— November 2001
By Ben Ellison
|Part 2: Transflective Displays|
I observed similar display issues while testing some slick new software that enables live charting on various handheld devices that run under Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system. Noting that handheld PCs had acquired just enough memory and processor power to handle charting, a programmer named Richard Stephens took on the challenge. He chose to work with digital raster charts, which offer the familiarity of paper charts but are also computationally cumbersome. He did a bang-up job.
His Pocket Navigator program is blazingly fast and simple to operate. I tried it on a Fujitsu tablet computer that Stephens' Memory-Map Company markets as a complete, if unusual, chartplotter. You plug it into your home PC, select the charts you want for a particular trip, perhaps add some routes, and then download it all to the Fujitsu. Now you have a plotter with an eight-inch-diagonal screen that can accept a GPS card or connect to your boat's unit. The touch screen and stylus worked well for additional routing, zooming, and scrolling.
The Fujitsu comes with Pocket Word and Excel as well as e-mail and Web connectivity. In short, here's a chartplotter that might also be quite useful to a boater at anchor just about anywhere. Unfortunately, its long battery life is predicated on a reflective color screen with modest side lighting that I found even weaker than the Garmin's in medium-light and shade conditions.
There are all sorts of handheld PCs out there, and Maptech--recognizing the quality of Stephens's programming--has introduced a licensed version of Pocket Navigator that integrates with the rich mix of chart, topographic, and photo imagery bundled in its ChartKit PC products. Tim Sullivan, Maptech's business strategist, thinks small charting handheld PCs are useful for small boats and tenders and as back-up systems. I agree and also think they have a certain geek chic that would be a lot of fun to show off around a marina. (Rumor has it that Nobeltec is also working on a handheld product that will display its vector charts.) Sullivan showed me the system at work on a Compaq iPaq, whose reflective screen generates remarkably rich color in direct sunshine, though again it made me squint in medium light.
With the experience of four reflective/ transflective chart displays, I'm obviously disappointed with the handhelds' performance in certain light conditions, but I do see a "bright" future for the technology. It surely makes handheld charting possible, and I'm assuming that ambitious engineers will eventually get the small screens as bright and smooth as Simrad's big fixed unit. I'm also guessing the Simrad series may be the first of a new generation of more efficient and less expensive big displays (emphasis on guessing, as display technology is moving fast).
Unfortunately, comparing the performances of sunlight viewable screens when they're not at hand is darn difficult. For one thing, most product photographs are doctored; the screen image is actually a computer screen shot pasted in with a software program called PhotoShop. I don't fault the manufacturers for doing this, as I know how hard it is to photograph these units accurately in bright sunlight. Frankly, none of my photographs in this column do the displays justice. Reality lies somewhere between these images and the seductive shots you see in ads.
Wouldn't it be great if boat show producers set up an outside exhibit area for these electronics? Then, under a bright sun and with a piece of cardboard to simulate shade or cloud cover, we consumers might get a grip on the magnificent multitude of display types and technologies competing for our strained eyes.
This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.