It seems that every time we look around, someone has introduced a new charting/navigation program for laptop computers. While they all do essentially the same tasks, each adds some new features, resulting in a different personality for each. In the February 1 issue, we reviewed four such programs—The Cap’n First Mate, The Cap’n Voyager, MaxSea Navigator, and Nobeltec’s Visual Navigation Series. For this report, we’re adding another three: RayTech’s Navigator, Maptech’s Offshore Navigator, and Fugawi’s GPS Mapping Software.
In its earliest form, charting software consisted of simple programs that displayed and printed digitized charts—drastically simplified ones at the beginning and more detailed ones as computers with more memory and faster processors appeared. Soon after, someone came up with the idea of using the computer as a planning tool for a voyage, and programs that permitted you to superimpose waypoints on the chart began to emerge. And while you were planning a trip, some of these programs made provision for including time and current information in your plans, and allowed you to calculate such things as ETA and approximate fuel consumption, and to prepare float plans and maintenance information.
The next big step was integration—partial integration, at least—with a GPS. A simple cable connection between your computer and your GPS permitted you to upload the coordinates of the waypoints into a GPS, without the need for manual entry. This form of trip planning is one of the most useful applications of computerized charting: You can plan your cruise or day trip at your leisure at home, and carry a small, inexpensive handheld GPS to your boat preloaded with waypoints.
The logical next step is to bring the computer right aboard, essentially using it as a large-screen chartplotter. This requires arranging things so that the on-board GPS can send the computer information, instead of merely accepting it from the computer. Once this is accomplished, the boat’s position can appear on the monitor screen in real time, superimposed on the displayed chart.
Onboard interactive use of a computer with GPS input is often referred to as “computer navigation,” as opposed to keeping the computer at home to load the GPS, which is called “computer planning.” Just a short while back, it took a high-end—and expensive—program to carry out navigation. The low-end programs were restricted to planning. More recently, though, we’ve seen more and more inexpensive programs that do both. Maptech’s Offshore Navigator and Fugawi’s GPS Mapping Software are examples. All programs that can be used for both planning and navigation are similar in basic function.
How We Tested
We tried each product in both operating modes: as a planning device, uploading waypoints into a Garmin 76 Map GPS, and as a chartplotter, receiving position information from the same GPS. We checked out each program’s ability to use different charts, looked for inaccuracies in planned and indicated positions, and printed out charts. We made judgments about ease of use, clarity of display, and versatility. Finally, our testers decided which they’d rather use—a subjective analysis, but perhaps useful.
While they may all be cut from the same cloth, each of these programs adds its own wrinkles.
What We Found
They all work. All three will allow you to plan a trip in detail, establish waypoints, and upload these waypoints to a GPS. And all three let you interface with a GPS to let an onboard computer display a real-time picture of where you are on a chart display. We found no indications of inaccuracies in any of them.
That’s not to say that all three are identical, either in operation or appearance. Each has its own variation on the basic planning/navigation theme. And each may well be best suited for a navigator with specific needs.
Maptech Offshore Navigator
The Maptech Offshore Navigator 2002, Version 5 (to give it its full title) is a program designed to work with Maptech’s popular Chartkits, which include official NOAA raster charts, photos, coastal topo maps, marine facilities, coast pilot, light lists, and graphical tide and current data. Unlike most other programs that use Maptech raster charts but don’t support all the other features, Offshore Navigator utilizes all of them.
This program has two basic modes of operation and display. Planning mode presents you with a full-screen chart display; On-Water mode reduces the chart size somewhat, but puts navigation information—compass reading, position, compass heading, etc.—as an easy-to-read border to the screen. There’s a new display feature: A click produces a spherical representation of the chart you’re dealing with. This view, while not of immediate practical use, gives a perspective that may help orient the navigator mentally to the boat’s position in the framework of a route leg or full passage. There’s a convenient MOB “button” on the screen. Zooming and scrolling are also quite convenient and intuitive. There’s a printed manual, which is a definite plus.
The major limitation of this program is that it’s limited to unquilted raster charts (plus the photo and topo maps, of course). The lack of quilting capability is less convenient for boaters who must switch frequently between charts; they work fine if you operate mostly in one chart area, or on an offshore cruise where you can stay on one chart for a long time.
We should point out that Offshore Navigator—or any real-time navigation program—isn’t really needed if all you’re interested in is planning a trip and uploading waypoints to your GPS, and are willing to work with Chartkit’s raster charts. Chartkit CDs come with a perfectly adequate planning program called Chart Navigator.
Bottom Line: We like raster charts because of their familiar look and feel, their simplicity, their high level of accuracy, and their (relatively) low cost (We were, however, mighty impressed by Nobeltec’s Passport vector charts in our February article.) The lack of a quilting capability in this Maptech program is an inconvenience, but if you don’t mind momentary “disconnects” between chart loadings, the Maptech Offshore Navigator is a reasonably priced ($200), easy-to-use planning/navigation program. Maptech seems dedicated to making the elements of the entire package (charts, photos, topo maps, software) work together with a minimum of fuss.
RayTech Navigator 4.0
Raymarine—formerly Raytheon Marine—is best known for its comprehensive line of marine instrumentation: radar, sonar, depth finders, fishfinders, knotmeters, autopilots, wind direction and windspeed indicators, and electronic compasses. It’s a company that has long emphasized integration of various instruments, primarily through its Seatalk system. With the introduction of RayTech Navigator 4.0, Raymarine carries this integration concept a large step further.
RayTech Navigator will interface with any instrument that uses the Seatalk protocol, as well as with any others using the NMEA 0183 or hsb2 interfaces. It will show the information from these instruments on the same screen that displays the charts, making an onboard computer a single central display for just about all functions that concern even a hyper-serious boater. The program was clearly intended to work primarily with Raymarine instruments, though—a major feature is a display format that puts an image of the instrument controls up on the screen so that you can use the virtual pushbuttons (you move your cursor to the appropriate button and click on it) instead of using the Windows interface. This can be a boon to the computer-challenged.
The RayTech Navigator can use Maptech charts, including the topo and photo maps. It also can handle vector charts from C-Map. These are the same ones that the MaxSea program employs. We’re less fond of these vector charts than we are of Nobeltec’s Passport series of charts. They don’t support layering, which we consider to be a major advantage of vector charts, and they seem less crisp than Nobletec’s.
Actually, though, RayTech Navigator does permit a different sort of layering. Where most of the other programs we’ve seen that support photo maps or both raster and vector charts can display them simultaneously, they do so by dividing the screen into windows. RayTech allows them to be shown superimposed, with a “transparency” control on each element that allows you to emphasize any aspect of the presentation that you wish. You can superimpose charts, photo maps, topo maps, radar plots, and oceanographic maps. You can also download weather maps from the Internet and superimpose those. This feature maintains all the charts and maps at maximum size, and certainly can provide an attractive display. It’s one that can become confusing, though, until you get the hang of manipulating transparencies.
RayTech Navigator has a lot of features, and a manual is essential. You can download the program from RayTech’s website, and register it for $420, but then you’d have to download and print a 179-page manual. We think that purchasing the $499 package, which comes with a printed manual and a GPS cable, is worth it.
Bottom Line: If you have an extensive array of instruments—particularly Raymarine instruments—RayTech Navigator is an excellent way to integrate all of your navigation functions. This program is the best we’ve seen for real-time onboard navigation and instrument monitoring—it’s overkill, though, if you’re in a smaller or less well-instrumented boat. Planning, we found, was less convenient than with Nobeltec’s Visual Suite, which we think has superior vector charts and smoother scrolling.
Fugawi GPS Mapping Software
Fugawi (sailors of fog-bound waters have often invoked the name of that mythical tribe) GPS Mapping Software is something entirely different. At $100—GPS cable not included—it’s probably the least expensive program that can be used for real-time navigation. In some ways it’s also one of the most flexible. Fugawi 3 can be used with just about any map or chart; it will import Maptech, Softchart, and several other formats, or it can use a scanned image of any paper chart or map for which you can locate three reference points with known latitude and longitude. This includes topographical and survey maps, and even road maps.
If Fugawi wasn’t originally developed for drivers, the company is certainly making a play for road warriors now. The package we received included a CD containing detailed road maps of the entire continental U.S.
Fugawi lacks some of the marine-oriented features that we’ve become accustomed to. Maps and charts are displayed in a north-up orientation only, ETA and fuel consumption calculations are omitted, and there are no light lists or tide/current information. Nonetheless, Fugawi does a fine job of setting waypoints, uploading them to a GPS, and real-time displaying of position—the basic functions required of any nav software.
There’s no quilting of charts, but there’s a provision for drawing on the on-screen display, as well as attaching photos and other graphic images to waypoints. And it’s a simple matter to print out a completely customized map or chart.
Bottom Line: Fugawi 3 GPS Mapping Software is a good low-cost package. We hesitate to describe it as a “starter” program, because it’s apt to be a perfectly adequate program for many boaters whose needs are relatively modest. The ability to scan existing paper charts or download Internet maps can represent a real cost savings to the boater who already has an investment in paper charts.
Computer navigation programs are following a familiar developmental pattern. Only a few years back, there were dramatic differences in how well different programs executed their basic functions, and the impressive thing about the best was that they worked at all. Now we’ve come to expect that any program we look at will work. The question becomes one of style as much as substance.
The first major function of any navigation is planning. This is the kind of task you’re apt to do on a desktop computer at home, loading the waypoints you develop into a handheld GPS. Every program we’ve seen recently will do this, but some better than others. For many boaters, especially those with smaller craft, planning is all that you need. For these boaters, Maptech’s Chart Navigator (packaged free with Chartkits) or Fugawi 3 ($100 for those who have paper charts and don’t want to buy digitized ones) will certainly suffice.
The second major function to be considered is navigation. For the highly instrumented boat, RayTech Navigator 4 does a fine job of converting your computer to a central navigation station. If you’re already familiar with the operation of Raymarine instruments, running Navigator 4 is almost intuitive. While it doesn’t have the level of integration that characterizes RayTech Navigator 4, Nobeltec’s Visual Suite is a very full-featured program that’s effective and convenient to use. And Fugawi, while it doesn’t measure up to either of these two in features (or cost), does its basic tasks just fine—and can be handy if you’re traveling by land, too.
Finally, for a good combination of paper and electronic processing, don’t forget the Yeoman (PS, May 15).
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Value Guide: Charting Software.”
Contacts — Fugawi, 1246 Yonge St., #302, Toronto, Ontario M4t 1W5; 416/920-0447; www.fugawi.com. Offshore Navigator, Maptech Inc., 10 Industrial Way, Amesbury, MA 01913; 978/792-1000; www.maptech.com. RayTech Navigator 4, Raymarine Inc., 22 Cotton Rd., Unit D, Nashua, NH 03063; 603/881-5200; www.raymarine.com. MaxSea, 3821 Falmouth Rd., PO Box 940, Marston Mills, MA 02648-0940; 877/563-1177; www.maxsea.com. Nobeltec, 14657 SW Teal Blvd., #132, Beaverton, OR 97007; 503/579-1414; www.nobeltec.com. The CAPN, Nautical Technologies, 381-4 Old Riverhead, Rd., Westhampton Beach, NY 11978; 631/288-0263; www.thecapn.com.