2010 12 27
The Bottomline (discussion follows)
If you want superior wifi reception while sitting on your boat buy this:
"This" is an Alfa Long Range Wifi Wireless USB adapter. I opted for the AWUS036H model which is limited to 802.11 b/g.
It costs $30 and comes with both a 5 dbi and 9 dbi antenna.
You can also buy an 802.11 n adapter for more money.
Why Do I Need Another Wifi Adapter?
Your laptop has a wireless adapter but it is very weak. Laptops are designed to be used inside buildings and on campuses where there is strong wireless signal. Sitting at anchor you need a lot better wifi equipment than comes with the stock laptop.
The Alfa is small and inexpensive. It performs better than systems costing $250.
What Do You need to Know?
Best Website to Buy Your Stuff: www.data-alliance.net.
The Competing Systems: Commercial systems are based almost exclusively on Bullet2HP systems and Alfa adapter based systems. A third system called Ingenuity has been a total user disaster. Anecdotal evidence available to moi indicates that most boaters buying an Ingenuity system find it difficult if not impossible to install and pretty much ineffective once it is working.
POE or USB: Basically who cares. POE is a stupid term meaning "power over ethernet". The Bullet2HP system is POE. The Bullet2HP connects to your computer via an ethernet cable - the cable we used to use to hardwire our laptops into the internet. Since the Bullet2HP needs power to run some smartguy figured he could use some of the wires in the ethernet cable to carry power. Copper wires have been doing this for centuries and guess what? They still do. I guess it just sounded cool to use a term like POE to describe it.
Being ethernet the POE systems have different drivers and I understand the drivers can be a bitch to install.
USB is well known to all laptop owners. The USB cable carries the power to the Alfa. Plug the Alfa adapter into your laptop, install the drivers and use the computer. Driver installation is a bit awkward if you use the Windows 7 operating system but it was not too painful.
Antennas: A good 6 dbi antenna should be perfect for either the Bullet2HP or the Alfa. The Alfa comes with a 5 dbi and a 9 dbi antenna. If you buy a Bullet2HP you have to buy an antenna. Antenna cost for the Alfa will be about $20. So far I have just used the "came with" antennas but I will get a $20 next week.
If you want a good Moron's Guide to wifi antennas try www.wi-fiplanet.com/tutorials/article.php/1144391/Antennas-The-Key-to-Maximizing-RF-Coverage.htm
How Tough are the Systems: The Alfa adapter is strictly indoors or to use outside in good weather. However, if you seal it inside a Pelican box or (as one fellow who wrote to Practical Sailor did) inside a short length of plastic pipe you have an outdoor antenna. I get the Alfa out when I use the internet and put it away the rest of the time. In fact I have taped it to a length of dowel and I stick it in the winch handle hole in the cockpit winch when I use it. Works for me.
The Bullet2HP is rated for outdoor use. This is not the same as rated for sailboat use. Even stainless rusts in salt. The problem with the Bullet is that is is outside all the time. It is a bulky system and usually boaters it and its wiring permanently.
How High the Antenna: One advantage of the Bullet2HP is that you can mount it very high. The ethernet cable can run to the top of your mast with very low signal loss. The Alfa is limited to USB lengths which means no more than 15 feet. You can add a 15 foot active USB extension. In Florida my little Alfa performs as well as or better than Bullet2HP systems in friends' boats.
What About Commercial Systems:
IslandTime PC - www.islandtimepc.com
Rogue Wave - www.wavewifi.com/rogue-wave.html
Five Mile Wifi - www.5milewifi.com
The Wirie - www.thewirie.com
Radiolabs - www.radiolabs.com
The systems from these guys work but cost anywhere from $200 to $400. Way too much.
I have seen the Island PC system in action and can attest to the fact that it works very well.
Of the systems listed the first three use the Bullet2HP made by a company called Ubiquiti.
For $80 you can buy your own Bullet2HP adapter and for another $20 you can add a good antenna. Then you need a POE injector and some ethernet cable. You can probably set up a Bullet2HP system on your own for about $110.
The Wirie uses an Alfa adapter and charges $200+ for it. They seal it in a Pelican box and add nice wire and stuff but really. Just use the Alfa and pimp it out. An antenna and some 3 inch plastic pipe will work wonders.