Beyond Black and White

Beyond Black and White

Hands-on advice for finding the right color plotter.

By Ben Ellison — March 2003




Motoring along last summer there were moments when I almost committed a navigational boo-boo. The problem was not a failure to know where I was but rather that, due to the fact that I was engaged in some serious product testing, I often had three or four color chartplotters vying for my attention at the same time. The testing went on into winter, and as I write this, seven machines are set up in the shop, where I can noodle with them safely. While I've learned a lot, a simple "this one is the best" analysis is just not possible or even a good idea in my opinion.

The fact is that all seven test subjects are quite competent plotters, and there are numerous competitive products that didn't get into my test group and yet more that are about to be released. I dare say that every one of them will do a decent job of accurately showing position on an electronic chart. In other words, you can't go terribly wrong no matter which one you choose. On the other hand, there are nearly infinite differences between displays, interfaces, and feature sets, and you need to learn the details to get the most out of any given device. That's where I can help. The following observations and enhanced photos (note that it's nearly impossible to take a picture of an LCD screen that looks as good as reality) will hopefully help you to shop--and plot---wisely.

It takes color--bright, crisp color--to make sense of chart details. Consumers know that already, as indicated by the rapidly falling sales of gray-scale plotters, despite their lower costs. The difficulty is deciding amongst all the available displays, whose quality varies a great deal. It doesn't help that most shopping excursions are limited to the unrealistic lighting of stores and boat shows. Ideally, you'll find a dealer where the plotters can at least be checked out under sunlit windows.

At any rate, raw screen brightness is perhaps the most critical element in happy viewing, and it is pretty much a function of price, though not completely so. In my test group, the Standard Horizon 170c seemed exceptionally bright for its cost. But there are many, many more factors to a good display. Antiglare coatings and color saturation are significant, if subtle, technicalities. The value of sharply drawn and readable fonts is more obvious, and you may be surprised, as I was, at how many machines still use thin and/or clunky text, particularly in their menu systems. Similarly, color can really help make text, data, and nonchart displays, like tide curves, easier to comprehend, though you'll find that not every manufacturer has gotten around to using it thoroughly.


This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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