Power navigation

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Electronic charting on personal computers has come of age. It works, it’s powerful, and it’s supported by a group of hardworking companies. An electronic charting system constantly plots your GPS (or DGPS or loran) position right on a chart, saving you time and worry. With dozens of common and advanced features, ECSs can organize most all of a navigator’s data and tasks with a level of function and ease that our forefathersindeed, our younger selves could not have dreamed of. But you should not simply go out and buy an ECS. These complex systems are not appropriate for every navigator or every boat; and the navigator who is ready to buy an ECS will benefit greatly by researching the subject first.

The Panasonic Toughbook 27 is a laptop that has been designed to withstand impact and water intrusion.
   Image Credit: Courtesy Panasonic

A typical electronic charting system consists of an ECS software program running on a personal computer, using digital charts of one or several formats, and connected by cable to one or more devices such as a GPS or an autopilot. While there are a few ECS packages available, most systems today are put together by their users with elements from several manufacturers. (Chart plotters, all-in-one units with some ECS features, won't be discussed here.)

For this article, we tried 11 charting programs on several different computer systems with a wide variety of chart types and with a couple of different GPS receivers. They all worked, and they all provided a reasonable level of functionality. Trying to name the "best" program would be a futile shot at a moving target. These programs are in a constant state of development, and the whole industry is in a very dynamic phase, with a steady stream of mergers and acquisitions. Rating the programs also ignores the hardware variables in a complete system and the wide range of user preferences and working environments.

What one does learn from studying so much software is all the big and little features these developers have engineered and the divergent mix of interfaces possible between these features and the user. Our ideal program would borrow some elements of every program we tried! Above all, one realizes that a key element in a smooth and effective ECS is the operator. Even the most experienced navigators and computer jocks need to educate themselves to use these tools to their potential.

In the following pages you will find commentary on ECS basic and advanced features, profiles of the specific packages we reviewed and the companies that produce them, and additional information on digital charts, computer system requirements, and shopping. The table on page 76 provides a quick reference to some the program particulars and to specific important features that are not shared by all packages, but please note that even programs with similar features may implement them in different, important ways. We strongly encourage you to try several programs before you commit.Setup

The first task with any of these programs is getting it set up. In all cases the software installation itself was quite straightforward. After installation, some programs will ask you to insert any chart CDs you have and will "register" them, building a database of their full names, geo-positions, datum, scale, etc. for later use by the software. In other programs the user has to initiate this process. Most have facilities for copying charts from CD to hard disk for better performance. Many of the programs come with a nice set of planning charts for North America. Local charts must be purchased separately, and must be in a format compatible with the software.

All the programs are capable of receiving input from at least a GPS or loran using standard NMEA data "sentences." Most include a cable for connecting the serial port on a PC or Mac to the GPS. Actually, it is half a cable, as each GPS manufacturer has its own type of data (half) cable that must be purchased and wired to the computer half cable (see "Making the GPS/computer connection," Issue No. 84, Sept./Oct. 1997). This is a doable task for even a novice electrician, and every program includes thorough wiring diagrams, but it does seem anachronistic to be using a pair of pliers when setting up an ECS. A few GPS manufacturers and third parties currently sell complete cables. Hopefully, they will soon become available for all combinations of computers and NMEA devices.

While NMEA has established a common language for navigation data, device manufacturers vary in its implementation and support of functions outside the NMEA standard. For instance, some GPSs, like the ubiquitous Garmins, are set up by default to output a proprietary data type instead of the NMEA standard. That option has to be changed on the GPS before a working GPS-computer connection can be made (unless the ECS program understands the unit's proprietary output). Once a proper GPS connection has been made, several of the charting programs will simply find the data connection and go to work. Others require that you go into a setup routine and specify which serial port you are using, and they may ask you to specify some of the port's variables, such as baud rate and protocol.

The NMEA standard allows all sorts of instruments to "talk" to a charting program, and a few, like autopilots, to "listen." We were not able to try any connections other than GPS during this project, but we suspect that connecting multiple instruments, particularly less common ones like radar, is a serious project. Users may have to learn about myriad data sentences, port priorities, NMEA multiplexers, etc. It would be wise to contact developers about your specific mix of devices and to study the connection section of candidate programs to see how much they allow you to control the device connection and how friendly the user interface is.User interface

While many of the programs we tried out shared similar feature sets, they all had different user interfaces. This aspect of software is the hardest to quantify into a table or even to summarize intelligently. How a program organizes menus, toolbars, and dialogue boxes; how well choices are framed and explained; how thoroughly controllable features areall this is the user interface and crucial to how easy the program is to learn and use. The interface is particularly critical to charting programs because they are trying to display vast amounts of information on relatively cramped screens, because the user may be viewing those screens in difficult light conditions, and because the user may also be trying to control the program with one hand on a mouse and the other holding on to the boat.

We did identify a few interface features definitive enough to include in the feature table. One is context-sensitive mouse menus. Typically the user is looking at an electronic chart on which is superimposed various objects like waypoints, routes, tide stations, danger boundaries, and the vessel itself. It is quite useful to be able to click on such an object and get a pop-up menu of actions that pertain to it. A related but rare feature is context-sensitive cursors, which simply means that the cursor changes as it passes over the object so that you know you have selected it before you click away.

All the programs have some ability to control how and where toolbars and data windows are displayed on screen. Particularly elegant and useful techniques are noted in the product profiles. What we call "plan/nav mode" is the ability of a few programs to switch with a click or two from planning mode with many tools and menus at hand to an underway mode with maximum amount of chart displayed along with the desired data windows and minimal necessary tool access. Two of the programs achieve this feature by permitting the user to save and recall display configurations.

Help is an important part of the user experience. It comes in many forms: manuals, "ToolTips," wizards, tutorials, the online help system, and technical support by phone, fax, or e-mail. Like the rest of the interface, it is hard to quantify what a good help system is, which is why we put so much emphasis on user research.Chart display

Those who scoff at ECS like to talk about the difficulties of displaying large charts on relatively small computer screens. They have a point. A human can look over (pan) a single two-foot-by-three-foot chart and zero in (zoom down) to a target location more quickly than any system built to date. However, software engineers have come up with numerous techniques to make electronic chart manipulation and viewing easier. In fact, they have developed some features that would, in traditional paper chart terms, require a team of fleet-footed, scissors-wielding navigation assistants working at an infinitely large chart table.

It is worth doing some math to best understand digital chart display. Picture if you will a common 254-dpi (dots per inch) BSB raster chart displayed at 100% zoom (also called 1:1) on a 14" diagonal laptop computer screen whose resolution is 1,024 pixels wide and 768 pixels high. One thousand twenty-four divided by 254 is about four; 768 divided by 254 is about three. Therefore, you will see a piece of the chart about four inches by three inches magnified onto the actual 10.5-inch-by-eight-inch screen, minus menu bars, titles, and such. The 127-dpi resolution used by most other raster makers results in a 1:1 eight-inch-by-six-inch chunk of chart on the same machine. In either case, a lot of chart is off the screen.

Most ECS programs are able to generate a thumbnail image of the complete chart with a movable outline indicating what section you are viewing and allowing you to change that section quickly. All the programs have ways to pan around the chart, usually with both the mouse or cursor keys. How smoothly a program pans, and how easy it is to control, varies in subtle ways from program to program.

All ECS programs also have the ability to zoom out so that you see more of the chart on your screen. In the specific situation described above, if the user were to zoom out to 50%, he or she would be seeing about eight inches of real chart width on a 10-inch-wide screen. In other words, with this particular setup, a 50% zoom yields an image close to a real-world 1:1 scale. It's a bit confusing, and it gets more so because the charts themselves have scales. Hence, there arein a sensetwo ways to zoom out to, say, 25% of a 1:40,000-scale BSB chart. One is to simply zoom 25%, and the ECS will display one pixel for every four-by-four-pixel block of the original; another is to open the 1:80,000-scale chart of the same area and zoom it 50%, displaying one pixel for every two-by-two block of the original. Both images will show the same charted area: a 16-inch width of the larger-scale paper chart, eight inches of the smaller scale. Note that, as in many aspects of ECS; developers have all come up with their own terminology for the same operations; thus this same 25% zoom is called "⁄⁄4X" by one program, "4X" by another, and "1:160,000 scale" by yet another.

Most ECS programs have explicit control of both zooming up and down and scaling up and down. Some also offer "auto-zooming" whereby the program makes an intelligent choice. What is an intelligent choice? It is useful to see the greater detail of the larger-scale chart, but will it be legible on screen with so many of its original pixels removed? Enter the software technique called by such names as "high resolution," "crystal view," "perfect view," etc. We call it "enhanced resolution" on our table. Instead of taking a simple sample of a block of pixels, an ECS program with this feature will look for areas of contrast like coastlines and text and attempt to retain them even as it throws out pixels during zoom-outs. The results are quite noticeable. At 25% zoom on our test machines, enhanced resolution made a barely readable chart usable. Note that this feature requires substantial processor resources and will slow down minimal hardware configurations.

As noted in the table, many of the ECS programs are capable of overzooming a chart; that is, magnifying it beyond a 1:1 display. This is useful for examining chart details or to compensate for poor viewing conditions, but developers include cautions about operating underway in overzoom mode. The fear is that a user overzoomed on, let's say, a 1:80,000-scale chart might think that it contains the detail of a 1:40,000 scale chart.

Chart panning and zooming is an important part of ECS systems, and users should thoroughly educate themselves about it so they best know what exactly they are looking at. Fortunately, all the ECS programs have facilities to show a chart information box, and all at least indicate the chart number in a title bar. We appreciate those programs that add to that title bar: zoom level, underlying chart scale, and the size of the chart window in nautical miles.

As you plan a voyage or actually undergo one, you need to keep changing the set of charts in use. With paper charts, that usually requires some rummaging through a drawer or under a berth. ECS programs can really simplify and automate this task. Nearly every program has the ability to superimpose outlines of registered charts on top of whatever chart is in use. For instance, if you have registered the BSB, SoftChart, Jeppesen CD of Pacific Northwest charts, and you open chart no. 18301, the 1:1,200,000 large-area chart, and set a -2X zoom out to Puget Sound, you'll see outlines of all the different-scale charts you have in the visible area. Usually you can click on them to get their title and scale or even open them. Most programs will also notify you of what pertinent charts are available when you pan or voyage off a chart in use. Many will automatically open the next appropriate chart for you.

Seamless charting is an advanced feature that will open adjacent charts, trim their borders, and balance their zoom/scale relationships so that it appears you are viewing one enormous chart with zoomed-out insets and harbor charts visible when available and legible. In fact, this technique makes raster charts as flexible in some ways as vector charts. The most proficient of seamless systems will integrate skewed small-craft charts with regular north-up coastal charts. We found this feature to be quite an aid but would recommend that new users turn it off until they have made a solid connection between familiar paper charts and their digital equivalents. Not surprisingly, this feature also taxes a computer system (as it must have taxed the engineers who made it work).

Chart rotation is the last feature in our table. This is the option to turn a skewed chart to the more familiar north-up or to turn any chart to course or route-leg-up. The latter two options are the way some navigators like to face their chart and are particularly useful for visual synchronization with a course-up radar display.

Finally, we should point out the ability of most programs to have two or more chart windows open at the same time so that you can be monitoring your vessel on the most detailed level in one window while keeping the big picture in another. All the programs also had night-vision modes in which all the screen's bright colors are muted to shades of red; some also had twilight modes or variable color muting.Planning

In an ECS system, the mouse cursor always knows its latitude and longitude, and that makes route planning a snap (er, click). One click makes a waypoint and a second makes a simple route with course and distance. Moving or inserting a waypoint is usually just a click-and-drag operation. Applying a name or note is just opening a dialog box and typing away.

Most programs permit the navigator to view a route as a table, then add departure times and leg speeds to it and calculate ETAs. A few add fuel consumption to the route calculator, and a couple even allow you to associate tide or current stations with route legs and then calculate revised courses and ETAs that account for set and drift.

Several programs permit the user to pass waypoints, routes, and tracks back and forth with a GPS. This can be quite useful if you'd like to work on a home PC and load your portable GPS for use underway or if you load your cockpit GPS from a PC down below (also gaining a route back-up). Bringing home tracks of voyages to upload to your capacious hard drive appeals to some semi-armchair boaters. Note that this function involves non-NMEA data sentences and hence requires both that your GPS support it and that your ECS program support that specific GPS model.

A related feature is the ability to export or import routes files. Most ECS program licenses permit the user to use the program on both a desktop and a portable system as long as one person is the predominant user of both. You can use a possibly more powerful home system to build routes, export the files to a diskette, and import them into your boat's system. You can do this with all the programs, but some are much more explicit about it than others. Almost no programs can actually import route files from other programs, but Nobeltec is promoting a standard for doing so.

Another route-related advanced feature is the ability to convert a track (either downloaded from GPS or created by the program) into a route. Usually the procedure allows you to control what amount of tracked course change or elapsed time triggers the creation of a waypoint.

Waypoints and routes are by no means the only information objects that can be displayed on top of a digital chart. All the programs give the navigator tools with which to add a variety of marks and notations. These can be used to update charts in the traditional way or to add personal information like fishing spots or favorite anchorages.

More astonishing is the ability of ECSs to overlay any geo-referenced datatides, currents, harbor and marina information; light lists; and even weather files. Once you try using these functions, you realize how much time you spent looking up information that can be much better organized and presented graphically. Consider tides and currents.

Most of the programs with this feature can display icons at all available stations that show tide heights and current direction and speed in real time. A few are capable of animating the prediction values on screen; you can watch 12 hours of current predictions at multiple locations in a few minutes. Try gathering and comprehending all that data from the printed tables! The programs that have tide and current features all include data for North America unless otherwise indicated in profiles.

In a similar way, MaxSea and seaPro 2000 can both read special weather-prediction files (called GRIB files) downloaded from the Internet or via Inmarsat and displayeven animatethem over ocean charts. These GRIB files are not yet easily available at sea, but hopefully they will be in the future.

Several of the ECS programs support geographical databases, most commonly the place and marine lists provided with BSB Version 2 CD regions. The user can search for a particular town or type of marine facility or a even a bridge, and open the chart for that place; or the user can ask that any or all such places be named on the current chart(s), with more information clickable. MarineMap incorporates similar functionality into its included vector map, and The Cap'n provides its own numerous and wide-ranging databases. These same two programs also support the very useful overlay of light list information and services to keep the data up to date.

Finally there are a number of navigation tools that are not appropriate to chart display but can be computerized to some advantage. A prime example is celestial navigation. An ECS program can include complete ephemeris and sight-reduction algorithms, though few do. More commonly included are calculators for finding measurement equivalents or geographic range, pilot books and/or rules of road as easily searchable help files, and clickable check lists.

Most vessels do not have a printer on board, but we have noted how many of the programs have facilities to work ashore and bring data aboard via GPS or diskette. All the programs can also print out detailed route lists and even color charts with routes and marks overlaid. Note, however, that it would take a lot of ink, paper, and scotch tape to lash together anything like the equivalent of a standard paper chart.Underway

When you finally get underway with your ECS system, many of the interface and chart-display features discussed above come into play in new ways, and a couple of new ones come to the fore.

With the GPS hooked up and the vessel in motion, you should see a vessel icon moving across the digital chart, constantly plotted in real time. You should be able to call up display boxes similar to GPS screens with such data as course and speed over ground, distance and bearing to next waypoint, plus possibly data from other instruments or an interface with an autopilot. The user interface should allow you to arrange and tweak all these elements for maximum visibility in your particular light conditions. You may be able to adjust the size and color of the vessel icon, even specify the precise location of your GPS antenna, and equip it with range rings and/or course-extension line based on distance or time (handy for reminding yourself of GPS SA position error, among other things).

Every ECS has a switch called "vessel in sight" or "moving map" or such whereby the chart is moved under the vessel rather than allowing the vessel to run off the screen. A more sophisticated version of this feature keeps the vessel's stern near the edge of the displayed chart so that you can see the maximum amount of chart ahead (see table).

While ECS is certainly oriented to waypoint-and-route-type navigation, it can be used in other ways. If you are tacking up a bay or drift fishing down a river, you might want to set up boundaries around danger areas so that the machine will beep you if you move into danger.

Most programs also support a DR function, though it is sometimes called a simulator and is somewhat controversial. Whatever the function's name, it allows you to give the vessel icon a course and speed, and perhaps drift and set predictions, when a GPS is not hooked up or working. The danger is that the display looks so like a real-time plot that you may put too much faith in it. Most programs put an explicit reminder on screen when in DR mode.

Whether in DR or GPS modes, the prudent navigator may wish to lay down some bearings, and he or she will find that to be an easy task with any of these programs. Most also include a man overboard button that will establish an instant go-to waypoint at the present position and put up a bold display of course and distance to steer.

An ECS provides lots of help with voyage record-keeping. All the programs can track your vessel's movement, showing it on screen and saving it to a file for later reference. Some give you control over how detailed the track is, andas discussed earliersome will let you turn a track into a route.

Auto logging is a related function that will build a text file at user-defined intervals of position, course, speed and possibly many more ECS- or NMEA-generated data fields. Manual logging is the ability to call up a notebook entry with some of the above variables already filled in and add any notes you'd like to keep. The two functions can make keeping a log pretty simple work.The future of ECS

ECS could lead to substantial navigational changes that are not obvious. For example, the Canadian Coast Guard may have foreshadowed a world movement when it announced that it would be removing many floating and fixed aids to navigation because the prevalence of ECS systems made them irrelevant. As ECS becomes more standardized on commercial vessels, navigation aids might start to look like an expensive form of welfare for non-ECS yachtsmen. In short, you may have to learn about this new world of navigation whether you want to or not.

When readers see this article, we fully expect to get calls that go like this: "That article was pretty interesting, but which ECS program should I buy?"Well, we can tell you about the program we want to buy. It has the vessel management, celestial tools, and databases of The Cap'n; the tide and currents functions, "NavView," and seamless charting of ChartView; the built-in vector map and thumbnail control of MarineMap; the chart scanning and conversion abilities of NavPak; the spyglass of NavimaQ; the PhotoChart and Web features of Cruising Navigator; the user interface, voice capabilities, customer support, and NMEA management of Visual Navigation Suite; the vessel-on-screen control and weather file display of MaxSea; the instrument displays, search and rescue facilities, and chart-correction module of seaPro 2000; and the route management and vessel console of Navmasterall with the ease of installation and setup of First Mate!Ben Ellison is a delivery captain, writer, and navigation instructor who lives in Camden, Maine.

By Ocean Navigator