x 5.5 mm jacks, so I also got a pair of appropriately sized power jack converter tips from Maplin.

I mounted the monitor to the bulkhead behind the chart table using a 75mm vesa mount, through-bolted to keep it in place in a seaway. This is what it all looks like up and running, with Meridian’s SeaTrak software using Imray digital charts and NavmonPC providing the repeater dials for the ship’s instruments. I still have paper charts on the table which I can use with the Yeoman compact.

img_0557.jpg

First impressions.

We've taken the setup out for a first sea trial and been very impressed. In power terms, the computer is responsible for only around 2.5 amps of draw on the 120ah house battery (which, helpfully, is new). With both the cockpit and chart table GPS units, the AIS, and the Simnet instruments up and running, the total load is about 3.5 amps. Hopefully this means that we should be able to do a full daylight sail without depleting the battery over much.

Costs and suppliers.

Getting it right led down a few dead ends and I have not included costs for consumables like crimps and wire, or postage, so the estimate below is not the actuals spent but basically the cost to do it again.

The AT10 was only needed because the boat has a propreitary Simnet instrument network. Most boats wouldn't need this and it's not strictly speaking part of the PC setup so I have kept it off the cost estimate. It was obtained from Cactus at £76.96. Similarly the AIS box which was also obtained from Cactus at £134.95.

Shipmodul miniplex-lite (http://www.yachtingsoftware.com/shipmodul-miniplex-lite---nmea-by-usb-inout_p91.aspx): £79
Amperor 12v stabilizer (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Amperor-LCD-Volt-Stabiliser-Regulator/dp/B000ZLRXG8/ref=tag_dpp_lp_edpp_img_in): £34.95
Inline 12v cigar socket (http://www.maplin.co.uk/p/car-accessory-socket-fe42v): £2.99
2x 2.5mm DC jack converters (http://www.maplin.co.uk/p/maplin-21mm-plug-to-25mm-socket-dc-power-plug-adapter-l52ay): £4.58
Sumvision Cyclone Mini PC (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sumvision-Cyclone-Mini-PC-Officially/dp/B00XA1A3NU/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1432206680&sr=1-1&keywords=sumvision+mini+pc): £128.99
Sumvision Paradox III keyboard & mouse (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sumvision-Paradox-Wireless-Keyboard-Optical/dp/B005SSBYOA/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1434450605&sr=1-1&keywords=sumvision+paradox): £10.95
AOC LM720 17-inch TFT (http://www.ebay.co.uk/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p2050601.m570.l1313.TR0.TRC0.H0.Xaoc+lm720.TRS0&_nkw=aoc+lm720&_sacat=0): £26.99
2x 75mm slimline VESA mounts (http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B000NVR978/ref=sr_ph?ie=UTF8&qid=1434448543&sr=1&keywords=vesa+mount): £11.96

Grand total: £300.41

For that kind of money I think it’s good value and I’m looking forward using the system through the summer. Anyway I hope some or all of the above is useful to anybody thinking of going down the ‘boat PC on a budget’ route this season.

Cheers
 

KAL

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River Dart
Really well done and thanks for sharing your experiences and sources. Just what the forum is for. :)
 

westhinder

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Belgium
Well done.
My computer-savvy nephew constructed a very similar set-up for me 8 years ago. For the mini-pc he bought all the necessary parts off a German site specializing in pc's for trucks and buses. It cost me a lot more then, mainly I seem to remember due to the cost of a 17" monitor working on 12V, which was very hard to find.
The system worked well until last year, when the mini-pc developed problems. I will certainly have a look at your mini-pc. At that price a replacement may make sense.
In the meantime, though, the system has been moved to my new boat, which also has a chartplotter under the sprayhood and I find that so convenient that the need for the pc-based navigation system has diminished dramatically. I had hoped to be able to link the pc and the plotter, but that has proved absolutely impossible. Even though the SeaPro nav program I was running is quite superior to the Raymarine plotter, the convenience of being able to do all your navigation in the cockpit has convinced me.
 
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ianj99

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My solution was similar and consists of a Gigabyte Brix 2807 mini pc (4" x 4" x 2") which runs off 12v and cost £140 with 4gb memory and a 30gd SSD. The performance from its dual core 1.6GHz Celeron is more than adequate for chart plotter use.

The monitor is a 12vdc 12" model also from Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00CHICG46/ref=pe_385721_51767431_TE_dp_1 (its only 1024 X 768 native res but will work at higher resolutions which are fine for chart use, but at the expense of text clarity) In view of the low cost, I'd buy another rather than a single larger more expensive model as the pc has both vga and hdmi sockets. Its also bright and very light, has a vesa mount and an analogue input (eg for a camera)

I already had a Shipmodul 2 USB multiplexer and a redundant 19v laptop adaptor which I used to provide a stabilised 12v using a DROK® 8A/100W 8-40V to 1.25-36V DC Step Down converter, also from Amazon for the PC and monitor. (total consumption is 2.5amps)

I've used Belfield Chartplotter, Memory Map and Seaclear and have concluded that Belfield's is the best, though not perfect. It has the smoothest chart selection and also AIS display. (they all use the UKHO raster charts and come with the whole set for under £70.)

I also had a nmea to wifi interface connected to the multiplexer so my Sony tablet could be used on deck but it has since died (just within Paypal's 180day time limit for a claim but still cost £12 to send back to China, in spite of the seller claiming it was shipped from the UK)
 
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bitbaltic

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It cost me a lot more then, mainly I seem to remember due to the cost of a 17" monitor working on 12V, which was very hard to find.
I also found that the hardest bit. I actually bought a couple of candidates off Ebay which turned out to be unsuitable before I found the AOC monitor.

I had hoped to be able to link the pc and the plotter, but that has proved absolutely impossible. Even though the SeaPro nav program I was running is quite superior to the Raymarine plotter, the convenience of being able to do all your navigation in the cockpit has convinced me.
I may fit a cockpit plotter to the Simnet network. If I do I may have to snap up one of the last NSS7 plotters available as I like the fact that it has x2 0183 ports and it will need a dedicated feed from the AIS (I don't know what the shipmodul's output is doing with the AIS data. It may possibly be sending it back to the Simrad AT10, but even if it is, the AT10 doesn't understand AIS sentences, so the data cannot be getting into the SImnet network- hence a dedicated feed would be needed). An alternative would be the B&G Zeus but that also is going obsolete. However the PC should be able to talk to the plotter via the NMEA tx from the multiplexer and the AT10 should understand waypoint sentences. If that doesn't work I could make a direct 0183 connection from the shipmodul to a plotter, which is another reason to get hold of an NSS7 with its' two 0183 ports. This is good, I am talking myself into some retail therapy!

I also like Seapro, we have it on the boat I sail in RORC. It's very expensive though, and for the moment we are Imray-specific so that means Meridian. SeaTrak is actually a very good plotter but it looks like it has not had much development work in a while, which is a pity.

Cheers
 

bitbaltic

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Boat in Milford Haven
My solution was similar and consists of a Gigabyte Brix 2807 mini pc (4" x 4" x 2") which runs off 12v and cost £140 with 4gb memory and a 30gd SSD. The performance from its dual core 1.6GHz Celeron is more than adequate for chart plotter use.

The monitor is a 12vdc 12" model also from Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00CHICG46/ref=pe_385721_51767431_TE_dp_1 (its only 1024 X 768 native res but will work at higher resolutions which are fine for chart use, but at the expense of text clarity) In view of the low cost, I'd buy another rather than a single larger more expensive model as the pc has both vga and hdmi sockets. Its also bright and very light, has a vesa mount and an analogue input (eg for a camera)

I already had a Shipmodul 2 USB multiplexer and a redundant 19v laptop adaptor which I used to provide a stabilised 12v using a DROK® 8A/100W 8-40V to 1.25-36V DC Step Down converter, also from Amazon for the PC and monitor. (total consumption is 2.5amps)

I've used Belfield Chartplotter, Memory Map and Seaclear and have concluded that Belfield's is the best, though not perfect. It has the smoothest chart selection and also AIS display. (they all use the UKHO raster charts and come with the whole set for under £70.)

I also had a nmea to wifi interface connected to the multiplexer so my Sony tablet could be used on deck but it has since died (just within Paypal's 180day time limit for a claim but still cost £12 to send back to China, in spite of the seller claiming it was shipped from the UK)

Thanks Ian that's a really usefull reply. It's good to see we came to such similar solutions and to get the links to the kit. I would certainly have considered your monitor option (bit disappointed that I didn't find it despite multiple searches of Amazon) and I will keep that bookmarked in case my ebay one goes pop.

Cheers
 
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hi great post!
ARe you planning to use the Yeoman with the setup eg click on waypoints on paper chart and send into the PC and GPS?
 

bitbaltic

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Cheers :)

At the moment the yeoman only talks to the GPS. This is because it's the only thing I know of that can get a waypoint into a Garmin 128 via NMEA and it does it by setting the 128 to rx on 0183 version 1.5 (rather than 2.0). The Garmin will only send waypoint sentences in Garmin format so it's not capable of sending waypoints to the computer sadly. The easy way around this would be to upgrade to a more modern format GPS. Alternatively the yeoman could be wired to the multiplexer directly, but because this only has 3 inputs I would need either a second or bigger multiplexer or something on the simmet sending GPS data.
 

gregcope

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Re 12v displays. I though lots of Samsung displays where 12v input (the brick outputs 12v)
 

GHA

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Re 12v displays. I though lots of Samsung displays where 12v input (the brick outputs 12v)
I have a couple, the 19" runs fine off 12v but the 22" needs a bit more. Can't remember the model numbers. The 19" at the chart table is great, spends most of it's time off for nav so power draw is minimal.
 

bitbaltic

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Re 12v displays. I though lots of Samsung displays where 12v input (the brick outputs 12v)
There were in the past- I found a list of 12v samsungs on a U.S. site- but, as far as I was able to establish, nothing currently in production by them is 12v. The nearest I could find was a recently obsolescent 19 inch screen which required 14 volts DC.

Cheers
 

Amulet

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Mildly surprised that you can't get your computer and to talk Garmin to your GPS, but I may have misunderstood something. I have come across a number of tools that will upload and download in Garmin format. I currently use gpsu (http://www.gpsu.co.uk/) as my babel fish for GPS data. It is a bit clunky of interface, but very capable. I have dabbled with most of the affordable PC nav systems and currently use SeaClear. gpsu will read a seaclear file and send it in Garminspeak to my simple GPS72.

Like many, I have the navionics on a tablet over and above all this. If I prepare a route on the tablet I can bluetooth it on to the laptop as a KMZ file which gpsu can read and send to the gps in Garminspeak. gpsu can also output it as an SRW file, which means that I can have a route that prepared on the tablet in Navionics for use in SeaClear. Also quite cool is that you can use the KMZ to display your routes and tracks on google earth and show off to your facebook friends.
Cheers :)

At the moment the yeoman only talks to the GPS. This is because it's the only thing I know of that can get a waypoint into a Garmin 128 via NMEA and it does it by setting the 128 to rx on 0183 version 1.5 (rather than 2.0). The Garmin will only send waypoint sentences in Garmin format so it's not capable of sending waypoints to the computer sadly. The easy way around this would be to upgrade to a more modern format GPS. Alternatively the yeoman could be wired to the multiplexer directly, but because this only has 3 inputs I would need either a second or bigger multiplexer or something on the simmet sending GPS data.
 
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bitbaltic

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Mildly surprised that you can't get your computer and to talk Garmin to your GPS, but I may have misunderstood something. I have come across a number of tools that will upload and download in Garmin format. I currently use gpsu (http://www.gpsu.co.uk/) as my babel fish for GPS data. It is a bit clunky of interface, but very capable. I have dabbled with most of the affordable PC nav systems and currently use SeaClear. gpsu will read a seaclear file and send it in Garminspeak to my simple GPS72.

Like many, I have the navionics on a tablet over and above all this. If I prepare a route on the tablet I can bluetooth it on to the laptop as a KMZ file which gpsu can read and send to the gps in Garminspeak. gpsu can also output it as an SRW file, which means that I can have a route that prepared on the laptop in Navionics for use in SeaClear. Also quite cool is that you can use the KMZ to display your routes and tracks on google earth and show off to your facebook friends.
Actually I have been playing around with this issue today. I can get waypoints from the Garmin into the PC by setting the Garmin to goto each waypoint and then capturing the active nav system waypoint in NavMonPC. So the problem now lies in the plotting software seatrak. It does not have an equivalent capture function and although it can import and export waypoint databases it does not seem to use the file extensions you mention. It has a dedicated 'export to gps' function which is always greyed out as a menu- I don't know why. But I will give the gpsu software a try.

Cheers
 

ianj99

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There were in the past- I found a list of 12v samsungs on a U.S. site- but, as far as I was able to establish, nothing currently in production by them is 12v. The nearest I could find was a recently obsolescent 19 inch screen which required 14 volts DC.

Cheers
Checkout AG Neovo X range. These run off 12v and are also brighter than most pc monitors as well as some having multiple inputs. Available from various ebay sellers but are both pricey and heavy - ie solidly built - toughened glass front, steel casing.
 

SlimRick

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I'm in the process of doing similar with one of these:
http://www.hannspree.eu/en/computing/snnpdi1b-micro-p - Cost £104
It has built in WiFi to connect to a MiFi modem and keyboard / mouse.
Also has built in Bluetooth so I'll use that for the gps connection. I've had Open CPN running on it all day today with no issues.
And an LG monitor. The smallest 12v one I've found is 21" with HDMI input. The alternative is to use the TV that's already on the boat - the advantage of this is that it already has a USB socket that will power the PC.
 
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westhinder

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Checkout AG Neovo X range. These run off 12v and are also brighter than most pc monitors as well as some having multiple inputs. Available from various ebay sellers but are both pricey and heavy - ie solidly built - toughened glass front, steel casing.
Neovo was indeed the only one I could find in 2008 that ran off 12V. It is still going strong, so must be worth the money I suppose
 

bitbaltic

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I currently use gpsu (http://www.gpsu.co.uk/) as my babel fish for GPS data. It is a bit clunky of interface, but very capable. I have dabbled with most of the affordable PC nav systems and currently use SeaClear. gpsu will read a seaclear file and send it in Garminspeak to my simple GPS72.
I've had a look at gpsu tonight and I think it will download waypoints from the Garmin128 so that's at least a good way of maintaining a master file. In terms of how it handles files though it's basically an ASCII converter. It reads and writes an impressive number of file types and even though the extensions used by Seatrak for its waypoint database (.wpt) and its route database (.rte) are each used by more than one of the vendor filetypes in gpsu, a quick spin makes it clear that the ASCII format generated by seatrak under those extensions is totally different from the formats expected by gpsu.

I'm sure I could spend time with excel and maybe write a formatting macro which would render the Seatrak file into a format intelligible to gpsu but that will have to be a medium-term project. The upshot is, getting seatrak to share data with the garmin isn't straightforward at them moment.
 

Norman_E

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Thank you for the heads up on the Sumvision mini computer. I have just bought one to solve a different problem. I have been carrying a heavy laptop back and forth between home and the boat in Turkey and getting messed about by airport security on every trip. I can't just leave it there because it has my files on it and because if I leave it there Windows updates will guzzle up lots of expensive data every time I visit. My plan is to leave the monitor & keyboard permanently on board but take the little computer alone back & forth for updating & data security. A mains adapter will run it in the UK connected to my screen & keyboard here. The only downside to the little computer is its meagre 32GB of storage, much of which will be taken up by the operating system. Its a pity it does not have USB3 to run an external SSD at a decent speed. I will add an external drive and hope that I can load some of my larger programs on to that even if they run a bit slowly.
 
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