Beyond Black and White Page 3

Beyond Black and White

Part 3: Extras

By Ben Ellison — March 2003




Several of the test machines used softkeys to great effect. Northstar in particular combines them with vividly graphic menus to guide you through complex processes without ever seeming to present too many choices at once. Raymarine and Furuno work similarly, with the latter adding a retro and useful rotating knob for fast selections. But softkeys aren't essential; Garmin's well-organized and tabbed master menu also struck me as easily learned.

Chart zooming and panning speeds are, as always, important to pleasing performance. The whole test litter was definitely faster than previous generations but could be faster still. To really get a feel for a particular unit, you should work with a chart cartridge and make sure you move through the chart scales and borders inherited from the paper world. You might also try laying out and modifying a route, routines that will test many of these usability factors. The exercise may also test your patience, especially on smaller screen plotters, but note that alternate ways to build routes on a home or down-below computer are among the many other features offered by most every plotter these days.

I've just skimmed the basics of chartplotters to this point, and yet there's little room to discuss all the extras that distinguish brands from one another. Most involve how a plotter relates to other instruments or performs added duties. At the high-end are the proprietary high speed networks that allow integration with separate radars, fishfinders, computers, or whole other nav stations. An odd twist on that story is how Raymarine has created its new "SL" line of markedly lower-cost plotters simply by removing the HSB2 capabilities. Meanwhile, Northstar has added a radar option to its larger plotters, and able black box sounders continue to multiply. Furuno, Si-Tex, and Interphase all let you monitor video cameras (or TV) on your plotter, while Standard will plot and keep records of DSC calls when attached to its brand of VHF radios. Navman has a fuel-flow meter option that I found impressive, at least after I got over the shock of finding out my precise mpg at speed.

And to top it all off, that paragraph was written prior to the anticipated deluge of spring product announcements. Altogether, this is a good news/bad news story. While it's reassuring to test seven brands and not find a rotten apple in the bunch, it's disconcerting to contemplate how many brands and models you have to choose from in this hot and competitive market. Any plotter will be useful, but some research might get you close to personal perfection.


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

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