PC or Plotter? Page 2

Electronics - October 2002 - Part 2
Electronics October 2002
By Ben Ellison

PC or Plotter?
Part 2: We’re now seeing a variety of ways to simplify this situation.

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I'm not suggesting that you run out and duplicate Jack's specific setup, but rather that you develop a strategy for electronic charting that includes similar tactics, somehow combining the flexibility and power of the PC platform with the reliability and simplicity of the plotter. The good sense of this proposition is validated by the ever-increasing number of products that support it. While most PC charting programs can talk intelligently about routes with most popular plotters, the conversation is not well-covered in the NMEA 0183 protocol, and annoying glitches can happen. We’re now seeing a variety of ways to simplify this situation.

For instance, last winter C-Map introduced its clever PC Planner. The product consists of rudimentary charting software, a blank user card, and a USB dual-card reader. Pop the blank into one slot and a regular C-Map card in the other, and you're viewing your charts on the full glory of a PC monitor and making plans in the comfort of your nav station or home. It's easy to write routes to the user card, and many plotters are already able to read them (others may require upgrading). Garmin introduced a variation on this theme; its card reader/writer lets you use existing BlueChart cards with your PC or even create your own cards but does not yet support route transferals (of course, a direct wire connection works smoothly with Garmin's own plotters). Neither company's PC product is as powerful as most full-bore charting programs, but they do provide fast route making and--with computer and extra GPS aboard--able backup systems and thus are attractive add-ons for those skippers who focus most of their attention and budget on their plotters.

There are also new redundancy strategies available to those who favor PC navigation. One system that spins my beanie propeller is Maptech's Pocket Navigator combined with the Compaq iPaq PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) and Navman GPS sleeve. Sitting in its USB cradle next to an onboard PC system, and assuming some of Jack's route uploading discipline, it's easily ready to serve as a backup plotter if needed or spiffy shore-side exploration gizmo when wanted. Nobeltec is talking about similar PDA software that would work efficiently with its Passport charts, and Fugawi's charting software will work with Palm Pilots.

Meanwhile, signs abound that the big boys of marine electronics will fully incorporate PCs into their product lines sooner or later. About-to-be-released RayTech 4.1 will let C-Maps flow freely from PC to plotter, or vice versa, as routes already do over Raymarine's proprietary networks. The company is also planning to launch a marine computer dedicated to running RayTech at a high level of redundant integration with its regular hardware. Furuno, to my knowledge, does not yet have a competing product but could easily enable one (or more) by opening its NavNet code to existing marine PC hardware and software developers, as NavNet's underlying Ethernet communications is already an open standard. And, finally, I have seen the serious PC gear that Simrad has developed for its commercial fishing and oilfield customers and could scale down to yachts any day now. In short, while the "PC or Plotter" question will eventually go away, it looks like I'll have plenty to tell you about in the process.

Ben Ellison has been a delivery captain and navigation instructor for nearly 30 years and was recently editor of Reed's Nautical Almanacs.

Next page > Electronics Q&A > Page 1, 2, 3

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

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