About the Stuff Inside

Inside the case is a large printed-circuit assembly called the motherboard.  On the motherboard are sockets for the processor (the actual "thinking" part), the Random Access Memory (RAM), and basic controllers for disks, video, usually audio, and general-purpose interfaces such as USB and Ethernet. There may be a Firewire interface controller.

Often, the processor generates so much heat that it needs to sit on a "heat sink", essentially a radiator that is usually copper with cooling fins, but, on some computers, actually has cooling fluid pumped through it. The latter is unlikely to be needed on boat computers. You will, however, almost certainly need a fan directly over the CPU, and one or more fans on a chassis.

When Beachwerks specifies a computer that will run in a boat cabin in the summertime, we consider that it can get quite hot in there, and we may specify more fans than the typical store computer. This is a very cheap additional safety feature. You do need to make sure the air vents into and out of the case are not blocked, and that the vent pulling in air is not pulling it over a hot appliance.

We never want to hear about things hitting the fan on computers we support. :-(

Slots for add-on equipment  

Most commercial desktop/tower computers will come with one Ethernet and at least four USB outlets. Laptops may only have two. More USB outlets are highly recommended. Since a damaged connector in the main body of a laptop can be a very expensive repair, it is often wise to plug a short USB extender cord into the computer connection, and then plug devices into the other end. This minimizes the mechanical stress on the laptop connector.

If you expect to use audible alarms,  verify that the motherboard of the computer supports speaker attachment, or you will need an additional sound card.

It is wise to have a PCI or PCI-E slot for an add-on video card if you expect to be running 3D displays. If you use multiple displays, each will need a video card or a video interface from the motherboard. Putting additional video processing into a laptop may not be possible.

When your computer is acting as a chartplotter, logger, VMS, etc, you are going to need someplace to store the data involved.  There are several ways to set up disks, depending on your applications and your needs both for data backup and possibly taking files and software to a different computer.

For boat purposes, assume that all your software and data will fit on a single hard drive, but you may want additional hard drives for backup. There may be case-by-case reasons not to do this, but let's talk before making that assumption

Think of two broad types of hard disks: those that have to be internal to a computer, and those that can be external. External drives can be taken ashore with you if they have a backup copy of your data. Assuming that you don't have a wireless way to transfer files (see backup), an external hard drive is a good way to share data, if, for example, you do your business records at home and need to take boat records to the home computer.

If you are sharing data, then think of the storage requirement on both computers, so their disks can keep backup copies of each other, possibly with the external drive, or a wireless link, serving to carry the changes back and forth.  

Whenever things are flowing among several computers, especially if any of them are used for general connections to the Internet or searching the Web, be very, very sure that all of the computers have adequate security software. All the backup copies in the world won't help if one of the computers catches something bad, such as a worm or virus, and that computer disease gets copied to all the other computers, ruining the data on all of them. We have a separate discussion about keeping disks healthy; "malware" such as viruses and worms aren't the only thing that can go wrong.

The two main kinds of internal drive are SATA and IDE. SATA has two flavors, serial and parallel. We will select the best technology available at the time if we build your computer. In general, however, a disk with around 80 gigabytes (GB) of storage is adequate, unless you are going to save a lot of graphics (charts, video pictures, etc.). Disks are getting cheaper and cheaper for the samer amount of storage; a 320 GB drive costs what a 40 GB drive cost a short time ago. Big isn't always good; it can be slower to back up or repair a bigger disk. We have a study underway that will give a more specific idea of storage needs for specific applications, such as a track in Windplot II and other chartplotters.  It's possible to have multiple internal drives, possibly using an automatic backup technique called RAID. Most often, multiple internal disks are of the same flavor, and the first connects to the motherboard, the second to the first, and so on.

Whether internal or external, look for two factors that govern efficiency: rotational speed and buffer size. Get a disk that rotates no more slowly than 7200 RPM, and has a buffer of at least 8 megabytes (MB).

Drives that can be carried away and plugged into another computer will principally be USB 2.0 (1.0 and 1.1 are too slow for disks) or Firewire. Again, if we are building a system for you, we'll watch the requirements about the best place for them to connect, and the most cost-effective at the time. If the motherboard has Firewire and so do your other computers, it may be the simplest to use without watching performance issues. USB 2.0, however, can be roughly as fast, but be sure that the USB cable for the disk plugs directly into the motherboard or to a supplemental USB card on the computer.

And where do I get the electricity for this, you ask?