|Electronics — October 2004
By Ben Ellison
Thank You, Mr. Gates
|Part 2: He stood by his ambitious goal to “raise the bar in the world of PC charting.”|
Similarly, the detail in government Coast Pilots is monitored and easily available for quick display in CE’s ever-present “properties box” (lower right in the screen shots on previous page), in contrast to other programs that access it as more awkward help or .pdf files. Now, the dry but useful Pilot info is favored by salty types, who will also appreciate CE details like how a chart click will display the name, date, and scale of the underlying paper equivalent—information that is, again, available in other programs but not nearly so obviously (and not at all on some plotters). I wondered how a young guy who spent all those years in a Microsoft cubicle came to put emphasis on traditional navigation practices, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Christian grew up in a boating family and spent some of his pre-58-foot-yacht cubicle days studying books like Chapman’s and Bowditch.
Another of CE’s salty features—inspired, in fact, by Christian’s reading of the regulatory standards for big-ship nav systems—is automated detection of route obstacles. As you lay down waypoints, CE notates rocks, shallows, or buoys near or under your route legs, and the list is available for latter reference (in the properties box, of course, and clickable to the relevant chart detail). CE, like Maptech’s i3 system and most plotters running C-Map NT+ maps, can also warn you of dangers ahead even if you’re not on a route. By the way, Nobeltec’s latest 7.0 software can actually create a route given just start and end points (though quite sluggishly). But this is the first time I’ve seen an interactive route checker, and I think it nicely aids and reinforces smart routing habits.
Any software needs a soundings database or a vector chart to do this sort of intelligent analysis of what’s in your boat’s path. CE uses the vector Electronic Navigation Charts (ENCs) that are becoming an international standard and that are also being distributed free in the United States (see “From Hand-Drawn to Databased,” May 2004). CE comes with all currently available ENCs and a facility for easily downloading new ones as NOAA fills out and updates its coverage. It also offers speedy, quilted display of SoftChart and Maptech raster charts and has the alternate underway interface—easier to see at a distance than normal Windows style and usable on a touchscreen, too—that’s rightfully become common on better PC charting programs.
Developers of new PC software do not have an obligation to support users with older versions of Windows, and thus CE (and MapCruiser) will only run on, and make maximum use of, Windows XP and 2000. In fact, in planning mode, CE’s menus look a lot like Word, Excel, etc. and the powerful “MyRoute” files (see “Q&A” this column) are handily stored in the “My Documents” folder. “Recreational users may not use a charting program for six months at a time but are usually familiar with common Windows programs,” says Christian. He put a lot of work into a comprehensible interface, including feedback from several hundred beta testers, and I think he succeeded. CE’s main chart screen can be easily split and rotated but is almost never messed over with dialog boxes or multilevel menus. Most of the added info, waypoint naming, etc. is seen or accomplished in the properties area.
But comfort level with any user interface is a somewhat subjective matter; the best way to decide for yourself is to download a demo version of CE. You may notice that some fairly common PC charting features aren’t included yet; current overlay arrows are at the top of Christian’s “to do” list, followed by weather forecasting (hopefully via compact and free GRIB files that NOAA may disseminate) and then possibly a 3-D display. Actually, he had an interesting take on the latter in a test version of CE (heck, he helped create Word 1.0 and Microsoft’s X-Box game machine) but chopped it out because it was not up to his ease-of-use standards.
The last time I spoke with Christian, he sounded a bit perplexed about how he’d come to spend a summer weekend putting the finishing touches on CE version 1.0 (which sells for $300) while his beloved Urania (both the Greek muse of astronomy and a classy little ferry that once served his part of Lake Washington) sat at her slip. He stood by his ambitious goal to “raise the bar in the world of PC charting” and wryly added, “though I hadn’t really planned to go up against Boeing (Boeing now owns Nobeltec) in my retirement!”
In fact, he’s going up against a slew of able charting programs, not to mention a passel of dedicated marine multifunction displays that are rapidly gaining the power and flexibility of computers (without some of the PC headaches). But I say let’s make Christian feel welcome—the more the merrier. And if I ever run into a “retired” Microsoft programmer in some harbor, I’m planning to invite him over for beer or coffee…and to see if I can find out what he’s up to.
Rose Point Navigation Phone: (425) 765-2976. www.rosepointnav.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.