Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Best Buy -- not

It really should not be this hard, but my second try at buying a new TV from Best Buy has ended once again in failure.  Unlike the first time, where I canceled the order before it even shipped once I learned, by downloading the owner's manual, that the advertised headphone jack did not exist, this time the TV was delivered and I had it in my hands, out of the box, before I discovered the problem.

Once again, the actual product and the advertised specs did not match up.  As I wrote in my last post, after a suggestion from a reader, I ended up ordering an Insignia model, which is Best Buy's house brand (the first mistake was a Westinghouse model, so I can let Best Buy slide on the incorrect specs, which were equally incorrect on the Westinghouse site).  The specs for this set state quite clearly that it is just 2" thick without its stand.  And at first blush when opening the box, it looked quite slim indeed.

Once I had it out, though, and held it up to the wall, it stuck out much further than I expected.  It turns out that, nothwithstanding the slim-looking edges, the unit is actually 3.3" thick, an error of over 60%.  I raced back to the web site to double-check, make sure I ordered the right one, etc..  Then I noticed the box even has a graphic showing the total thickness as 2.0" -- it's just plain wrong.  Wrong on the box, wrong on the Best Buy site, wrong on the Insignia site, and wrong in the database at Customer Service.

To their credit, Best Buy customer service was very apologetic, and they are sending me a $50 gift card for my troubles, in addition to the return UPS tag to send it back.  Frankly, my trouble is worth more than that -- this most likely means I will live without a TV now until sometime in May.  The bill for my unusable DirecTV in the interim will be more than that.  I'm guessing it's also costing them another $50 shipping mislabeled product in both directions, so you'd think they'd have some incentive to get the specs correct on their web site.

Moving on to something more pleasant (more schadenfreude coming, though, I promise), we are now cleared to operate the boat on our own, the restriction to have a licensed captain aboard having been lifted this morning.  Captain Gary had actually already written our sign-off letter by Monday night, but we wanted more practice and spent another day with him yesterday, and he brought the letter with him.  I emailed a scan of the original to the insurance folks last night.

I wanted a try at coming in to an unfamiliar marina on our own, so yesterday's session was a lunch excursion to Harbour Town, with its circular yacht basin and make-believe lighthouse.  The entrance is narrow and marked with private aids, and we radioed ahead for courtesy dockage to eat at one of the restaurants.  We were assigned a slip and given directions, and told that dockhands would meet us.  So no more putting around and picking our own practice grounds -- I had to either make this slip or admit defeat and radio back for something less challenging.

As it turned out, we slid in easily on the first try, tied up, and had a nice lunch at the Crazy Crab.  Gary knows every harbormaster on the island, and after lunch we went to the office to get permission to do some more practice in their harbor.  We did two more practice dockings at different slips around the harbor, including backing in, before we decided that pretty much any slip there would be a slam-dunk, and we left.

Gary had one final curve-ball for me when we landed at our own dock back at Shelter Cove.  This time it was not my bow thruster that went out, but the upper control station. So far, all the docking and departures have been conducted from there, as I have much better visibility all the way around the boat.  In the cold and windy conditions we've had most days, I've then moved down to the warmth and comfort of the pilothouse helm only after clearing the harbor outer markers.  Docking from the lower helm was less of a challenge than, for example, docking without the thruster.  But I still prefer the visibility from the flybridge and I will generally man the maneuvering watch from there.

I spent a good part of the day Monday underneath the helm console.  While that may sound uncomfortable, once I am through the cabinet door, there is room for me to sit cross-legged in there mostly upright, move around, and even lie down fully.  I am starting to call it my man-cave.  I've been learning a great deal about our antiquated electronics suite, and I wanted to see why the radar gets no heading information, the stabilizers keep forgetting how fast we are going, and the radio on the flybridge doesn't know where we are.

The heading mystery was easily solved -- there is nothing at all connected to either the heading output of the autopilot, or the heading input of the radar display.  The Furuno radar takes some proprietary heading input format, but the Simrad autopilot supposedly speaks the Furuno dialect, so I ordered a cable to get the two talking.  Once that's done, we should be able to see the radar information overlaid onto the chart, which would be useful.

The root of the other electronics issues became apparent as I started following cables into a Gordian Knot that was more or less lying on the floor and bound together with zip-ties.  I must have clipped 30-odd zip ties in just a three-foot stretch of cable bundle to excavate to the heart of the matter.

What I found there is that our "NMEA junction box," where information from the GPS attached to the chartplotter is fed to other devices such as the stabilizers and radios, was actually just a bundle of wires zip-tied together, with the signal wires crimped, poorly, in a single crimp connector for each polarity.  I counted seven wires in each crimp.

Without boring you all with the intricate details of NMEA-0183 signals, let me just say that there is only one device that "talks" and multiple devices that "listen" on any given signal bus.  So for example, a GPS unit could be the talker, spitting out position, speed, and course information at regular intervals, while a radio might be listening to learn the ships position (in case someone pushes the "distress" button, which instantly transmits the position to the Coast Guard), and the stabilizers might be listening to learn the speed (so that they can automatically return to a centered position when the ship is moving too slowly for them to be effective).

A rule of thumb in such matters is that one talker can support at most three listeners, lest the signal power degrade to the point where it is unusable, or at least unreliable.  Sort of like how your water pressure starts to drop if you have too many faucets open at once. You might get away with four or even five connections, especially if all the wires are short, but seven listeners on one talker is beyond the pale, especially considering two of them are up on the flybridge, at the end of some 25' of cable with two splices in it.  So it was really no wonder that the two devices on the flybridge are getting no signal, and the stabilizers occasionally think we're stopped when we're doing six knots, causing them to slam to center with a mighty clunk that feels an awful lot like running aground.

To add insult to injury, there was really no reason for this.  The Furuno chartplotter, which is doing the talking, has not one but three different NMEA outputs, so it could conceivably talk to nine different devices at once without testing the limits of any signal receivers.  So by merely ordering a second cable, about $40 at the time, this all could have been done properly from the get-go.  Throw in a few $5 terminal strips and it could even look professional and be easy to understand and maintain, too.

Fortunately, the cable I ordered to get the heading information into the radar/chartplotter can do double-duty as the second talker to split these out.  And I will be moving one of the two radios from the Furuno output to the other chartplotter, which has its own dedicated GPS, so that we will still have a distress-capable radio working even if one of the two GPS chartplotters quits.  Today I updated the Furuno unit from software version 7, current when the boat was built, to version 20, the last release for this model.  That project required, you guessed it, yet another cable, which arrived yesterday.

Vector at the boat ramp.  One of the many docks where Gary had us practice.

Now that we are, essentially, done training, I will spend the next two weeks here getting many of these projects knocked out.  If I get lucky I might even find a replacement TV in time to install it before we get under way, but that is looking doubtful.  And stay tuned for the leaky water pump story. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I will retire to my man cave.


  1. Sorry to guide you wrong, but our insignia does have the earphone jack... But we just use it on the stand so we haven't worried about its thickness.... I do think Best Buy farms these units out to different vendors to build at their specs.... which could make it somewhat of a crap shoot as to what might really come out of the box.........

  2. I believe you can put your directv in vacation mode by calling customer service

    Rod Rogers

  3. Enjoyed your essay on the nema 0183 cables and was just wondering do you have a working/sending radio in your froward stateroom.

    1. We have no radios in the staterooms, but we do have a handheld VHF that we could bring down with us if needed. The MSR is directly below the pilothouse, and when we are alone aboard, we keep the door open, and we can hear anything that happens up there. The forward stateroom, BTW, is the guest quarters.

  4. Sorry to, but not in the least surprised to hear of your experience with that particular retailer.
    The only time I ever shop at "worst Buy" is to compare models. Then I go to the nearest "Mom and Pop" outfit and make my purchase. Whether the price is competitive or not is mostly irrelevant, as I'd sooner deal with someone perhaps more my age, rather than some pimply faced kid. Same applies to "Futile Shop" as well I find.
    Best of luck.

  5. Yes, Best Buy is disappointing, they don't carry a lot of stock in their stores. I was looking for Streets and Trips 2013 in the US, BB didn't have it but Wal-Mart did! It seems only a matter of time until the end of BB!


  6. I enjoy reading your updates! Fascinating for a non technical type like myself to follow your trouble shooting techniques and processes. I have no doubt the radar will be overlaid on your chart plotter in short order. Thanks for taking time to write it up and share.


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