Monday, February 21, 2011

iPads in the Cockpit: Readerplates

The folks at Readerplates have been packaging electronic FAA/NACO plates for various digital platforms for a while now.  Their primary value added has been to reformat the data for better display on digital devices, and making the downloading process painless. (Why the FAA/NACO doesn't follow their example and make bulk downloads of approach plates, AF/Ds, etc. easier is a mystery.) As their name implies, they started when Sony first came out with the "Sony Reader." They later expanded their services to cover the Amazon Kindle, and now they have an iPad app. I used to use them with the Amazon Kindle, and found their service to be a convenient way to make sure that I had a full set of current approach plates with me for each flight. They take an unique approach to the whole business of FAA charts and plates, which sets them a bit apart from the increasingly crowded market of chart viewers.

The Readerplates app itself is a free download from the iTunes store.  To make use of it, however, requires a $9.99/month subscription. No long term commitment is implied, and you can cancel any time. This isn't a bad price, and certainly competitive with the rest of the field. A bargain really as far as aviation goes---that's two gallons of 100LL---especially, if you consider that the $9.99 price hasn't changed since the days of the Sony Reader, and with the iPad app you get VFR and IFR charts to to boot.

The downloads page is organized by region, as opposed to by state, a practice that I wish more app developers would follow.
I fly around the northeast and mid-atlantic a lot. That means remembering to check off 14 states with most apps---ME, NH, VA, MA, RI, CT, NY, NJ, PA, DE, MD, DC, VA, WV---with Readerplates that's a one tap affair.

Readerplates is dedicated to reproducing government charts---AF/D, Terminal Procedures, VFR and IFR charts as they are.  And they take a pretty literal approach.  For example, calling up an airport gives you a page with a few buttons:
Tap on the A/FD Page button, and you get exactly what you expect:
Tap on the "A/FD Supplemental" or "Legends and General Info" button, and you get the corresponding pages:
Specify an airport and tap the "Arrival," "Approach," "Diagram," or "Departure" buttons, and you get the appropriate page:

One really nice touch is that ReaderPlates goes to the trouble of removing the extraneous margins on each page. This is more of a benefit for devices with smaller screens, but it's nice for a plate display to use every pixel of available screen space. It even provides a button to display the appropriate page if the airport has alternative minimums. The additional information like supplemental or legend information is often not found in other iPad plate viewers, and sets ReaderPlates apart from the pack.

ReaderPlates dedication to reproducing FAA/NACO data in full extends to its somewhat idiosyncratic chart display.  Basically, ReaderPlates displays charts individually, in their original format, rather than attempt to stitch them together in one large chart. The chart view presents itself literally as a stack of overlapping paper charts.  Double tap on one, and it "activates" that chart.  And of course, you can zoom in on any given section using the usual iPad gestures:
One nice benefit of this is that all of the margin data that is usually lost with iPad based chart apps are all there allowing you to view useful data about things like restricted areas:
IFR charts basically work in the same way:
And of course, it allows you to use the internal GPS of appropriately equipped iPads to display the current position (with all the usual caveats about the iPad GPS).

I'm not sure how I feel about this approach to chart display. On the one hand it is less "clean" than the more conventional method of stitching together charts, and it does require you to navigate from one "map" to the next.  On the other hand, it provides you with potentially valuable information that other iPad apps leave out. And to be sure, the more "conventional" method of stitching together charts is not without its problems, either:

At the seams, text is clearly truncated, sometimes obscuring valuable info. So if one's objective is to have a real replica of the paper charts, ReaderPlates will do it better than the competition.

Finally, reader plates add some nice touches like "In View" which will list all airports, VORs NDBs, Waypoints currently on the screen for easy selection:
The tabs on the right hand side of the screen is a nice way to organize the relevant info for a given flight. And since the screen of the iPad doesn't dim very far even in the lowest setting, the screen inversion feature can be useful at night, though it admittedly works better with IFR charts.

Bottom line, ReaderPlates doesn't do weather, it doesn't do flight planning or filing, it doesn't provide airport data beyond that contained in the AF/D. But, it is dedicated to doing one thing and one thing well: giving you an exact replica of FAA/NACO charts, plates and AF/D---something most other apps do not. So it's really trying to do something different.

Do I like the wiz-bang features of the other iPad apps? Absolutely.  Do I like what ReaderPlates does? Sure.  I keep both Foreflight and Readerplates on my iPad.  The full featured ForeFlight is generally more useful, but sometimes only an exact replica of the real paper thing will do.

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