The cheapest way to add Wi-Fi to any camera (or your boat)

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When you’re boating or backpacking, it’s not so easy to just pull out your camera’s memory card and dump the photos onto a computer. Half the time I have the camera sealed in a dive case or wrapped up in plastic to protect it from the elements, and most of the time I don’t even have a computer with me.

When we were in the Spanish Virgin Islands I really appreciated the fact that my Sony had built-in Wi-Fi. I could climb back on the boat, towel off, then turn on the Wi-Fi to send all my snorkeling photos to my iPad for review without ever having to take the camera out of the dive case. I could then Instagram a good one and hop right back in the water to dive some more. I didn’t have to worry about unsealing and resealing the dive case, defogging the lens again, or any of that rigmarole.

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Unfortunately, not all cameras come with Wi-Fi. However, Wi-Fi SD cards have been around for a few years now and are getting better all the time. You might have heard of Eye-Fi. They were the pioneers of Wi-Fi SD cards, but an Eyefi Mobi Pro card still runs about $99. There’s also the Transcend Wi-Fi option.

I was almost ready to spend the money on an Eye-Fi when I came across the Toshiba Flashair. Apparently, the FlashAir has never been too popular, and the iPhone and Android apps were downright terrible when it first came out. However, a 32GB FlashAir SD card is now only $30 (I ordered mine on eBay). At that price, I decided to give it a try.

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Setup of the card was easy. You just pop it in the camera and download the free FlashAir app to your phone. Each time you launch it after the card has been formatted, it gives you the option to change the Wi-Fi name and password. This is a nice feature if you were shooting a professional event where lots of people might be using Wi-Fi, however, it has one major flaw. Every time you format the SD card in the camera, it resets the SSID and Password to the factory default. I might format the card three times a day when I’m working, so I gave up on setting a custom Wi-Fi name.

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Once the app is launched, your phone or tablet will automatically connect to the Wi-Fi generated by the SD card and allow you to browse the photos on the card. (I found Android devices are much faster at connecting than iOS devices, which sometimes need help finding the network.)

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Just select the photos you want to download to your phone, and it beams them right over. But here’s the cool part, the FlashAir app doesn’t just work for photos. It also does music and movie files, so you can use it in other devices like a Zoom recorder or a video camera.

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Perhaps you do have a computer, but you don’t have an SD card reader available, or maybe you just hate installing apps on your phone. If you connect the computer or a phone to the FlashAir Wi-Fi and then open the web browser, it reads the card in the web browser and lets you browse and download the photos that way as well.

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But wait, that’s not all! If you stick the FlashAir in an SD card reader, it still generates Wi-Fi. That means, if you need Wi-Fi on your boat, you could grab one of these FlashAir cards and a card reader, stick it in an SD slot on your chartplotter or even a 12 volt DC plug and suddenly have a portable Wi-Fi network for all the devices on your boat.

Now don’t get too excited. It won’t give you Internet, just a Wi-Fi network that allows all of your devices to connect to each other. For instance, if you have an AIS system that needs Wi-Fi to send info to your chartplotter, this $30 SD card will allow that. It can connect up to six devices. (However, if you do have an Internet connection, it also allows Internet pass through.)

So what’s the downside to a Wi-Fi SD card you ask? Well, although the transmitter has a very low power draw, it still drains the battery faster. Cameras with built-in Wi-Fi like the Sony are able to turn it on and off to conserve battery, but with the FlashAir, from what I can tell the Wi-Fi is on all the time. However, in use I can’t say I’ve seen a noticeable change in battery life.

Yes, the FlashAir app does transfer RAW files. I shoot everything in RAW, but I honestly don’t know why anyone would want to transfer a 45 MB file over Wi-Fi. I shoot RAW + 1.2 MB JPG Small. The RAW is for my photo archives and for making prints. I download those files when I get home. The JPG small file saves space on the SD card and my phone or tablet but has plenty of resolution for social media. Here’s a few examples straight out of the camera via the FlashAir card.

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So there you have it, the Toshiba Flashair 3 Wi-Fi SD card, the $30 solution to adding Wi-Fi to any camera.

Installing a NMEA 2000 backbone

One of the things we liked about our new Garmin chartplotter that we installed in December was its connectivity.

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The chartplotter was our first electronic device with a NMEA 2000 plug.

NMEA stands for National Marine Electronics Association, and 2000 is the standard set for communication between devices. Garmin sticks with a NMEA 2000 nomenclature, but Raymarine SeaTalk, Simrad Simnet, and Furuno CAN are all rebranded NMEA 2000 systems that only need a plug adapter to be compatible.

Theoretically, any two NMEA 2000 devices will connect and communicate with each other no matter the brand. However, since we’re starting from scratch when it comes to the electronics on Gimme Shelter, we decided to stick with Garmin as much as possible.

The first step to setting up any NMEA 2000 system is to install the backbone. We went with this Garmin NMEA 2000 Starter Kit that cost about $60 through eBay.

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The only directions that came with this kit was the diagram on the label. That’s it. It’s THAT simple. However, I chose to hook the yellow cable, which is the 12 volt power cable, to the chartplotter circuit on the back of my breaker panel instead of directly to the battery.

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Once it was tied into the power system, I started adding T connectors. (Note that there was terminator plugged into the open end of the backbone when I finally took the photo.)

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The starter kit came with two T connectors and two terminators. I ran a cable from one T to my chartplotter. I ran the other cable to my GWS 10 Wind Instrument.

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I switched the chartplotter to the “gauges” setting, chose wind, and … nothing.

Nothing happened at all. It didn’t work.

I stared at the diagram. I retraced my wiring. I pulled the breaker panel off again and re-checked my power connection. It just wasn’t doing anything.

I finally resorted to Google and almost immediately I found out the most important detail of this system.

NMEA 2000 doesn’t work unless there is a terminator on every open T plug!

The starter kit had come with two terminators, and I hadn’t bothered to put them on. I figured they were just to keep the dust out or something. Wrong. It turns out there’s a resistor in those terminators, and unless they’re on the open plugs, no signal gets sent anywhere.

So after plugging a terminator onto the end of the backbone, I turned on the chartplotter again. This time I had success!

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Now all it takes to add new devices to my system is another T and a NMEA 2000 cable.

Of course, setting up the backbone was the easy part. The real fun starts this weekend when I climb the mast to drop a new cable and mount the wind instrument.