internet connectivity night on board Beetle

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind internet connectivity exercise here on Beetle the last couple of days as I’ve sorted through wireless connectivity to the internet – which in turn represents access to an enormous library of information that can’t be carried on board; think of the information as a high-level university library and research collection of information.

I’ve got the WiFi (802.11) sorted out with a RogueWave external WiFi antenna using a POE (power over ethernet) radio mounted at the base of the antennna – it works well in the anchorage when WiFi is present. Inside the boat the antenna’s ethernet cable connects to a (newly acquired) Netgear WNR1000 N150 wireless router. The N150 is a low power, inexpensive wireless router and happens to operate from 12vDC which fits in perfectly with Beetle’s 12vDC main batter bank. The nifty thing is with the RogueWave on and connected plus the N150 up and running, all WiFi device inside the boat (laptop, iPad) can connect wirelessly to the N150 and share the WiFi connection. Connection-envy goes away.

What I don’t have well-sorted is cellular connectivity for when WiFi is too far away or unavailable. To this end I talked with Netgear today regarding their Aircard mobile hotspots, as Netgear has purchased Sierra Wireless’ Aircard division or group. The Netgear tech said I would want an unlocked Aircard 770S currently available solely through AT&T (in the US) as the AT&T Unite, as this unit has all the non-CDMA connectivity I should need to use the unit worldwide, and can change carries by swapping in a SIM card based on the local provider. That would be nice, all I need is a SIM card and service and can continue to use the single bit of hardware component.

So I went to the AT&T store and purchased a 770S mobile hotspot, it works a treat, allows onboard devices to connect to it via WiFi while it makes the internet connection out to a cellular tower and shares that connection with the on-board devices. This is super.

The downside to cellular connectivity is the cost of the data plan (currently I’m experimenting with AT&T’s $50/mo for 5GB plan to see how it goes) and the ‘metered’ quantity of data that can be sent during the plan’s monthly period. Strikes me that preferable to avoid burning up the cellular data plan by uploading a large number of photos to, say, Zenfolio (easily 2-3GB in one sitting) when there’s no WiFi access available. Instead, it would be handy to transfer images to a portable device that can be easily carried ashore to a WiFi-cafe and from there transfer the files to Zenfolio. At the same time, any large files could be downloaded and carried back to the boat. Not only do you save on cellular traffic, you can get a nice pastry and glass of fancy chocolate milk at the same time (I’m not a coffee person – so coffee shops don’t do it for me).

To this end, I’m looking for a tablet that can do that. Anyone that’s carried a laptop in a backpack on a dinghy landing through surf will understand that it is not a fun to drag an laptop to shore. I’m looking for a smaller, more portable device such as a table or smart phone. Apple is right out as Apple makes it very difficult to move files to/from a laptop, maniuplate files, etc. Moving on I found two Samsung tablet/phone devices that have a built-in Wacom tablet screen sensor plus stylus – the Note 2 and Note 8. The stylus is brilliant and makes navigation on the small screens precise and easy, I’m used to the Wacom drawing tablets, and I found Samsung’s implementation of the Android operating sytem to be more intuitive than Google’s variation on their Nexus 7 device.

So now I’m investigating the Note 2 smartphone ($650 unlocked, smaller, high quality screen) and the Note 8 tablet ($400, WiFi only, good screen) to see which could work better for my purposes. Both have the Wacom setup, both have onboard storage for carrying files around, the smartphone does more and is smaller, the tablet is easier to read and does less. It might be that the Note 8 would do double duty as an e-reader, the screen is certainly larger which means the fonts are inherently bigger, but there is the lack of built-in cellular radio modem, a weaker camera, and larger form factor to consider for transport. Haven’t made my mind up here.

But the Netgear 770S is a very cool device, and enables the entire boat to work with data when a cellular connection is available shoreside. As does the RogueWave and Netgear N150 when WiFi is within range.

– rob/beetle

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