PC or Plotter?

Electronics - October 2002
Electronics October 2002
By Ben Ellison

PC or Plotter?
It may sound complicated, but often the right strategy is both.

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• Part 1: PC or Plotter?
• Part 2: PC or Plotter?
• Electronics Q&A

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I've written a lot about charting programs and plotters over the last few years, and one byproduct of that work is "the question." By e-mail, by phone, or right on the dock, it goes something like this: "Should I get a plotter or a PC charting program?" In formulating a response, there are all sorts of variables to consider--voyage plans, nav station setup, PC tolerance level, and budget, to name a few--but for many situations these days my answer is "both." The core idea is that current plotter and PC technologies have certain complementary strengths (and weaknesses), and, by creating a combination system, you can enjoy the best of both and gain some precious redundancy in the bargain.

Let me describe a real-life system I helped put together for a friend a few years ago. As a boater Jack is experienced and adventurous, but rather the opposite with computers. Nonetheless, he owned a fast laptop and liked the familiarity of the paper-like charts that were then only available on PCs (Northstar 961 excepted). So we set up fiddles and a foam pad to secure the laptop near the helm of his 36-foot Downeast-style cruiser, and alongside it we installed a Garmin 162 mapping GPS with an external antenna and the simple but all-important computer data cable.

We then loaded two software packages, along with two flavors of electronic maps, onto the laptop. ChartView 3.0, notable for its solid display engine and ease of use, reads a variety of SoftChart, Maptech, and NDI raster charts thoroughly covering Jack's Nova Scotia-to-Chesapeake cruising ground. (ChartView, once part of the Nobeltec software stable, is no longer being developed but is still marketed by Weems and Plath). MapSource provides a way to move chunks of Garmin's inexpensive, low-resolution cartography--like U.S. Waterways--to the 162; the simple coast outlines and nav-aid information are quite suitable to the machine's 4.2-inch (diagonal) gray-scale screen.

All this may sound complicated, but the result is powerful. Jack usually plans his cruises at home, supplementing all the data on his laptop with guide books and large-area paper charts spread around his den; hence he can carefully, and with mouse-click ease, build thorough and numerous routes. Once onboard, he uploads these routes to the Garmin, a critical step in the master plan, and off he goes. During harbor entrances and in other tricky areas, he focuses on the laptop with its full-chart detail, the little plotter LCD serving nicely as a zoomed-out second display. At slow speeds, he can still manage the keyboard and mouse. While the boat is on fast legs, the Garmin alone can provide sufficient nav data, given the prior route planning, and is also less distracting and easier to use while on a plane.

The system's redundancy is comforting. If the laptop goes down, Jack has his routes and sketch charts on the little plotter; in the less likely event that the plotter fails, he has his laptop and an old handheld GPS to drive it. In either case, he is quickly back in business with routes intact. And there's more. When and if software updates are available, Jack or his faithful service person (me) can easily install them on the laptop or, via the laptop, on the plotter. We were thus able to turn the 162 into a WAAS-accurate unit a year after the original installation. When and if Jack moves up to a flying-bridge cruiser, the laptop could continue to serve him well, connected with a longer data wire to a more fully featured plotter above.

Next page > PC or Plotter? continued > Page 1, 2, 3

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

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