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Even the most experienced mariners can make huge mistakes without up-to-date charts and plotting technology.  With ever-changing navigation aids and obstructions underwater, it is critical to have the most up-to-date charts to avoid hazards. 

Dedicated chart plotters are very helpful tools designed for this exact purpose, but late model plotters can come with a hefty price tag that is out of the budget of a lot of leisure boaters. A more cost-effective and user-friendly solution is an Automatic Indicator System, or AIS, transponder. These systems are commonly known as black boxes, and they work similarly to the ones found on airplanes. Not only do they pinpoint location for the boater, they transmit location data about every minute so that if an emergency happens, rescue crews know exactly where to look.

The best black box a boater can buy is the Vesper Marine XB-8000.

Imagine this: you are in your favorite spot to relax on your boat. The autopilot is on, and you have your (virgin) tropical beverage of choice in-hand. You’re reading a riveting sailing tale on your iPad, when suddenly you see a ferry that might be crossing your path.

Traditionally, you’d have to make your way to the helm, check on the chart plotter, and possibly re-adjust your course… but not if you have the XB-8000 installed on your boat. If you had the best black box a boater can buy, all you’d have to do is go to your navigation application on your iPad, check and possibly re-route your course, and continue sipping your frothy beverage.

The XB-8000 combines three instruments into one very compact device: an AIS transponder, a secure WiFi router, and a NMEA 2000 gateway that translates instrument data so it can be used on chartplotters and even smartphones, tablets and computers.

Unlike some other AIS transponders that can have annoying wires protruding from them, the cables and inputs for the XB-8000 fit completely within the footprint of the instrument: a genius idea for boaters who know that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Once installed and up-and-running, iPads, computers and smartphones can connect to the XB-8000. When using a navigation application, such as iNavX, detailed charts and other AIS-transmitting boats’ positions are immediately and automatically loaded into the application. Other similar products take minutes to load similar data, and we were really impressed with the speed and ease of the whole process.

Sam Landsman (an ironic name for a boater, if you ask yours truly) of WaggonerGuide.com says

After using the XB-8000 for a month, I’m impressed. Installation was straightforward, only taking a few hours (quite a feat for this electrical novice)… If you’re looking to add AIS to your boat, consider the offerings from Vesper Marine. They’re cutting edge, highly regarded, easy to use, and effective.

Other AIS transponders may have one or two highlighted features that rival the XB-8000, but none of them have as many extra perks as the Vesper model. Let’s look at the other transponders we tested.

Raymarine AIS650 is the closest competition we could find to the XB-8000. It receives class A and B AIS transmissions, and seamlessly integrates with Raymarine chart plotters and other instruments. That is great, if you happened to have an all-Raymarine equipped cockpit.

It comes with a USB port to connect to computers, but the XB-8000’s WiFi connection is infinitely more convenient for computer and mobile device use. Finally, note how the inputs for the device are at the very end of the machine’s footprint. This secures the wires in a fashion that is more susceptible to bumps, tugs, and accidents, which we all know are bound to happen at some point while sailing.

With the lowest price tag of the transponders we tested, the Comar AIS CSB-200 does the standard work of an AIS transponder. It connects to a range of different chart-plotters and navigation programs, and all of the reviews we’ve read say that instillation and integration was quick and very doable, which we found as well. Its best attribute is it comes with a built-in antenna splitter, so you can use your existing VHF antenna.

However, it just simply cannot compare to the number of features the XB-8000 offers. The CSB-200 can’t connect to WiFi, and further, it cannot connect your iPad, iPhone or laptop to the internet. In addition, the unit itself is not weather-proof, so it must be mounted inside the boat, away from any spray. It is a viable option if you need to save a few hundred dollars, but it simply is not the best black box for sailors.

The final competitor we tested was from a brand that is trusted around the world: The Garmin AIS 600. Like the XB-8000, it can be mounted above deck, and has an IPX7 waterproof rating, meaning it can be submerged at one meter’s depth for 30 minutes without failing.

As an AIS transponder, it has similar functionality to the XB-8000, and it transmits NMEA 2000 instrument data like the XB-8000. When integrated with a Garmin VHF radio, a sailor can call another ship straight from the AIS data found on the chart-plotter.

The biggest drawback, and why we ultimately chose the XB-8000 for the best black box, is the WiFi. Try to remember back to that imaginary (virgin) frothy tropical beverage, and the frame of mind you could be in when you can correct your course from your most relaxed state. For us, the lack of WiFi connection is a deal-breaker.l

And that brings us back to the Vesper XB-8000. It combines all of the features of other AIS transponders, and it acts as its own WiFi router, in case you don’t have the best long-range WiFi antenna. It truly offers the most advanced technology in any AIS transponder available today.

Andrew Golden of Sail-World.com says “The highly sophisticated, Vesper Marine XB-8000 enhances the flexibility, interactivity and convenience of accessing relevant, critical AIS safety information on the water.”

Having the XB-8000 transponder on your boat can also lead to more friends on the water. You can see every boat that transmits an AIS signal, and with that you can see the boat’s name, course and any other relevant information through a process Vesper calls “Instant Target Acquisition.” Many other AIS transponders take up to five minutes to display the same data, because static information like the boat’s name is only transmitted every six minutes.

Vesper is also open-sourcing their devices so that many different iOS apps are integrated with the XB-8000. One app, NavPlay, allows you to draw a course with your finger on an iPad, and send it directly to your autopilot. Now that’s sailing in the 21st century!

Panbo.com’s Ben Ellison said, “I’ve had a Vesper XB-8000 installed in the lab for the last month, and I’m confident that it will do well in a long test on board Gizmo starting in May”.

Overall, having any AIS transponder on your boat vastly increases the safety of sailing in crowded waters. With technologically advanced features like the ability to kick back and correct your course wirelessly from any internet-enabled device, the Vesper XB-8000 is the ultimate in safety and relaxation for sailors.

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