Features April 2008 Issue

Consumer’s Edge: Practical Sailor Takes a Look at Updating Digital Charts

Compare the cost and process of updating e-charts from Jeppesen Marine (C-Map), Garmin, and Navionics.

Two years have passed since we compared digital charts for dedicated chartplotters ("Electronic Charts," February 2006), and since then, a whole new generation of digital charts has emerged.

That comparison closely examined accuracy, readabilty, and user interface for charts in a specific location, and after the end of several weeks of testing, Practical Sailor rated Navionics Platinum as the Best Choice and the bargain Navionics Gold Series charts were regarded as the Budget Buy. Although the test compared prices per chart and tech support, it did not delve into the prices and processes for updating the digital chart. Thus, the report that follows.


Before we get into the results of this study, it is important to re-state Practical Sailor’s view that cruisers who plan to be sailing in unfamiliar waters should not rely solely on digital charts. The limited perspective and sometimes misleading interface of these charts can result in error, and so we urge sailors to carry print charts as well.

Digital Navigational Charts
Digital charts have become the norm for today’s cruisers. But as with paper charts, making sure you have the most up-to-date version is a must for safe navigation and trip planning.

Here, we take an in-depth look at digital chart updating procedures and costs from the three big players in the "hard-card" cartography arena: Garmin, Jeppesen Marine, and Navionics. To gather the needed data on the update procedures, error reporting details, and pricing, we reviewed information provided on company websites and then sent queries to a representative from each company. We followed up with additional questions to extract the fine details.


Garmin

Local Notices to Mariners
Changes in navigational aids are typically reported in Local Notices to Mariners (LNMs). Applying LNMs regularly will help keep your charts current, but once a new edition of the chart is released, it’s advisable to get the new chart, as it is near impossible to update an older chart by LNMs alone.

BlueChart by Garmin and its two follow-on products, BlueChart g2 and BlueChart g2 Vision, are available for nearly any area of the world in several different sizes and price ranges. BlueChart provides basic cartography while g2 has smoother layering to increase redraw speeds, color richness, photo quality (of harbor and marina areas), and 2D and 3D perspective views. Vision charts go even further by adding high-resolution satellite photos, extensive aerial photo coverage, auto guidance technology that searches chart data to suggest the best route to a destination, and enhanced perspective viewing. Generally speaking, Garmin chart cards range in price from $160 to $650.

Here is how Garmin Media Relations Manager Ted Gartner described the process for updating these chart cards. Customers call Garmin and set up a return merchandise authorization (RMA) for a data card exchange. The cost to update a preprogrammed data card is 50 percent of the original purchase price. So, for a regular BlueChart data card, the cost to update is approximately $80.

Keep in mind that the more expensive the card, the more costly the update. One chart we saw on the Garmin website is priced at about $640, this of course would yield an update price of $320—not cheap. An update order is placed as a "swap," so the customer is charged full price for the new card when it is shipped. Once Garmin receives the old card from the customer, the buyer is credited the 50 percent difference in cost. Shipping is not credited. The customer pays to ship the old card to Garmin, and Garmin pays to ship the new card to the customer.

Uncharted or Poorly Charted Shoals and Rocks
Whether you’re cruising the coast of Norway (above) or the shallows of the Intracoastal Waterway, uncharted or poorly charted shoals and rocks can leave you and your boat in a precarious position.

Garmin pre-programmed chart cards are updated every six months. The company will notify a user of an update to their specific card, if they have registered with the company for email updates.

Should you note an error in any Garmin chart data, you can send a report via the company’s website. Garmin provides a fairly in-depth online form for this purpose. The form requires senders to identify themselves as well as provide information on the Garmin chartplotter and chart card used. You should also report the latitude and longitude, type of discrepancy, and zoom level of the machine at the time the error was noted. According to Gartner, once Garmin receives an error report, the company attempts to verify the information through a variety of sources. If the error can be verified, a change is made on the next available chart update.

Bottom Line:

Garmin chart updates can get pricey on more expensive cards. We found the error reporting form to be well done.

Jeppesen Marine

Jeppesen Marine’s current collection of C-Map charts includes NT , MAX, and MAX Pro. NT charts provide essential cartography, tide and port date, and detailed display of navigation aids in either local or wide sizes. NT local charts sell for $99, while the bigger wide charts cost $199. Wide charts cover an area like Jacksonville, Fla., around the state to Fort Myers, Fla. (roughly 750 miles of coastline). Local- sized charts cover smaller areas like Jacksonville to Daytona Beach, Fla. (about 100 miles of shoreline).

Labels on Chart Cards
Labels on chart cards, like this Jeppesen C-Map Max card, offer the necessary identifying information. The first line gives the chart update’s release date; the second shows the geographic area and product code; and the third line describes the area of coverage. The bottom line (not filled in here) lists the card’s serial number and the size of the coverage area.

In addition to all of the NT features, MAX charts add value with flashing navigation aids, perspective views, aerial photos, and marina diagrams, and fully animated tide and current predictions. MAX charts are available in wide or megawide sizes with prices ranging from $199 to $299. Megawide charts are huge and cover an area like the Atlantic coast of Canada, the U.S., Gulf of Mexico, and the Bahamas all in a single chart card.

To facilitate updates of the NT and MAX series charts, Jeppesen Marine offers a few options. The most cost-effective choice is an annual $89 membership in Club Jeppesen. Members receive an update of a selected chart card annually, in either the spring or fall, shipped directly to them. To join the club and receive updates, you must list an active credit card and ship back your old card at your expense within 30 days of purchasing the new card. Annual membership is automatically charged to your credit card unless you opt out of the club. Jeppesen Marine pays to ship you the updated chart card and provides a convenient return-shipping envelope. Other Club Jeppesen benefits include discounts on certain products, a card trading program, and the ability to rent cards on a short-term basis for a one-time cruise. If you choose not to be a club member, updates are still available at certain authorized marine electronics dealers. A retail update costs between $109 and $129 and can be done while you wait.

NT and MAX chart cards are updated twice a year. Customers are notified of updates either through Club Jeppesen membership or via Jeppesen Marine’s e-newsletter, Rhumb Line. Of course to receive the letter, you must have registered your chart card and supplied your email address.

MAX Pro is Jeppesen Marine’s latest evolution in charting. Currently usable with Northstar 8000i and Simrad GB40 plotter systems, these charts have all the features of a standard MAX chart plus 3D virtual earth views, satellite mosaics, inlet approach photos, reef diagrams, advanced tidal flow information, and real-time updating. Max Pro charts are available in two sizes, wide at $339 or megawide at $499.

According to Linda McAndrews, Jeppesen Marine Marketing Manager/C-Map, these chart cards are so new they are still on the first map database issuance. A MAX Pro license is issued with the purchase of a new MAX Pro card and is valid for one year. With this license, the customer is entitled to free downloads of chart corrections (or updates). These corrections are actual chart corrections that would appear on the display. They are not text updates. For instance, if a navigation light position changes, then it will actually appear in the new position on the chart display and the light at the old position will be removed.

Real-time updating of a MAX Pro card is accomplished by using a USB thumb drive, an Internet-connected PC, and a chartplotter. Here’s how it works: A request for an update is transferred from the chartplotter to the PC, using the USB drive. The request is then emailed to a specific server where it is processed. A response email is generated and sent back with the updated data. The process takes about 10 minutes, depending on the size of the update and the PC connection speed. Once the answer file is received, it is saved to the USB thumb drive and then loaded into the 8000i. Once the process is complete, it is possible to review all of the changes made. Updates can be repeated daily, weekly, monthly, or as often as the customer desires during the one-year license period. MAX Pro updates and corrections are entered into the server database daily. The pricing of MAX Pro updates beyond the first year is $102 for wide and $150 for megawide.

The Navionics Platinum and Gold charting software were testers’ favorites in the February 2006 review of digital charts. But when it comes to updating electronic charts, Jeppesen Marine (C-Map) is testers’ top pick.

A discrepancy report can be sent to Jeppesen Marine by calling the Technical Support Department on a toll-free line or by sending an email to tech support via the company website. If Jeppesen Marine can verify the discrepancy, the company will correct it in a future release of that particular chart. According to McAndrews, Jeppesen Marine will debut a new website in 2008 that will incorporate an official web-based error-reporting form.

Bottom Line:


Automatic updates via Club Jeppesen for NT and MAX and real-time updating for MAX Pro gets Jeppesen Marine the Practical Sailor Best Choice for chart updates.

Navionics

Navionics Gold charts provide accurate marine cartography, tides, and marina information. They come in XL9 sizes. With coverage areas three times larger than Navionics’ older XL3 charts, these cover large areas like the East Coast of the U.S. At $199 per region, Gold charts are a mainstay at Navionics.

For older plotters with reduced memory and slower processors, Navionics still offers the Classic charts at $129. Classics come in the much smaller L size, which covers about one-ninth of the area of an XL9 Gold card. Moving up to Platinum and Platinum gives the user access to the same cartography as the Gold while adding 3D bathymetric views, the complete Coast Pilot, satellite photos, and panoramic photography of ports and marinas. Platinum cards display photos at VGA resolution and carry a price of $299 per region. Platinum (planned availability in early 2008) ups the ante by showing photos in full-view XGA resolution. This added resolution doesn’t come cheap though, as these cards cost $499.

Updating a Navionics chart card is handled through the company’s trade-in program. According to Rus Graham, of Navionics marketing firm Graham Communications, when a new Navionics chart card is purchased from an authorized Navionics trade-in dealer, the buyer picks up a prepaid mailer and sends in their old card and the paid receipt, within 30 days of purchase, to Navionics for a cash rebate. A chart published on the company website lists the amount of the rebate based on the purchase price of the new card. The current maximum rebate is $100 based on a new chart purchase price of $299 MSRP or greater. Graham says the website information does not reflect the more expensive Platinum prices. A revision to the website should take place when the Platinum cards become available.

Navionics also offers a trade-in program for competitor’s cards. If you buy a new card from an authorized dealer and then contact Navionics Customer Service, they will provide information for you on how to receive a rebate of $50 for your old Garmin or C-Map media card.

Chart cards from Navionics are updated annually, and the company recommends users update at least every 2˝ years. Right now, according to Graham, users tend to upgrade every 3˝ years. Navionics notifies registered users of updates via snail mail. Additional update information is available on the company website and through customer service.

An extensive anomaly report form is available on the Navionics website for anyone noting a chart error or uncharted hazard to navigation. The web-based form requires the user to supply their name, email address, phone number, area of chart coverage, make and model of plotter, latitude/longitude, and the type of the discrepancy noted. Once this information is confirmed, a correction will be added to the next chart update.

Bottom Line:

Navionics has the most expensive updates of all, sometimes costing a full two-thirds of the price of a new card.

Conclusion

The choice of whether or not to update an electronic chart is really not an open question anymore. Too many things are changing too fast not to do timely chart updating. For example, the fall 2007 release of C-Map chart NA-M022 covering the U.S. East Coast and the Bahamas had more than 6,000 changes from the chart issued six months before.

Granted, the majority of these changes would be rated as minor to insignificant; however, it only takes the omission of a single important change to cause a navigator a colossal headache. Think about the financial burden you could put yourself under should you inadvertently violate one of the numerous closed areas or no-fishing zones that have been recently put in place in Florida and California. The cost to update to a chart that clearly shows these new and changing areas will seem like a drop in the bilge compared to the cost of the ticket if you’re stopped by law enforcement.

Club Jeppesen provides a huge benefit to NT and MAX card owners by supplying automatic chart card updates every year at a very reasonable price. The ability to update their new MAX Pro card on a real-time basis via the Internet is hands-down the most advanced update system going today.

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