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Friday, February 15, 2013

Chart Plotter - Decision Made

I've been exploring various options for chart plotters for the new boat, and decided to go ahead and get a Simrad NSO black box plotter to experiment with.  The short of it is that I really like it, and have decided that's what I'm going to use.  Now for the longer story for anyone who's interested.....

This first ah-ha moment was about a month ago when I realized I was approaching the problem the wrong way.  I had been viewing the chart plotter as the center of the universe around which everything else revolves.  Talking to other Nordhavn owners, they kept talking about their Nobeltec navigation software as their primary navigation tool, and I suddenly realized I had it all backwards.  I should be looking at the PC nav software as the center of the universe, not the chart plotter.  Once you make that shift, then the chart plotter's real role is to display the radar, overlay it on a chart, show AIS target, display the fish finder info, etc.  The PC becomes the primary tool for navigation.

With this new perspective in mind, I started looking more closely at charting programs.  I've had a copy of Rose Point Coastal Explorer for a few years now.  I bought it when we went to Antarctica so I could plot our route.  At the time, it was the most affordable program I could find that supported the charts for South America, the Falklands, and S. Georgia.  It's only gotten better since then, and I have found many cruisers using it as their primary navigation software.  I also have a current copy of MaxSea which I have been using with my current Furuno setup.  I know it pretty well at this point, so the question became how CE compared, and how well CE would integrate with the Simrad NSO system.  So, for $100 I upgraded to the latest, cleared my desk, and started bench testing everything.

First the NSO:  I made up a test plan that's about 3-4 pages long and started plowing through it.  The NSO is a real pleasure to use.  The menus are well organized, clear, intuitive, and quick to navigate with their roto-dial and press keys.  Much, much better than Furuno, and there is never any switching to different modes for setup, or wizard programs to run with long delays before you can get back to your navigation screens.

All of these plotters are weak on importing and exporting routes and waypoints, and Simrad isn't any exception.  The biggest issue I have is that if you export something, say to use it on the PC for home planning, then re-import, it creates duplicates of everything.  It's not smart enough to see that Waypoint 5 already exists at location X, but instead blindly creates another one on top of it.  To me this really makes moving stuff back and forth between systems unusable.  It only works if you selectively export and import only the things that you changed, and delete the old versions of everything that you changed before importing the new stuff.  Can you keep track of all that between two systems and not mess it up?  Hell no - that's why we invented computers, right.

Another thing I'm a bit disappointed with is that you cannot attach a keyboard and mouse to the NSO.  For a dial and button interface, the NSO is the best I've used (others are Furuno and Raymarine), but nothing beats a keyboard for entering text, and nothing beats a mouse for dragging, pointing, and clicking.  But.... with the PC program as the primary nav tool, this matters much less than before since most of that stuff will be done on the PC now.

And the final down side to NSO is that they only support Navionics charts.  Navionics has good coverage, but not as good as C-map, and there are parts of the world where the Navionics charts are reported to be quite poor compared to C-Map.  But again, this problem becomes much less important with a plan to use the PC as primary navigator.  On the NSO, the chart will be background for the radar, so if it's not the best there is, it's no huge deal.  But wait, late breaking news.  I heard a rumor that Simrad is in the process of supporting c-map.  This would be great, and I'll be able to pretend they did it because of the long letter I wrote them telling them it was about the only thing Furuno still had over them and that they really needed to fix it.  But in all seriousness, with C-map support I can't see any way in which the Simrad NSO/NSE isn't as good or better than Furuno NN3D and/or TZTouch.

So, NSO it is.  As a little aside, I've mentioned NSO and NSE.  They are just different packing of the same chart plotter product.  The NSO is a black box processor with a separate control panel, and you add your own monitor (or two).  This lets you use larger monitors than are otherwise available in the fully integrated chart plotters.  I'll be using 17" monitors as compared to the largest integrated size which is 12".  The NSE is the integrated chart plotter with computer, monitor, and controls all in one box.  They also have an NSS which is a touch screen variation, so you can pick whichever best suits your needs.

I'm planning on two NSOs in the pilot house with two control panels.  Having two allows for a couple of different views of things, and also provides redundancy of one should fail.  Then one of the pilot house NSOs will also be connected to a screen and second control panel up on the fly bridge.  The fly display will be a mirror of one of the PH displays, and be controllable from either location.  This simplifies things a bit and saves a few bucks by not having to buy an NSE for the fly bridge.

Now shifting to the PC nav software, Coastal Explorer (CE) has come along nicely in the past two years.  It's very easy to use, rich in features, stable, and supports all the standard chart offerings from all the major vendors.  I went back to the previous post and updated the table showing chart coverage, and CE wins over all the others.  Furuno matches CEs coverage, but requires their proprietary version of the charts where CE uses the standard charts direct from the primary source.

But, CE is a little shaky in a few areas.  The communications between all my navigation equipment is going to be via NMEA 2000, or N2K as it's called in short hand.  CE is just now developing support for direct N2K communications.  In the past it has been through external translators.  I am participating in the beta testing using the NSO and the other equipment on my current boat.  I'm taking a bit of a risk that full support will be finished and solid by the time I'm ready to set sail, but I'm comfortable with the risk, and it's part of why I want to sort all this stuff out now when there is time to find and fix any problems rather than when I first set foot on the new boat.

The key things that CE needs to do are:

1) Correctly select which devices on the N2K bus to listen to.  There can and will be multiple devices broadcasting the same information (like two redundant rudder indicators), and all the devices need to pick which one they are going to listen to.  This is new functionality in CE.

2) Switch and listen to another device if the one you have been listening to fails.  Again, this is new functionality.

3) Talk to the simrad autopilot via native N2K messages.  This is in the current beta, but I haven't been able to test it yet.  I need to haul the equipment over to my boat, hook it all up, then freeze my butt off while testing it.

I also need to sort out what I'm going to run CE on.  It only runs under windows, unfortunately.  I'll probably run it on a mac mini, but am not sure if I'll run bootcamp which makes it a dedicated windows machine, or run FusionIO or some other virtual environment so I can run Mac apps on the same machine at the same time.  I think it will mostly depend on whether it performs acceptably in a virtual environment.

So that's it for nav software and chart plotters.  With the selection of Simrad for the chart plotter, that means I'll be using their radar and sounders.  They have a pretty cool new high frequency radar that provides much higher close range resolution than traditional pulse radar.  It has some down sides too like it doesn't pick up rain very well so it doesn't show approaching storms.  I need to research it some more, but I want two radars for redundancy and right now I'm leaning towards one conventional pulse radar, and one high frequency radar.  Each seems to be good at different things, and I like the idea of being able to pick the best tool for the circumstances at hand.  You can't run both at the same time because of interference issues, but I don't see a need to do that either way.

OK, that's all for now.