December 1, 2004
Julie K. Boatman
As we reported in the January issue of AOPA Pilot (see " Mobile Cockpit"), electronic flight bags have promised for some time to eventually replace paper charts, flight log forms, and E6Bs in the cockpit.
Electronic flight bags (EFBs), to the FAA, come in three classes. The ones that most GA pilots would find of interest (and in their price range) are Class 1 — typically off-the-shelf computers optimized in some way to use in the cockpit and loaded with relevant software. Class 2 EFBs are also portable but are typically mounted during aircraft ops and go through some kind of controlled procedure to add them to or remove them from the flight deck. Class 3 EFBs are installed equipment. See Advisory Circular 120-76A on AOPA Online for chapter and verse.
We who operate under FAR Part 91 (again, most GA free-to-be-you-and-me operations) don't need specific FAA approval to use an EFB, as long as we don't use it for primary navigation, or to replace any system or instrument required by the regs. Treat it like your handheld GPS, and you're in the green. Technically, if you exchange any data with an installed system (such as importing data from a panel-mount GPS unit), the EFB becomes Class 2. However, for Part 91 operations flying light (under 12,500 pounds) and/or piston aircraft, pilots can continue to use the EFB as a Class 1 tool with the imported data.
EFBs are the sum of several parts. The base is a computer, either a consumer laptop or tablet PC, or a customized computer. Tablet PCs have become the platforms of choice because of their ability to be used with a stylus rather than a physical keyboard, with the stylus thought to be more facile in the cockpit. However, using a stylus takes some getting accustomed to, as we've noted in prior reviews (see " Pilot Products: NavAero tPad 800," February Pilot), and you must calibrate the stylus properly before trying to use it in flight. The stylus acts as a mouse: Tapping the point of the stylus on an on-screen icon or menu opens or activates that program or function. Using the side button on the stylus (for click-and-drag functions on some PCs) requires a little more manual dexterity, but comes with practice.
Indeed, the user interface is the big challenge when it comes to using a computer in the cockpit, whether it's a panel-mount navigator or a PC you strap on your lap. For tablet PCs, the question of stylus — how do I work this thing? — becomes secondary to another, greater challenge, and that is the readability of the screen. If you can't see what you're tapping at, you will struggle to get good use of the equipment. Some manufacturers answer this issue by making on-screen buttons big enough for a finger tap.
EFB providers and pilots creating ad hoc EFBs from off-the-shelf PCs have searched high and low for a screen that offers good visibility in bright sun or glare and high enough resolution so that the contents of the screen can be viewed in turbulent environments. The result? Very few off-the-shelf consumer tablet PCs meet the mark.
Sunlight readability is perhaps the hardest of the criteria to meet, as we hear time and again from users at AOPA and from EFB providers. For their part, EFB providers — such as Control Vision, FliteServ, FlightPrep, Jeppesen, navAero, and Sporty's Pilot Shop — have come up with various solutions to this and other challenges to the EFB question.
In this report, I've taken a look at several EFBs and software on the market today that answer these questions best, and gauged their price and effectiveness against what remains the standard for most light-GA pilots: paper charts and desktop-generated flight logs.
Sporty's Chart Viewer program on DVD has been designed so that it works easily with a tablet PC stylus — all functions can be accessed with the tap of the stylus, and the buttons are large enough to hit with ease in flight. You can look up charts based on the state by clicking on a large map of the United States (though some of the smaller states in the Northeast aren't as easy to access in bumpy air as, say, Montana). From there, you select a city and/or an airport and then click on the chart desired from a list.
When the chart pops up, it does so in a full-screen view; about two-thirds of the chart is visible. The chart is easily scrolled using the stylus on a "hand" tool — the same one you'd use in Adobe's Reader program, upon which the Chart Viewer program is built. You can also view the entire chart, but the font is smaller and may be more challenging to read. However, at this size the chart is only a half-inch smaller, on all sides, than a standard instrument approach plate.
Sporty's offers the MotionComputing M1300 tablet PC as its foundation of choice. A team of testers at Sporty's selected the MotionComputing tablet because it offered a bright, readable screen for a superior value, according to Sporty's Chief Pilot Jon Potts. And that's the case — for the price, the screen on the MotionComputing PC pumps up bright enough to make it through a blue-sky day, while the clarity of the digital chart (and the digital processing helps a lot when it comes to readability from the previous government charts, which were scanned) keeps things contrasted enough so that you can make out the fine points without having to zoom in more than a tap or two from the full-screen chart presentation.
The MotionComputing tablet comes with a keyboard encased in the PC's removable cover, in an effort to shave weight. For cockpit use on battery power, the cover can snap onto the back of the PC — but it appears the power cord gets in the way of this if the unit is running from the AC adapter. An upgraded screen is also available for an additional $700 — if you have difficulty reading text on NACO approach charts, you may have better luck with the upgraded display. Both units come with an external DVD drive for loading Chart Viewer and other applications.
The pilots behind Control Vision, makers of the Anywhere Map moving-map software and Anywhere Wx datalink weather system, have invested their skill and experience in the portable cockpit information system milieu in hopes of creating an optimized EFB for GA pilots. To this end, Control Vision debuted at EAA AirVenture 2004 its Raven, a custom-built tablet computer, sized at 6.5 inches diagonally to display a full-size instrument approach chart — at least 80 percent of it at one time — at a reasonable brightness for the sunny-day-on-top cockpit. The size gives you nearly the entire plan view and profile view of the chart at once, at 100 percent for readability, along with the communications frequencies along the top. A quick tap gives access to the minimums section.
The Raven has eight programmable buttons along the bottom of the unit, and four along the top, which allow you to access other programs loaded on the computer. The package comes with Anywhere Map, Anywhere Wx, and Pocket Plates (which displays NACO-sourced instrument approach charts). A built-in WAAS-capable GPS receiver gives position information to the moving-map and weather software, so that your present position is displayed on the base map or weather download. Programs are manipulated through touch-screen functionality or a trackball.
One feature unique to the Raven is that it is a solid-state device; there's no hard-disk drive to upset with rough handling. The unit can be powered via an adapter; the system is compatible with 12- to 32-volt aircraft systems. A backup battery gives one hour of use.
The FliteServ E-Board Plus, offered by Paperless Cockpit, provides a compact platform well suited for use with electronic flight planning and instrument approach charts. The E-Board Plus, which is a 9-by-6-inch tablet PC, comes with a Velcro mount to a Zuluworks kneeboard (see " Pilot Products," August 2003 Pilot). The E-Board connects to the FliteServ 700 remote hard drive via an Ethernet cable or wireless connection. The system also works within aircraft already rigged with an Ethernet network.
I tested the E-Board using both types of connections. After some initial confusion (and swapping of the PCMCIA cards to get them to talk to each other properly) the wireless connection worked flawlessly. Of course, wireless performance decreases as the networked FliteServ 700 computer gets positioned farther from the E-Board. Both the E-Board and the FliteServ 700 can be powered with ship's power, provided the DC power outlet gives an output of 14 or 28 volts and can handle a draw of (and is protected by a circuit breaker of at least) 10 amps. Adapters and power converters for various voltages are available from Paperless Cockpit.
The FliteServ 700 hard drive came loaded with Jeppesen's JeppView 3 EFB program, which incorporates JeppView chart software with FliteStar/FliteMap flight-planning and moving-map software, as well as demo software from Mountain Scope (see " Pilot Products," April 2003 Pilot) and WSI InFlight. The E-Board comes with a velvet-lined screen cover and stylus holder, including a heavy-duty stylus — though many buttons on the screen are large enough to be tapped with a fingertip.
The FliteServ 700 uses an Arinc 429 to RS232 connector (Paperless Cockpit notes that Shadin offers such a connector) to receive GPS data from an aircraft flight management system or panel-mount GPS. Weather data via a subscription to WSI InFlight's AV200 system comes through an RS232 connection as well, using a separate receiver and antenna to access the weather stream. Several good diagrams are included with the instructions to help set up the proper power and wiring setup for a given cockpit. Once the hardware is in place, the setup is unobtrusive, particularly with the wireless connection.
We tested the system during a local flight and found it to work flawlessly with the 700 stowed under the front right seat of the Piper Archer in which we did our testing. Once initialized, the wireless connection didn't miss a beat, and appeared not to interfere with the compass or any other avionics on board. With the ability to mount the "guts" of the system remotely, the amount of cordage is cut down — though we still powered the E-Board and the 700 from separate AC outlets. A dual adapter also can be used and ordered from Paperless Cockpit. The complete system is the most expensive of the setups we tested, but certainly performed as advertised. The E-Board's compact size fits well on a kneeboard, even on smaller pilots.
At our AOPA headquarters, we have a Panasonic Toughbook, a tablet PC recommended by flight-planning developers at Jeppesen, also running JeppView 3. The Toughbook certainly looks tough, and, as a tablet PC with a self-contained hard drive, it also weighs tough. The Toughbook's thickness (nearly two inches) may prove a challenge if you don't have much clearance between your lap and the yoke and you plan on using the Toughbook as an electronic kneeboard.
However, the size buys you versatility: The tablet can be initialized in tablet mode (with the screen twisted to cover the keyboard and hard drive), and ready to work with a touch-screen (and stylus) and portrait-oriented display — or it can be launched as a regular laptop, with a reasonably sized keyboard and adjustable angle screen. I did notice that if you set the tablet down hard, the screen presentation sometimes jumps: I watched an approach chart toggle between a full-screen view and a close-up, or a split screen view, in a couple of instances. You might not see this unless you set the PC on a hard surface, though. The stylus is attached to the Toughbook case by a spiral cord; it's smaller in diameter than the Paperless Cockpit EFB's stylus but more in line with regular tablet PC accessories.
The screen brightness is quite good when tested in sunny-day conditions. A dedicated button on the side allows you to set brightness on the fly, but I discovered that unless you're flying at night, full bright is where you'll likely leave it. One conclusion that I made with all the tablets and screens tested is that the paper chart — especially the pristine white Jepp chart, or any chart printed on standard white printer paper — reigns supreme when it comes to sunlight readability. Though none of the screens in our review was particularly poor, they all play second fiddle to the paper chart in full sun.
The screen on the Toughbook measures just more than 6 inches by just more than 8 inches, giving ample viewing room for an approach chart, and reasonable room for an en route chart presentation.
The Toughbook running FliteDeck can also import GPS data from a panel-mount GPS unit. Other AOPA staff pilots have experience with this process using a Bendix/King KLN 90B. The data comes in smoothly using the RS232 connection from the panel-mount unit to a 9-pin serial connection adapter, typically routed out through the base of the panel, hooked up to a USB connection into the Toughbook.
The latest offering from navAero, the tBagC2, was scheduled for certification as a Class 2 EFB this fall, but hadn't yet earned a supplemental type certificate (STC) as of press time. However, that doesn't stop the Part 91 pilot from using the system as a Class 1 addition to the cockpit. The system includes the tPad 800 hardwired to the tBagC2 central processing unit (CPU). This portable CPU houses a rugged computer running the Windows XP operating system, and contains an internal emergency battery pack (with two hours of juice) to back up the 12- to 30-volt DC power supply. Essentially the Class 2 part of the affair is the panel-mount "connectivity assembly" that includes local area network (LAN), USB, and RS232 serial ports, and a power light. The CPU itself has three USB ports, one LAN connection, one RS232 connection, and a 1-GHz processor with a 40-GB hard disk.
The tPad 800 is an 8.4-inch-diagonal display screen specifically created to use as a kneeboard. When we tested the unit earlier this year, we found it to have a high degree of readability from nearly all possible viewing angles, and one of the sharpest, truly sunlight-readable screens we've tested. The addition of the dedicated CPU (rather than using the tPad with a laptop) adds to the system's usability for small GA cockpits.
The TFT (thin film transistor) screen can be used by stylus or fingertip, like the other tablet PC and EFB screens we've tested. The 800-by-600-pixel resolution and screen size allow for an instrument approach chart to display nearly full size and with excellent clarity. An upgrade to a 10.4-inch-diagonal display is available, as well as a RAM mount for either display.
JeppView 3, by virtue of Jeppesen's market penetration with its flight-planning and moving-map programs FliteStar and FliteMap, and JeppView electronic charts, was the most common preloaded software we have seen on EFBs. And for good reason: This mature program allows for integrated flight planning and chart call-up, and leads the pack on how well it functions in flight. However, if you need to redo performance calculations, you must return to FliteStar or whatever performance software you have.
JeppView 3 features large buttons and tabs for relatively easy access to menus and functions with a stylus or fingertip. The Plan tab starts a flight-planning function, and the pilot can launch a keypad to enter the waypoints quickly. The Terminal tab allows the pilot to bring up Jeppesen instrument approach and other charts, with dedicated buttons for the departure and destination airports carried over from the executed flight plan. The Enroute Nav tab splits the screen between an en route chart (a "super sectional" chart similar to that found in FliteStar) and moving-map view with a profile view, including airspace, and boxes with frequencies for the destination and nearest airport, airspeed, and desired track. The Chart Setup tab is self-evident; the Enroute Map page dedicates the screen to, yes, the en route chart; and clicking the Text tab launches the airway manual text files. Finally, an Emergency tab gives you a list of nearest airports with user-defined runway length and an en route chart highlighting the choices. The result is a highly functional in-flight tool that covers the bases well.
FlightPrep takes its online flight planner and combines it with a NACO instrument chart and raster chart (sectional, world aeronautical chart, and low altitude en route) database to create a functional setup.
I tested the FlightPrep software on an off-the-shelf Compaq tablet PC; I don't particularly recommend this platform for in-flight use — others in this review had far better displays.
On the ground, you start by planning your route on the primary screen, then collect a briefing by clicking on the Briefing tab and working through an Internet connection; your flight plan carries over and the system retrieves the weather (both text and graphic — though graphics are selected under a different tab) through DUATS. The Reports tab assembles your flight plan and log, and builds a "TripKit" including approach charts and strip maps for printing on the ground before you launch. You can access instrument terminal procedures (including the entire contents of the NACO approach booklets) via the Approach tab; the Raster Charts tab takes you to sectionals, WACs, and low altitude en route charts.
ChartCase is less expensive than JeppView 3, but doesn't offer quite as much. And the screen layout isn't optimized for in-flight use in the same way that JeppView 3 is. However, for the price, it's a reasonable solution. FlightPrep also offers a slimmed-down version called ChartCase Express, which includes just the instrument procedures, WAC charts, and a CD update every 28 days for a year (regular ChartCase updates on DVDs with the same interval). FlightPrep at one time offered EFB packages, including a choice of two tablet PCs, but, according to a company spokesman, "We found most users preferred to physically evaluate units prior to purchase. The only practical way to accomplish this is in person. We recommend users obtain their tablet computer from a local source to provide faster service through local sales."
FlightPrep also announced at AOPA Expo updates to ChartCase, including a moving map and pilot-defined check-lists. Initial shipments of ChartCase with the moving map feature are free, after which it will be provided as an "under $100" option, according to the company.
While not an EFB per se, Echo Flight's True Flight package offers many of the same products as the more-or-less standard EFBs listed above (see " Pilot Products," November Pilot). Though its flight-planning capability is limited to that available through the flight-plan modes on its GPS, for a smaller package that includes GPS, datalink weather (via XM Satellite Radio or Orbcomm), terrain (including LandSat detailed terrain imagery), traffic (via Sure-Check), instrument approach charts, and a back-up attitude display (via PC Flight Systems), True Flight is worth looking into. Echo Flight's moving-map software is also available separately for use on laptops, tablet PCs, and other EFBs.
E-mail the author at email@example.com.
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