The majority of cruising boats now carry a laptop computer, and use this for a variety of purposes. Having blown the motherboard of ours trying to connect it to the service batteries, we now have two.
The first will now only run on 240v. (rather than its internal battery) but serves as a dedicated 'navigation' computer. It is never connected to the internet, so runs 'stripped down' without any unnecessary programs, such as anti-virus services, getting in the way. It also has a copy of our music, so that that we can play it while going along without additional current drain. It is tucked away under the chart table, and the lid closed down. We do not need a keyboard with our navigation software (Chartwork Neptune), but the mouse and keyboard do operate through a 'wireless' interface. A remote flat screen is mounted on the back of the chart table with a home made 'gantry' which allows it to be tilted, and when needed it can be angled for viewing from the saloon seating to watch DVD's. The advantage of this is that the laptop is secure, the chart table is clear when on passage, and the remote screen can be switched off to save power when not needed.
Our other laptop is used for most other purposes, including connection to the internet. It is our primary place for storing our documentation, e-mails, photographs, music, etc. It is protected by anti-virus and a firewall when connected to the internet.
The internet provides us with limitless entertainment, and is a major means for staying in touch with the family and events elsewhere. In addition to e-mail, it provides us with weather forecasts, enables us to book flights, hire cars, research and order spares for the boat. The only problem is how and where to connect, and at what cost?
We started off by relying on the GPRS (supposedly faster) service through our UK-based mobile phone. We did not realise we would incur penal costs on 'roaming' with GPRS, including as far away as Guernsey. We should have known. This was augmented by our PC helped by Bill Gates, who was trying to download Windows updates while on line without us realising this.
We then started to use local pay as you go services via our mobile phone, but at this point our UK ISP changed its access number to one that was not accessible from abroad! We then used a service via 'gonuts4free' offering 'free' local access in Spain, but not available in Portugal. Finally we switched to BudgetDialUp. Although this is not free, the connection charges are modest, and local telephone access is available in a large number of countries worldwide.
In Lagos and Almerimar, we were fortunate to find people offering unofficial wireless network access that was affordable. This is still the best way to go, as usually the volume of traffic is not limited, and the performance should be better. Marina provided services have been very variable and expensive. We used to be able to listen to our favourite Classic FM from the UK (and so hear the news summaries, road traffic reports and weather forecasts that remind us how lucky we are to be here), and use the internet at will. In 2006, finding a wireless link became something of an obsession, and we were even to be found 'cruising' around harbours and towns looking for the elusive unsecured wireless link.
Now in Sardinia, matters have turned full circle once more! We originally signed up with Vodafone for our our local Italian mobile service, but on arrival in Cagliari we learnt that TIM provided a more economical broadband connection (UMTS/GPRS) via mobile phone for only 20euros a month, including connection via the 3G network. We quickly changed, and after a few initial (sign-up and how-to) difficulties, have enjoyed this during our stay in Italy with a dramatic decrease in our communications costs as a result. It has not however had the consistency and speed of our wireless access in previous winters, so we have not had 'home radio'.
We prefer to use Outlook on our laptop to prepare e-mails for transmission, and to retain a local history of all mail sent and received. To do this you need access to a mail service provider who will provide a POP (incoming) and SMTP (outgoing) mail service: many ISP's will not allow you access to theirs if you come in from 'outside'. Having tried a number of solutions, including a 'local' SMTP server on the laptop (often resulting in bounced messages), a Yahoo mail account (modest charge, poor performance), we have now alighted on Google G-mail. This offers everything you need, and is free, even retaining copies of your sent mail. It is often handy if you are relying on doubtful links to be able to log in to an internet site and unblock your mail queue that is gummed up by that helpful and amusing attachment that someone has sent you.
We installed an SSB transceiver, primarily for safety reasons and for use if and when we go further afield. Many cruisers use theirs, in conjunction with a Pactor modem (which we do not have), for the transmission and receipt of e-mails. The performance is slow, and volume limited, but Winlink is free (restricted to radio amateurs with a 'ham' license, and Sailmail is a subscription service at moderate cost. It is of course available off shore.
Some cruisers carry a sattelite phone. This provides a link to e-mail and to emergency services within the sattelite coverage, but is relatively expensive to set up and use. Inmarsat-C offers a text only service, and the equipment is sufficiently compact to be fitted to most cruising sailing boats.
With a broadband or wireless service, it becomes possible to use Skype or similar voice over internet services. We have recently acquired a webcam, and hope to enjoy the occasional call with our family in the UK and New Zealand.
We try to use our mobiles as little as possible! Text messages have been good for keeping in touch without incurring too much cost. We use a second phone, our 'roaming' UK one, if we go out independently and need to keep in touch, and it is useful to have in case you need to pretend to be available in the UK, for which a phone number is sometimes essential!
In most of Europe, there are cheap phone cards that offer a very effective way of getting in touch by voice, although we have never mastered the art of buying and using one.