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Old 21-05-2018, 08:26   #1
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Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

Older, smaller boat with 1970s electronics that don't work, so I'm using my smartphone until I decide on whether/what to replace. Here's how it's going.

I have a Samsung Galaxy S8 which has a display that is maybe 2.5" x 5.5". They came on the market in April 2017, and are among the first waterproof phones.

I use a Vexilar Sonarphone T-box for depth. Mine is the self contained version (with its own gel cel). They are also available without the battery in which case you run them from 12v. It has a suction-cup, transom-mount transponder and produces a WiFi access point which it uses to send depth data to the smartphone.

I run Navionics "Boating HD" and pay for the Navionics subscription.

After some experimenting (see narrative below), I added this 12v to USB-C power converter to the boat. I have a universal phone mount of uncertain provenance that I installed where the 1970s sonar used to be.

It is possible to make this all work, but there are a number of drawbacks. The good news is that the cost is reasonable and it is simple and inexpensive to move the whole arrangement from boat to boat. If you can live with the limitations it would be ideal for situations where you're on a friends boat or a delivery or something.

I have used this arrangement in three different boats -- A canoe, a friend's pontoon boat, and my sailboat. It works equally well in all of them. I've used it in a number of freshwater lakes and rivers where navigation is difficult due to underwater hazards and, like a more sophisticated chartplotter, find that it's a valuable tool for learning a new area and navigating closer to obstacles than would be safe with paper charts, dead reckoning, and pilotage.

There are a number of drawbacks:

  • Insufficient battery life. Since the display is always on at full brightness, combined with the GPS receiver, WiFi, and the power requirements to run the boating software, I can get about 4 hours max, which isn't enough for a day on the water. I can extend this a little by shutting down the display, or shutting off the phone entirely, during non-critical times, but this is a nuisance due to the difficulty of manipulating the phone while under way. The only sure way around this is to have a reliable charging source, either a power pack, or a 12v to USB adapter.
  • Problems with overheating. On a hot day, while charging the battery and running the boating HD software, the phone overheats. Using a ruggedized case makes this worse -- the phone cools mainly through airflow over the back of the phone. The phone will stop charging when hot. In full sun, that isn't enough, and it will shut down the boating HD application to reduce power used and therefore heat generated internally.
  • Occasional loss of sonar connection. I haven't figured out the causes, but occasionally the WiFi connection to the sonar is lost and I have to reset the T-box or the phone or both to get it back.
  • Software crashes in Navionics Boating HD. I've experienced occasional problems, particularly when using the routing software to measure the distance and determine an ETA.
  • Other things on the phone can take priority such as phone calls, causing partial or full loss of the moving map display
  • Can't use phone features that require internet, such as weather, while connected to the sonar, because the phone tries to send data over the WiFi connection even though it does not have access to the internet.
  • Problems charging in a wet environment if a drop of water gets inside the USB-C port, the phone will detect it and refuse to charge until the port is completely dry. This is difficult to achieve quickly without compressed air.
  • Difficulty manipulating buttons and touch screen in a boating environment. Not easy to operate one handed, or with wet fingers, cannot access side buttons while in universal mount, etc.
  • Display is really too small. I find that I am zooming in and out frequently in order to see enough detail nearby while still navigating around major features.
Overall: workable, yes, ideal, no. The combination of problems means that I devote more attention to the device, and experience more outages where the device is temporarily unusable, than I believe I would with an actual chartplotter. In low-risk situations where I can carry on safely by memory whenever necessary, it's good enough.

My experiences. YAMMV.
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Old 21-05-2018, 08:34   #2
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

I use my iPhone as a back-up navigation tool with iNavX. It works well for coastal work. I keep it charging with a cigarette lighter adaptor to my 12 volt system (if I didn't, it peters out really fast). I've had no problems with software crashes, overheating, or wet environment. The screen is, of course, small. It's a bit of nostalgia for me, as I grew up with raster charts; but I now prefer vector charts.
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Old 21-05-2018, 09:05   #3
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

I also is an iPhone with iNavex, but I prefer faster charts.

I have a raymarine c80 plotter but I greatly dislike the charts. With the iPhone I can get the charts I want and keep them updated. I use the c80 point to point but the iPhone for detailed nav.
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Old 23-05-2018, 22:45   #4
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

i could see using it if you frequently switch back and forth between small recreational craft but for a primary system on a boat i dont see the value when a very good chartplaotter is less than half the price of the phone alone.

i had my phone with me when i shoved off for a three day sail. when i fell into the water up to my waist when 'shoving off' my older galaxy promptly died. i have a galaxy s8 and although its probably the most waterproof phone i would not put my faith in navigating with one. all it takes is one good slam, it slips out of your hand and goes overboard etc...etc...etc...

the one single most valuable lesson i took away from this particular three day sail was how valuable a good, accurate chartplotter can be when you get fogged in, less than two boat lengths visibility, two miles out from a harbor you have never entered at 1:00am, absolutely exhausted. you will never love a technical gadget more than you will in those circumstances. its something i would never rely on a phone to do, not even as a secondary backup, i'd rather shell out $200-300 for a backup plotter instead.
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Old 24-05-2018, 00:53   #5
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

Quote:
Originally Posted by er9 View Post
i could see using it if you frequently switch back and forth between small recreational craft but for a primary system on a boat i dont see the value when a very good chartplaotter is less than half the price of the phone alone.

i had my phone with me when i shoved off for a three day sail. when i fell into the water up to my waist when 'shoving off' my older galaxy promptly died. i have a galaxy s8 and although its probably the most waterproof phone i would not put my faith in navigating with one. all it takes is one good slam, it slips out of your hand and goes overboard etc...etc...etc...

the one single most valuable lesson i took away from this particular three day sail was how valuable a good, accurate chartplotter can be when you get fogged in, less than two boat lengths visibility, two miles out from a harbor you have never entered at 1:00am, absolutely exhausted. you will never love a technical gadget more than you will in those circumstances. its something i would never rely on a phone to do, not even as a secondary backup, i'd rather shell out $200-300 for a backup plotter instead.
Well said!
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Old 24-05-2018, 03:38   #6
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

And here I disagree. Well, at best it depends.

First I donít know what chart plotter you are buying for $200-$300 dollars. I have an old Raymarine C80 and a second had display costs over $500.

If you are sailing in a limited area and are happy with the charts then that may be a good choice for you.

I find that for detailed navigation I want to be able to select the charts I use. USGS raster for USA
CHS raster for Canada
Explorer raster for Bahamas
NV raster for Carribean

The C80 is limited to Navionics vector charts. They are OK for point to point nav where you are clear if dangers. But for just the instance you cite above, where more accurate detailed charts are required there are better options. I seem to have a penchant for coming into new anchorages at 0 dark thirty, usually in rain or fog. I tend to navigate with the iPhone having the plotter display the radar.

The device to display those charts may be a phone or a pad. It is best to have it in some kind of waterproof container. My phone resides in a waterproof case, it travels on the dingy in a dry bag for additional protection. You are still vulnerable.

On the other hand I had the Raymarine C80 display go bad last month. So I swapped out the spare display. But that failed within 2 weeks. That left me with the iPhone. ( And a iPad with duplicate charts and 2 nav computers with Navionics vector charts of the Caribbean)

The point of this post is not to say you are wrong, I used the C80 or other chart plotter for a long time. But these newer devices have advantages you may not require. Free download if USA charts keeping them up to date. A wider selection of charts, using the best charts available. Freeing the chart plotter screen to be used for radar. Away from ports we both agree to the chart plotter as it is more weather resistant and has power from the ships battery.
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Old 24-05-2018, 06:42   #7
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

My take:
- Started from Florida to Nova Scotia in 2014 using a Nexus Android tablet in a waterproof case and Navionics charting software and chartbooks. All good till I was caught in a thunderstorm coming into a harbour on Long Island. The tablet was working fine under the spray hood but in the reduced visibility, winds, etc of the storm and sailing solo, I put it in my lap (strap on the waterproof case). The heavy rain drops hitting the tablet were interpreted as taps and dozens of applications opened rendering navigation impossible. Unfortunately I was in the channel and without a reliable charting system and the reduced visibility (torrential rain and dusk) I elected to turn back to the open bay. What was to be an easy 12 hour sail turned into a 30 hour slog.

- So off to West Marine and a Lowrance Elite 7 chartplotter (think that's the model)
- Sailed from New York City thru the East River in into a harbour on Long Island. The new chartplotter screen locked but worked on restart.
- Sailed over to Connecticut and it failed again and would not restart.
- Back to West Marine for a replacement, same model and it failed the first day.
- Back to West Marine (excellent service each time) and replaced with a Lowrance Elite 5, a new model of one I had used in 2009-2012. No problems.


Also the Lowrance model I used n 2010 ( GlobalMap 5200C 5 inch screen) had a problem where it would not zoom in when I changed chartsets for the
Hudson Bay and Strait set.


My recommendations after over 6,000 nautical miles of coastal cruising from Florida to Northern Labrador in 36 foot sailboats in the last 10 years is a dedicated chartplotter with tablet or cellphone as backups. Plus I prefer paper charts ( at least 1:75,000 to 1:125,000 scale) , cruising guides and sailing directions for planning. These paper navigation aids are also a hedge against failure of electronic devices.
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Old 24-05-2018, 08:44   #8
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

I bought the Garmin echomap dv as a cheap chartplotter. It does the stuff your phone is having trouble with; Depth, charging, brightness, waterproofing etc. I paid extra (a lot) for upgraded charts.

I also use a Samsung tablet with navionics.
The tablet's charts are far more accurate than the chart plotter. So, oddly enough, I use the tablet for critical plotting and the chart plotter for day to day travel.

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Old 24-05-2018, 09:02   #9
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

Anyone actually write down passage plans anymore.....
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Old 24-05-2018, 09:16   #10
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

I just purchased a new 8" tablet for use as a chartplotter. I already had a waterproof case and mount from Armor-X. The new tablet (Lonovo tab 4 8 plus, dumb name BTW) was only $224 and had quite decent specs.

I use it with charting apps (Not navonic's), AIS apps, weather apps, reading and music, and a long battery life. It does near about everything well, well enough anyway for me. I can even rig a charge cable through the water proof case. The split screen is nice for two apps at once and it's large enough to see all the info.

I could have gotten a chart plotter for $400 ish, but it would not have AIS or weather or music at that price point. I will note that the waterproof case and wall/deck mount was about $60, a few years ago.

With that said, if I was crossing oceans, I would have a real chart plotter and backup paper. For low(er) hazard coastal, the tablet works well enough.
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Old 24-05-2018, 11:18   #11
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

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Anyone actually write down passage plans anymore.....
I sure do!! You don't? In my opinion it's fundamental to good seamanship to properly plan every passage, and I can't imagine an effective way to do that which does not involve writing something down.
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Old 24-05-2018, 11:31   #12
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

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I sure do!! You don't? In my opinion it's fundamental to good seamanship to properly plan every passage, and I can't imagine an effective way to do that which does not involve writing something down.
Sometimes do, sometimes it's so obvious no need.

The number of doom and gloom incidents described when electronics go down it seems to be maybe less popular than it once was.. should it make any difference if it's a plotter or tablet?

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Old 24-05-2018, 11:38   #13
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

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Anyone actually write down passage plans anymore.....
Been discussing this on the Fitzgerald collision thread. Apparently the Navy does NOT.

I do when it makes sense. Sometimes I even do it from both ends based on a departure and then on an arrival. Mostly just in my head, but sometimes detailed if tide is critical.
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Old 24-05-2018, 11:49   #14
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

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And here I disagree. Well, at best it depends.

First I don’t know what chart plotter you are buying for $200-$300 dollars. I have an old Raymarine C80 and a second had display costs over $500.
Raymarine Dragonfly. I have not had a single hiccup with it yet. absolutely perfect performance so far. mounts to pedestal and have backup at nav desk.

simple little unit that does just enough. they sell for about $340ish now. I bought two of them for the same price my galaxy8 cost me.
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Old 24-05-2018, 12:25   #15
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Re: Drawbacks of using a smartphone as a chartplotter

And what charts can you get for the Bahamas?

Look, if it works for you, for your cruise style, for your area, then fine, great, good for you.

There is no single best solution for everyone.
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