— June 2003
By Ben Ellison
CD Summer School
Are touchscreen monitors the way to go on boats? J.T., via e-mail
There are several different technologies currently used to make a screen touch-sensitive, but unfortunately each one seems to have some drawback for boating use. The most common (resistive) method cuts screen brightness by 15 to 25 percent, a real hit if that screen is also working hard to compete with sunlight. Another (capacitive) method is more transmissive (i.e., lets more light through) but won't work if you happen to have a glove on. All add expense and fragility to the displays, plus there's the issue of mucking them up with greasy or salty fingers.
However, there's no doubt that touchscreens can make software easier to use, especially if the software is set up with large buttons suitable to blunt fingertips. Charting programs can particularly benefit from a touch interface. A good example involves the way PC plotters can be set up to show more of the chart ahead of the boat and less behind. This is a terrific feature that makes better use of precious screen space and is thankfully coming to dedicated plotters (see the new Raymarine R435 on page 40). Still, you need to learn a new menu item, and the feature is rather inflexible, offsetting your vessel a fixed proportion. But on a touchscreen system where the software designers have made maximum use of the interface--seen on several of the better PDA charting products as well as the Sea Ray Navigator--you simply drag your vessel wherever you want it, and the chart will move under it. In other words, the feature is simultaneously much more powerful and easier to implement. That's what we want!
So I'm hoping that the engineers will figure out how to make touchscreens cheaper, tougher, and more light-transmissive so they'll work better on boats. I must add that I was recently disappointed to find out that the tablet computers being pushed so heavily these days are not as suitable to navigation as I first guessed. They use an "active digitizer" stylus, which has certain pluses for regular PC work but won't let you simply reach out and touch. Drat!
Got a marine electronics question? Write to Electronics Q&A, Power & Motoryacht, 260 Madison Ave., 8th Fl., New York, NY 10016. Fax: (917) 256-2282. e-mail: PMYElectronics@primediamags.com. No phone calls please.
This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.