Let's assume that you've made a decision to use a computer for on-board navigation instead of a GPS chart plotter. Which charting software should you buy? Since there is no one product that is right for everyone, the answer is it depends on your needs.
A professional mariner, for example, needs a more advanced program than a sailor. As a way to help narrow down the decision process, here is a list of questions to ask yourself regarding the computer navigation and charting program best suited to your needs.
1. What is your experience level? Do you need celestial, log-keeping or advanced route planning. Do you know how to use the electronic charts currently available? If not, than a basic charting program without the advanced navigation capabilities may be all you need. On the other hand, if you want to learn these techniques and use them as your experience level increases, you may want to start with the most advanced program available, or begin with basic program and then upgrade to the professional model at a later date.
2. Where do you sail? Great Lakes sailors will not need the tides and currents options. Sailors staying in their local coastal waters will need less navigation capability than someone planning an offshore cruise to Bermuda, the Caribbean, a transoceanic voyage or a circumnavigation. If you need a lot of charts for long-distance cruising and voyaging, you may want a program that can use charts that are less expensive. Some programs can use all the available electronic charts, while others are restricted to one type of chart or to a specific region of the world.
3. What do you want to do? What would you like your charting and navigation software to do for you? Do you want to be able to monitor your position in a direct and visual way, or would you like to integrate all the boat's navigation functions together in a single automated process? How much do you want to be able to interact with the software. Which user interfaces suit you best? Are you a diehard Mac user? Your expectations will directly affect the choice of software that best meets your goals.
4. What is your budget? Price always plays a role in buying decisions. For example, a commercial fisherman needs a more advanced system than the average recreational boater. The same holds true for the professional mariner and long-distance cruiser. Are you the type of person who always wants the best and latest toys? Do you need all the bells and whistles, or do you want just the bare minimum to get the job done?
Okay, you've answered the questions and you have a better idea of what you need, but you still have some doubts and need more help before you spend your hard-earned bucks. The first step is to get information and a demo disk from each company. Visit their Web site, and download the demo program. While you're there, get a feel for the type of support you could get online when a technical support person might not available to assist you. Take note of how each company rates their product against the competition.
Install the demo programs on your computer and give them a test drive. Although the demo is a very simplified version of the actual program, it will give you a realistic feel and allow you to judge the ease of operation. Compare the different features and see which ones you like best. Next, go to a store that handles navigation software, or attend a boat show and try out the actual programs. If you go to a store like Blue Water Books, Landfall Navigation, West Marine or Waypoints, they will give you a very complete presentation of all the programs and recommend the one they feel is best for your needs.
At a boat show the person doing the demo knows the program cold, and will be showing you the best features so fast it may seem like magic. After they're finished with the demonstration, take over the controls and try it out for yourself. Ask questions and look at the user's manual. Can you understand the explanations and easily find answers to your questions? Try out the help feature and see if you can find answers to your questions.
One last area to think about is: How easy will it be for you to use this program at sea? Remember, it's one thing to use it ashore at the comfort of your desk and another thing on your boat in the middle of a storm. A pitching boat makes the pointing device that much more difficult to use when you need to open and close the various screens and windows.
Finally, read all the product reviews on the various programs in the boating media. This information, coupled with the previous steps, should enable you to make an informed buying decision. When the software arrives, install it on your computer and thoroughly test it on your boat before you actually need to use it. Don't wait until the day of your big trip only to discover, for example, that you received a bad disk, or you can't figure out how to hook up the GPS and there is no one available for tech support on a Sunday morning.
Remember, all these companies have a money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied. However, before the frustration level gets too high, you should first call for tech support. If you're still not happy, simply ask for a return of material authorization number and return the product within the trial period. Don't forget to delete the software from your hard drive using their uninstall program.
- - J.S.