Review of Navionics Marine for iPhone (UK & Netherlands)

Navionics have been leaders in digital marine cartography on hardware chart plotters since pretty much the year dot. The recent release of their new iPhone application Navionics Marine means that their high quality vector-based charts are now available from whereever you are, be it land or sea.

Charts

Chart display of Beaulieu River entrance. Note the Tide and Current diamonds.

Navionics charts are sold via the Apple iTunes App Store as a single package including the iPhone application and the cartography for a specific region. I purchased the Navionics Marine: UK and Netherlands package. The cartography itself appears to be based on the Navionics Gold cartography used by number of leading hardware-based chart plotters (and recently added to MacEnc via X-traverse). A key differentiator however is the price, with Navionics Gold charts selling for around s £179 from an on-line chandlery. The Navionics iPhone app and charts costs £14.99!

In terms of quality of rendering, I have to say that I was extremely impressed. Charts are rendered clearly using what appears to be the standard Navionics engine ported to the iPhone. The colours, in particular, are vibrant and look better than the standard colours used on S57 cartography. When zooming in or scrolling, there is a delay in redrawing the screen, but this is down to the speed of the iPhone’s processor, and isn’t detrimental to the overall user experience. Whats more, the Navionics app filters certain chart information at lower zooms so that only key features are displayed. I could see an option to override this, but not sure this an issue for most users. I’d go as far as to say that the experience of using these charts on the iPhone is one of the best I’ve had with any vector-based chart plotter. However I’d be interested to see whether the redraw speed is improved with the faster processor of the iPhone 3GS.

Tapping and holding on the chart brings up a context menu listing all the various chart objects in that area, as well as any routes, waypoints or photographs that have been added. From this menu, you can find out a significant amount of information such as the telephone number of a marina, or the details of a particular buoy.

The current position of your vessel, together with heading and is displayed. There’s also a search function to find towns or harbours.

One slight annoyance is that you have to wait at the “disclaimer” screen every time you switch to the application, even if only to take a phone call or quickly switch to another application. I would like to see some sort of time-out whereby if you switch back to the application within 5 minutes of leaving it, the disclaimer screen is not displayed.

Tides and currents

The Navionics cartography includes tide height and current information, both of which are accessible from the iPhone app. There are a number of very good iPhone applications that provide tide height forecasts for the iPhone, such as August Hahn’s excellent Ayetide. However having this data integrated into the chart plotter makes a lot of sense, as it’s easy to access depending on your current location on the charts. Tide stations are identified as a diamond with a letter T. Tapping on these opens up today’s tidal curve. You can choose a different date or time by either dragging the time bar at the bottom of the screen (useful for specific times over the next 24 hours or so) or, by tapping on the date displayed, select any point in the future using a standard date / time screen. One slight annoyance is that when you switch back to the chart, the date and time defaults back to the present date and time. This means that if you’re looking at planning a passage for the following week you spend a lot of time setting the date to next week. I would suggest persisting the last selected date during that session with the application, and providing a button to reset to the current time.

Tidal flow details

In addition to tide height, Navionics Marine also has tidal flow information in its charts. This information is available in very much the same was as tide height information, with tide flow points being identified as a diamond with the letter C. Tapping on these displays the direction and speed of tidal flow at the current time with similar forecasting options as tide height. I sail in the Solent on the South Coast of England, and this popular cruising ground has a strong tidal currents. Choosing departure times that benefit from favourable current is invaluable, and can make for much faster sailing. In fact, using Navionics Marine to tune my course with the tide, I was able to get 8.6 knots on the GPS – record for my Contessa 33.

Waypoints, routes and distance

Routes can easily be added by selecting the “Route” mode from the icons at the bottom of the screen. When in this mode, tapping the screen adds a waypoint to the new route. This takes a little getting used to, but there is an “Undo” button that works well. If you’re like me, you’ll use this a lot when you first start using the application! Routes can be saved and edited with ease. There is also a useful distance function for measuring the bearing and distance between two points.

Photo tagging

Chart showing a route from Cowes to Gosport, along with a couple of photos taken during the day.

By clicking on the camera icon within the application, you can take photos using the iPhone’s built in camera. These photos are then tagged with the current position from the GPS and identified on the chart with a small camera icon. To display the photo, you simply tap the photo icon, and select them from the context menu. You can then edit the tags for the photo, such as a description or date and time, and even email or share them. In practice I found that I had to try several times before the photo would appear on the context menu. Maybe my fingers are too big, but this looked like a bug.

Facebook integration

I was a little skeptical when I saw from the Navionics press release that their iPhone app supported Facebook integration. This initially looked like a case of jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon, but after making a concerted effort to use it, it does actually make a lot of sense. Once you’ve entered your Facebook account details in the application’s settings, you can upload routes, tracks and photos to your Facebook page within a few taps. Navionics does this by posting a link to their web application so that this information can be viewed from your Facebook page by your friends using their web browser. This is great if you use Facebook to keep in touch with crew, or you just want to brag to your friends about your nautical exploits!

There’s quite a lot of improvements that could be made around the Facebook integration. For example, the Navionics web app uses Google Maps rather than actual charts, which would be more logical. However all apps have a development roadmap, and what Navionics have done here is, in my opinion, a real innovation. I look forwards to seeing this developed further.

Conclusion

Navionics have done an excellent job at producing what is, to my mind, the best value marine charting application on any mobile device. The quality of chart rendering is excellent. The tidal data is excellent, and having current forecasts is such a useful feature. The Facebook integration won’t be used by everyone, but does show real promise. I’m also very encouraged by the number of updates that Navionics have released since the launch of their application, and the number of new features that have been added.

This is the best £16.99 I’ve spent on any iPhone app. Definitely recommended.