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Voyaging

PC Charting Page 2

PC Charting

An opinionated screen-shot show and shopping guide.

By Ben Ellison — June 2006

   
 More of this Feature

• Part 1: PC Charting
• Part 2: PC Charting
• Part 3: PC Charting
• Chart Descriptions and Sources


 Related Resources
• Electronics Index

Hardware

Hardware is the real bugaboo of ECS. Oh, it’s easy enough to hook a GPS to a laptop; there are even simple USB GPS “mice” that may work okay in the windows of a pilothouse (an external antenna will be better). But as soon as you try to, say, send a route to an onboard plotter or handheld GPS (a smart backup practice), you’re apt to run into the frustrations of the NMEA 0183 protocol, which never firmly defined routes. Check, then, whether a particular ECS supports your particular GPS. And realize that while most programs can connect to depth sensors, autopilots, etc. via 0183, actually making that work may involve a fair bit of fiddling and possibly extra hardware like multiplexers. The better programs have wizards able to find NMEA inputs and also extensive controls to manage NMEA input/ output.

On the other hand, another current ECS attraction is how quickly developers supported the new technology of AIS receivers. Almost every program I tested can take the receiver input and plot the big ships in your vicinity, a real comfort in certain places at certain times. Yes, there’s some NMEA fiddling involved, which is why combo GPS/AIS receivers are especially attractive, but it is doable.

It is possible today for a boat to have all its small data sensors running on a NMEA 2000 network and thus easily tapped into by a PC, but it’s still rare. Also still fairly rare are the high-end, high-speed proprietary relationships between PCs and not just small sensors, but radars and displays…the whole enchilada. As noted, several of the big companies are working in this direction.

A system integrating on-deck, purpose-built control/display heads with a down-below PC also gets around another hardware issue: the simple fact that generic computers were not designed to go to sea. Admittedly a lot of boaters are doing just fine with a laptop on the chart table, but there is another long article possible about how to rig a high-bright flying bridge display, long-range RF mice, touch-screen technology, special-built, 12-volt PCs, etc.

Interface

ECS interfaces are extremely variable, and qualities one user likes another may not. Here’s where hands-on research will really pay off. When you demo an ECS, try developing a route. How hard is it to move or name a waypoint or insert a new one in an existing leg? Can you turn a route into a plan with ETAs, possibly with current and fuel consumption predictions? (A tip: The efficient strategy for route making with an ECS is to start off on a large area chart, rough out the whole route, then zoom down to the most detailed level and modify/add waypoints as needed.)

Then use the ECS’ DR or simulator function to follow your route. You may well find, as I have, that you want one screen layout for planning and another for underway, an idea that several programs support neatly. Also try registering any and all compatible charts you have and see how the ECS manages and displays them; auto zooming, quilting, anti-aliasing, vector controls…there is a lot to this.

If an ECS supports tide and current overlays or graphs, gazetteers, marina data, harbor photos, weather overlay, or any other added resources, I recommend that you experiment with any and all. After all, an ECS can conceivably replace a shelf full of reference books, but making all the auxiliary data easily found and viewed is not simple.

Of course there’s much else to try, including a program’s manual and online help files. There’s always more to learn. The reason that there are two independently produced and thorough tutorials for Nobeltec’s VNS is not that the program is particularly hard but because it can do so much (and so many people use it).

Of course there’s much else to try, including a program’s manual and online help files. There’s always more to learn. The reason that there are two independently produced and thorough tutorials for Nobeltec’s VNS is not that the program is particularly hard but because it can do so much (and so many people use it).

Next page > Part 3: PC Charting > Page 1, 2, 3, 4

This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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