Features January 2008 Issue

Navigating NavPak Pro Software Not Exactly Smooth Sailing

In an update to our recent review of navigation software for sailors, testers tried out Navpak Pro, a product we found to be better suited for the full-time navigator than the weekend warrior.

Since the comprehensive look at navigation software in September 2006 ("Nav Software Wars"), Practical Sailor has reviewed several other software packages, ranging from expensive, full-featured programs like Raytech RNS v6.0 (April 2007) and the updated Nobeltech v9.0 (August 2007), to some surprisingly powerful programs that cost next to nothing ("Cheaper Charting," October 2007).

NavPak Pro
NavPak Pro’s overlay function allows you to “write” on the digital page as you would a print chart.

Many readers have asked us to test NavPak Pro, a program developed by the Global Navigation Software Co. The NavPak product line includes Professional ($248) and Lite editions ($135) for PC computers and a Pocket Edition ($119) for pocket PC computers. The maker says these programs are not aimed at beginners. They are designed to appeal to navigators who like to use digital charts as if they were paper charts.

How we tested

Our evaluation followed the same protocol as the previous navigation software reviews, focusing primarily on how well the software handles basic navigation functions such as plotting waypoints and planning a route. Ease of installation, stability, and user interface were also evaluated. To test the equipment, we used a Dell Latitude D620 laptop equipped with a BU-353 USB GPS ($70) and interfaced with a Garmin GPS48 and a GPS12.

Installation

A free demo version of NavPak Pro can be downloaded easily from the NavPak website. An activation code, sent by e-mail upon purchase, fully enables the software. Like most other software, NavPak does not require a multiplexer to interface with various National Marine Electronic Association (NMEA) hardware, such as a GPS. However, the software doesn’t automatically detect and configure onboard instruments. Instead users must carry out a complex, multi-step process that requires knowledge of the particular data—NMEA "sentences"—that each onboard device sends. Our tester needed to call the tech support in order to interface with onboard instruments. We assume most users will, too.

NavPak Pro includes worldwide C-Map coverage in offshore and general scales (not large-scale harbor charts), a nice bonus. All versions of NavPak also will work with a wide variety of vector and raster charts, including the free S-57 vector and raster charts available online from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (http://nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/). For navigation between several different charts, the charts must be grouped into libraries, an added step to installation.

While it lags behind other programs in some areas—particularly in user interface for the first-time digital navigator—NavPak has some features that a full-time navigator can better appreciate. Testers particularly liked the vector overlays for drawing, plotting, and adding text. Effectively, these overlays let you draw and make notes on your digital charts as you would with a paper chart. To make things easier, the overlays are redrawn at the proper scale as you pan and zoom. The overlay files are completely separate from chart, waypoint, and track files. They can be used with all the chart formats supported by NavPak (except C-Map), or they can be used alone to save as an illustrated plotting sheet. Even some of the most sophisticated software programs that our testers have reviewed in the past did not feature this ability. This function is so useful that Practical Sailor believes it should be essential to any navigation program.

NavPak also allows users to scan their own charts/photos/sketches, and to assign or edit datums for any chart. This is a handy feature, since many places in the world have not been surveyed since World War II.

Usability

Even a computer geek will have trouble becoming familiar with NavPak Pro without first spending several hours reading—from the beginning—the program’s Help file...or calling tech support. We opted for the latter, and the response was excellent.

One problem is that many common chartplotting functions, such as panning and zooming, are not effectively integrated with the mouse, making these functions less intuitive than they are in other software programs. Instead, keystrokes and a scroll bar control common chartplotter function such as panning. When plotting a course using different scale charts, Practical Sailor found that NavPak was not as user-friendly as other programs we have tested. The solution is to plot an approximation of the desired course at a small scale, then zoom in and edit the course in segments.

On the plus side, the "Write and Edit Routes" function has a nice security feature that prevents the navigator from accidentally altering a course, a problem on other navigation software.

Conclusion

NavPak is a no-nonsense product that does not place much computational demand on a computer. It has important safeguards that other programs lack, and it earned an Excellent rating for tech support. It really shines when you’re dead-reckoning and using the overlay function. Also, it works with numerous chart formats (see Value Guide at right). However, compared to its competitors, it is not user-friendly, and it is awkward to learn and set up.

If you spend many hours a day navigating, or insist on having the unique overlay abilities, then you might consider NavPak Pro. Otherwise, the following products, detailed in the previous articles are better options: For most sailors wanting a user-friendly program, Practical Sailor recommends either the Maptech Chart Navigator Pro ($500, www.maptech.com) or Rose Point Explorer ($400, www.rosepointnav.com). (These are variations of the same software developed by Rose Point Navigation.)

If you’re a patient learner and desire feature-loaded software to interface with Raymarine equipment, then Raytech RNS 6.0 ($700, www.raymarine.com) is the best choice. For Furuno NavNet fans, Maxsea v12.6 ($500, www.maxsea.com) fits the bill. A low-budget cruiser who doesn’t mind being limited to C-Map charts will find that SOBvMAX ($58, www.digiboat.com.au) does everything they need and more. And if you just want to play around with fully functional charting software without spending a dime, SeaClearII (free, www.sping.com/seaclear), lets you do just that. Finally, for Mac users, either GPSNavX ($60) or MacENC ($140, both www.gpsnavx.com) offers the easy interface that Mac users expect.

Most manufacturers offer free demo versions of their software. A test drive before you buy is highly recommended.

 

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