Computer Charting Software Update
Another installment in our quest to stay up-to-date (as if that were possible) with on-screen developments.
Technology has a way of maturing, but in the case of computer software, this maturation process can be amazingly swift. A few years ago we could point out the marvels of a new technology, but today these marvels are commonplace and taken largely for granted. Where we could formerly cite major differences in capability and quality, today we're discussing differences in the bells and whistles attached to a bunch of products that all work well.
Computer charting programs are no exception. From what we've seen, they all perform their basic jobs perfectly adequately, presenting charts that allow you to plot and plan courses and set waypoints and routes. You might do this mostly at home and transfer your work to an onboard computer or chartplotter, or work entirely on board and underway.
Most charting programs, of course, do more than the basics. Coupled to your GPS, they can give a real-time display of where you are and where you're heading. Some incorporate tide and current information, which can be superimposed on the chart, and radar information can be presented similarly. Most compute ETAs, which may or may not include effects of tidal currents; some will suggest best arrival and departure times. Most will allow you to add your own points of interest to the chart—fishing spots, unmarked wrecks and reefs, and the like. Most will allow you to determine straight-line distances between any two points, as well as the bearings to get from one point to another.
There are programs that maintain logs and float plans for you; there are programs that permit you to superimpose downloaded weather data on your charts. There are even some that use a voice synthesizer to announce vital information (you decide what's vital and how often you'll be reminded) if you don't happen to be looking at the screen. And at least one program will automatically plan your voyage for you: you enter your point of departure, minimum depth you wish to encounter, minimum distance from obstructions that you are willing to tolerate, and desired arrival point. The computer does the rest, selecting waypoints for you.
Now, we're in a quandary. Make no mistake—we like gadgetry at least as much as any red-blooded reviewers. We find it hard, however, to put an objective value on it. A feature is valuable if you're going to use it, and worthless if you're not. So, we'll be outlining features and descriptions of the following programs, and not making definite choices based merely on bell/whistle density. You pick what you want to pay for.
What You Need
The four products we're reporting on here—C-Map's PC-Planner, Fugawi ENC, Transas NaviGator Pro, and Nobeltec Visual Navigation Suite—all require you to have a computer, and, for the last three, a laptop computer (specific requirements are listed for each program). PC-Planner works with a chartplotter; the other three require a GPS unit that can interface with them.
What We Found
They all worked. Any of these will do a good job of helping you navigate. All of them suffer from the basic problems of electronic charting: the screen's too small (at least for those of us who have been raised on paper charts), and they rely on electricity. We'll describe them separately.
C-MAP PC-Planner. The PC-Planner is the only one of the four programs in this group that is solely a trip planner, rather than a planner/plotter combination. Clearly designed to be used in conjunction with a chart plotter that utilizes C-Map cartridges, PC-Planner is unique among the programs we've looked at in that it obtains its cartographic data from the same C-Map cartridges used in many chart plotters, rather than using a CD-ROM or downloaded data from the Internet. An adapter that allows you to read your cartridges directly into the computer is provided. Assuming that you have such a chart plotter (and the associated cartridges) this can represent a considerable savings in the cost of new charts, and has the advantage of giving you a familiar picture on your screen. Inasmuch as PC-Planner is clearly intended to be an at-home planning device, it doesn't accept GPS input. It will, however output planning information to a GPS as well as to the cartridges.
The program does handle tides, by presenting tide information in a separate window. It doesn't provide information on currents. A neat feature is the ability to locate points of interest (up to 10 of them) closest to your planned position. These can be selected from a list including services, tide stations, wrecks, obstructions, and ports.
If you're already using an onboard chartplotter that uses C-Map cartridges, and have a supply of cartridges for the areas you're interested in, PC-Planner is a handy supplemental tool. At a cost of $149 for software, USB-2 card reader, and manual, PC-Planner provides an excellent way to make your chartplotter a more versatile navigation tool.
Fugawi ENC. When we last reported on the Fugawi GPS Mapping Software program (August, 1 2002), we noted that it was "something entirely different." The latest version—Fugawi ENC—continues the tradition.
Like its predecessor (which is still available), Fugawi ENC offers the not inconsiderable advantage of free charts. It will run on scanned images of paper charts, downloaded raster charts using just about any format, and even such cartography as road maps and hand-drawn charts. The big new feature in the ENC version is the ability to utilize the new super-accurate NOAA S57 vector charts, which can be downloaded at no cost from the Internet.
As noted in our previous report on the Fugawi GPS, we suspect that Fugawi originally aimed their product at drivers, rather than boaters. The package includes CDs containing a detailed road map covering the entire US (as well as a Region 1 planning chart.) If you already have a scanner and charts (or topo maps or any other maps on which you can locate three points of known latitude and longitude), you can plan a trip and follow your course.Fugawi (both the GPS Mapping Software and the ENC version) is a true computer navigation program: you plug in a GPS (the connecting cable isn't included) and see your position displayed graphically on the screen.
The NOAA charts have both good and bad points: On the plus side, they're as accurate as you can get (many other chart makers base their charts on the NOAA releases) and they're automatically updated. And they're free. On the negative side, they don't really address landmarks particularly well, and they don't have some of the goodies that are provided by private-sector cartographers—selectable layers, for instance, that can let you pick the level of detail you wish to view.
Fugawi ENC requires a PC using Windows 2000 or XP, a Pentium processor (or better), 64 mB of RAM, 256 (or better) color display and 100 mB free on a hard drive.
When compared to some of the higher-priced feature-laden cartography programs available, Fugawi is plain vanilla. Still, it works well. And Fugawi's low price and the combination of up-to-date accuracy and zero cost for the NOAA vector charts has an undeniable appeal.
Transas NaviGator Pro Plus. The Transas NaviGator Pro Plus (formerly Tsunami) uses charts based on the Transas database that's also been the source for Garmin's and Nobeltec's cartography. Originally developed for the Russian merchant fleet, this database has become globally accepted and widely employed on commercial vessels, with International Maritime Organization (IMO) approval. Transas' NaviGator program represents a broadening of Transas' marketing into recreational boating.
Transas NaviGator Pro Plus is an extremely powerful and flexible program, but the designers of NaviGator have chosen to opt for an interface that stresses familiarity and simplicity. In fact, Transas refers to it as Keep It Simple Software, and provides a very handy quick guide that should serve as a model for other software publishers. It consists of three 6-1/2" x 9" weather-resistant laminated sheets (printed both sides) that really provide all the information required to run the program. The sheets are held together with a short piece of bead chain that can be used to hang the guide near the computer. It's a vast improvement over either a thick paper manual—that's always buried under something when you need it—or an electronic manual that requires you to scroll through an endless list of instructions on your computer screen.
Behind all this simplicity lies a very sophisticated body of software. An extremely accurate and complete set of vector charts can be viewed, layered, quilted, and oriented in just about any way you wish. There's a "One-To-One" button, which redraws a chart to its original scale. Then there's the Cursor ID feature, which names the task to be performed. For instance, if you want to zoom in or out, view another part of the chart, or calculate range and bearing, simply click on the Cursor ID to make it happen. You can track radar targets, and set bottom-contour alerts that warn you of underwater obstructions.
The KISS approach, of necessity, means that some bells and whistles will be sacrificed. NaviGator works only with Transas charts. These, as we've said, are very good, but they show their blue-water heritage by paying little attention to shore-side features. If you're looking for roadmaps, you're in the wrong place. Similarly, photo overlays aren't available, although 3-D representations of bottom contours are there. The general focus is on functionality, not gimmickry. NaviGator runs on computers with Pentium 300 MHz or higher, running Windows 98 or higher, with CD-ROM, 64mb RAM, 700mb HD storage, and 1024 x 768 or better screen resolution. All the charts (for the world) are on a single CD: you purchase a key to unlock the one(s) you want. NaviGator can be moved from a desktop to a laptop, but only one computer at a time can be used—there's a plug-in adapter that allows the program to run, called a "dongle," that plugs into your computer's parallel printer socket and must be moved from computer to computer for the program to work.
The Transas NaviGator Pro Plus represents a very successful translation of chartplotter interfaces and techniques to the PC. It's simple to use, and quite powerful. It's marketed through Transas' leisure division, Transas Nautic, and sells for $948 (on www.bluewaterweb.com at press time). There's a less elaborate version called the NaviGator Standard Plus ($498 at the same website) that retains all the features of the Pro Plus, with out the capability of interfacing with autopilots, knotmeters, compasses, and weather instruments, or of providing search-and-rescue capabilities or detailed port information.
Nobeltec Visual Navigation Suite 7.0. The last time we looked at Nobeltec's Visual Navigation Suite, we were very impressed. Its vector charts were outstanding—they still are—and there were so many features that it was probably shorter to discuss the features it didn't have. The latest release has even added some features.
Our admiration for this software isn't unique: the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) recently awarded the Visual Navigation Suite its annual award for Best Navigation Software for the third consecutive year.
Some of the Visual Navigation Suite's features (we'll refer to the program as VNS7 for brevity) do warrant particular attention. While VNS7 can use raster charts from Maptech, NDI, and SoftChart, as well as all the popular aerial photography formats, we found that Nobeltec's proprietary Passport vector charts to be outstanding. While they're based upon Transas cartography, Nobeltec has added layers of information so that other information, such as land features and roadmaps, can be displayed in detail, as well as some improved low-resolution bathymetric maps. (High-resolution bottom contour maps are available as an option.) We particularly like the ability to de-clutter crowded screens by removing an overly detailed soundings layer, and the fact that, regardless of orientation—north up, heading-up or course-up—the textual information remains right-side up. This is a feature shared with Transas NaviGator. There's even a voice synthesizer that will announce selected data items periodically if you're too busy to look at a screen.
Some new features added to VNS7:
• A route planner. This tool—called the RouteWizard—lets you click on a starting point and an end point, and select your boat's draft and how close you're willing to come to obstructions. The RouteWizard then automatically plans your cruise and selects your waypoints. This tool uses the low-resolution bathyspheric map that comes with the program. If you want to create a safe route in shallow waters or in a tightly restricted area, you'd have to purchase the high-resolution map.
• An improved ETA calculator, that automatically attaches tide and current displays to allow you to choose optimum departure and arrival times. This calculator also includes tide and current values to help calculate fuel consumption
• A simplified interface helps make it easier to use all these features.• A USB-port dongle. This is an improvement over the Transas dongle, which has to be connected to the computer's parallel port.
If you're looking for the program with the most features—even if the odds are that you won't use most of them—VNS7 is the hands-down choice among the programs we've worked with. Even if you don't need all the features, it's a well-designed, easy-to use program—basic functions are easy to learn. The cost at www.bluewaterweb.com is $490. If you have an earlier version , upgrades are available at www.nobeltec.com.
If you wish to exploit the full power of this program, plan on spending some time learning its ins and outs. Nobeltec has a detailed hard-copy manual available for about $60.
Nobeltec Visual Navigation Suite interfaces with autopilots. A less full-featured version, the Nobeltec Mariner is also available.
Plan on taking several days to a couple of weeks to familiarize yourself with any of these products. Some of the features—scrolling, zooming etc.—take getting used to. We found that after working with a product, it took us a while to adapt to a different one.
As for making a choice, it comes down to a simple question of "What flavor do you like?"
The PC-Planner fills a unique niche—it's intended to let people who are happy with their chartplotters do route planning at home. Considering the popularity of plotters using C-Map cartridges, PC-Planner should be a good choice for smaller craft that already have such a chartplotter.
Fugawi is perhaps the lowest-cost way to get into serious electronic charting; the price is low and charts are free, as are updates. Fugawi is somewhat limited in features, compared to the higher-end programs, but it's complete enough for most. Fugawi is also your choice if you want to extend your charting and mapping activities to driving and hiking.
Transas NaviGator Pro Plus is a very powerful full-featured program with a deceptively simple interface, particularly if you're already used to working with a chartplotter. Charts are excellent, except for limited coverage of land features.
Nobeltec Visual Suite is still king of the hill, if you like features, and we've found the charts to be excellent.
If you take the time to dig into the details of what Visual Suite has to offer, you'll find just about any function you can imagine.
It seems that we're almost literally at the point where we can send our boats cruising without us. What a lot of effort that will save!