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Memory-Map GPS Chart Plotter

Turning your laptop into a marine GPS chart plotter

Boating NZ
by Brian Hartz

In recent months we've looked at the latest navigation electronics from leading brands such as Furuno, Simrad and Raymarine: NavNet 3D, Glass Bridge 40 and G Series, respectively.

If you're looking for a comprehensive suite of applications including 3-D GPS chart plotter, digital radar, high-powered fish finder and more, then it's likely one of those systems will appeal to you.

But at the more modestly priced end of the market, Memory-Map has made GPS chart plotting available to boaties who can't afford or choose not to splurge on electronics. Distributed in New Zealand by Ampro Sales Ltd, Memory-Map has been around for about eight years and is available in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Will Stephens of the New Zealand office demoed Memory-Map at the Auckland International Boat Show in March, and he graciously loaned navigation software and a GPS receiver to Boating New Zealand to evaluate during a sea trial.

"This is for us mere mortals who can't afford an electronics package that costs more than our boat," Stephens says. "You just bang it onto a laptop, hook up the GPS and off you go."

At its core, Memory-Map is GPS mapping software that can be run on a standard laptop computer or, for open boats, kayakers and canoeists, a Pocket PC or Windows Mobile SmartPhone. Available in two varieties - Topo, and Marine - it is also compatible with handheld GPS devices from leading brands such as Garmin, Magellan, Silva and Lowrance. Topo is for hikers and hunters a realistic 3-D fly-through of a chosen area.

But Memory-Map Marine is what concerns us. Combined with a simple USB GPS receiver, we turned a Dell laptop into a chart plotter that rivalled the chart-plotting capabilities of the Lowrance LCX-112 installed on Boating New Zealand's Haines Hunter SS660 camera boat.

Of course, the Lowrance, like similar products in its class, is equipped with a fish finder/depth sounder; thus, our experiment wasn't entirely fair in the scientific sense, but once we got Memory-Map up and running, its GPS chart plotting was spot-on. Thanks to the New Zealand North disc Stephens gave us, we had access to every Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) hydrographical chart for the northern half of the North Island, from the Three Kings Islands to New Plymouth and Napier - more than 90 charts. The Memory-Map New Zealand Central set includes charts from New Plymouth and Napier to Greymouth and Kaikoura, while New Zealand South covers the area from Greymouth and Kaikoura to Stewart Island. Each regional chart CD is a two in one package which together with charts includes the navigation programme, Memory-Map Navigator so no additional software purchase is required.

The three regions can be purchased separately for $199.95 each or as a package for $399.95. The complete set also includes LINZ charts covering the southwest Pacific - an additional 52 charts. The USB GPS receiver retails for $169.95.

Memory-Map and the GPS receiver take some time and basic computer know-how to get installed, but as long as you don't throw out the instruction manual the set-up process is fairly simple and step-by-step. A key point to remember is that Memory-Map software comes with a license that limits its use to only two PCs and two PDAs. To activate the license, you set up an online account and register the disc's serial number.

Even though all the data is installed to, and run from, your hard drive - meaning you won't need the disc after the initial installation and set-up - you'll be blocked from multiple installations of the software if you've exceeded the licence limits. So don't go thinking you and your fishing buddies can all pitch in and buy one disc to share between the 12 of you.

That's the bad news. The good news is Memory-Map works exceedingly well for what it is. Boating photo editor Mike Hunter and I were impressed with the detail of its raster charts and could detect little difference between them and the Navionics charts used by Lowrance. Using the laptop's touch pad, it was easy to zoom in and out on our position and scroll the chart display. A little box containing data such as distance and bearing from your vessel pops up wherever the cursor stops; if you hold the cursor over your position, your speed and heading appear in the box.

Setting waypoints and courses is easy thanks to the point-and-click interface. It's also possible to create alarm zones around areas containing known navigational hazards. The tracking function was similar to our Lowrance but not quite as sharp: instead of smooth and rounded, our turns appeared somewhat jagged and triangular. But when compared side by side, the tracks were identical in terms of navigational accuracy and distance covered.

I was somewhat perplexed by the program's apparent inability to display speed and heading in a fixed position in a corner of the screen, as the Lowrance does; until I discovered that a right click on the position curser provided the answer with a floating window that could be positioned at any convenient spot and resized with large or small text as required. This was a significant step forward in understanding the logic of how the program operated and I found right clicking on objects produced a number of related options, the most notable of which is the "Go To Mark" or "Follow Route". Selecting either of these produced the sort of information you would expect on any GPS with a resizable window showing an arrow pointing in the direction of the mark or next waypoint together with important information such as; Range and Bearing, ETA, Cross Track Error, Time to End and Alarm settings, etc. When compared with the Lowrance's speed-over-ground readout, Memory-Map showed slight deviation but generally less than half a knot; heading data was spot-on.

An important feature and one that isn't available to fixed chart plotters is the ability to print out charts from your home printer. I was pleased to see that Memory-Map added a grid and coordinates in the margin of the A4 sheet making it really useful as a back up or for smaller open boats. Memory-Map even offer waterproof paper as an accessory.

As with all new devices it takes a little practice to find the features you want but I didn't have to hunt around too long for the command that would save the track of our sea trial as a file that could be opened up later for review and printout. After closing and re-opening Memory-Map and loading our saved file, the program asked us if we'd like to sync the data from our past track with our current route - similar to how a conventional GPS chart plotter retains your past tracks in its memory.

Unlike some computer programs these days that automatically try to link you to a confusing online manual if you so much as look at the help menu, Memory-Map's Help system is built into the software, meaning you can access it without having an active Internet connection - which many boaties don't have and wouldn't want to have at sea. Plus, the Help topics are fully indexed and searchable, making the Help command one of the program's most useful features.

Another handy command is the Text button; clicking it opens up a dialog box that allows you to enter notes about the coordinates at which the cursor is positioned. Above the Text button, under the Web menu, is a command called View Online Satellite Photo. Selecting this command directs your computer's Web browser to Google Maps, which automatically brings up a satellite photo, more or less to scale, of the area shown in the chart.

Although we trialled only Memory-Map's core components - see sidebar, I came away highly impressed with the product. For what it is, it performs well and offers superb value for money. Using it with a handheld device like a PDA or SmartPhone would be more practical aboard smaller vessels, but clever DIYers will surely find a way to safely and effectively enlist their laptops into chart-plotting duty.

SIDEBAR [with images]
If you don't want to subject your laptop to the rigours of the sea or have a sailing boat and are concerned about power consumption, Memory-Map offers a rugged 'black box' PC that uses very little power - less than 2.5 amps from 10- 16 volts - and comes equipped with enough grunt and connectivity to perform most computing tasks. A dual-frequency fish finder is also available. Like Memory-Map's GPS receiver, the fish finder connects to your laptop via a USB or serial port; it comes with your choice of a transom-mounted or through-hull transducer.

Other Memory-Map accessories include a 15-inch, sunlight readable, waterproof colour screen for mounting outside - on the fly bridge for example - operating as a duel monitor from your laptop or "black box" PC below decks and a waterproof optical mouse is offered to control the program from the external position.

For more information on GPS Chart Plotter software and accessories see