Friday, July 24, 2009

Going Mod

After using my newly converted Modbook quite a bit, there is some news to report. Overall I think the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) paradigm is definitely where things are headed, especially considering the plans NACO has in store for their system for distributing aeronautical charts. Until Garmin and others wake up and realize that $500 (not $3000) is a reasonable price point for an EFB and $500 per year for chart subscriptions ain't gonna fly with many pilots, it's up to us to roll our own EFB solution. The Modbook is just one possible solution. So let me expatiate on the good, the non-so-good, and the ugly aspects of using one in the cockpit.

The Good
First off, the Modbook just works, pretty much as advertised. With a little practice I've found the pen interface to be workable and, in some cases, even preferable to using a keyboard. I haven't taken any cockpit notes on paper since I got the Modbook. I'm happy to report that I haven't had any serious problems using the Modbook in flight. While the Modbook has become my EFB, it also continues to function as my primary desktop machine, using a bluetooth keyboard, mouse, along with a document stand to hold it in a normal screen-like position. So I haven't really lost any function by going Mod.

I find the screen readable in most lighting situations (the photos don't do it justice), though there are some light conditions where I have to change its orientation. Then again, I have to do the same thing with paper charts in bright sunlight, too. I had the opportunity to compare the Modbook with a Lenovo tablet and the screen readability was about the same. The Modbook screen might be a bit brighter, but it was essentially a tie.

ReadyProcs™ works really well for downloading and displaying terminal procedures. You can queue up needed procedures in advance, in the desired sequence, or you can locate them on the fly. My beef with the tap-to-enlarge feature doing undesirable things when I am just tapping to wake my machine up from a sleep has been fixed in the latest release. The new release also provides support for displaying Airport/Facility Directory information, but just for airports that have instrument procedures. The bottom line for me is that when trying to locate a procedure, ReadyProcs on the Modbook beats finding a paper chart in a Jepp binder or NACO book every time.

Using Acrobat Reader to access the Airport/Facility directory in PDF format (downloadable for free from either PDFPlates or NACOmatic) is also quite usable. Acrobat Reader is not really optimized for a pen-based environment, but it works and the price is certainly right. And my complaints about the bookmark layout for terminal procedures from NACOmatic have been addressed in the lastest release of procedure volumes (but not yet in the by-state packages).

MacGPSPro works well for viewing VFR sectionals and terminal area charts and offers some cool features. Last night I asked a commercial pilot candidate to plan a diversion to a nearby airport and while he skillfully juggled control of the aircraft with a plotter, pencil, and sectional, I just selected the distance measuring tool and drew a line between our current position and said airport. Voila! In about three seconds had the distance and the true course for the diversion (note that I enhanced the course line to make it stand out).

During use the Modbook gets hot, but then again, so did the Lenovo tablet computer I mentioned earlier. And if something is generating heat, it's using power and the Modbook is no exception. Without an external power source, a fully charged battery seems to last about 2.5 hours of continuous use.

Apple introduced a good feature with the Macbook - the Magsafe™ power cord connection, but they did a not-so-convenient thing by not licensing this to third-party manufacturers. But you can buy an auto-style power adapter at a reasonable price from Mikegyver. Apparently they have gotten around the licensing issue by recycling Magsafe connectors rather than by trying to manufacture them. Below are two photos of the Mikegyver unit and a close up of the Magsafe connector.

The Not-So-Good
Given that the Modbook gets hot during use, it can become a bit uncomfortable without an empty right seat on which to set the computer.

MacGPSPro is not really optimized for aviation use: The current position indicator needs to be bigger (or better yet, configurable), the scrolling interface is clumsy, and the buttons and icons need to be bigger (or configurable). And at the risk of starting a debate, I wish I could select a view other than North Up.

PFD viewing with Acrobat Reader is okay, but Reader is really not optimized for pen-based users and bookmarks are a clumsy way to access data. Trying to use the search feature to located airport data is both ambiguous and abysmally slow, so fagetaboutit!

The Ugly

At just over 5 pounds, the Modbook is heavy. The only time I notice the weight is when I have to lift my backpack. And because I use the Lightspeed Mach1 headset, I don't have the added weight of a normal headset or the weight of my flight bag would be even heavier. Most of the time I don't mind the Modbook sitting in my lap, but I recently did my flight review with an instructor friend of mine and during instrument approaches I did notice that approaching decision height with a landing being imminent, I felt a bit uncomfortable. This was made better by switching the Modbook from a portrait position to a landscape orientation.

Modbook won't fit under the seat of Cessnas or Pipers: The seat rails are just too close together or is the Modbook too big?

There are some glitches with the Modbook's WAAS GPS receiver and MacGPSPro. Once you turn off the the GPS receiver and turn it back on, MacGPSPro is unable to initialize the interface and the only fix I've found is to reboot Mac OS.

And the really bad news is that NACO has pretty much crippled the downloadable versions of IFR low altitude en route charts by releasing them only in non-georeferenced format as PDFs. This makes them pretty much useless. A real same, that.

Mod Conclusions

Overall, the good outweighs the not-so-good and the ugly for me. While I look forward to a possible tablet machine release from Apple or someone else that will really fit the bill, I've gone paperless and I don't plan on going back.


Dave Cheung said...

Well, being the panicked pilot in the hotseat last night, I must say I am green w/ envy that you were able to get the straight line distance so quickly! And without transposing any numbers at that. I'm not so sure the mod would work w/ an examiner, though.

Anonymous said...

I haven't put a system together yet, but since my main complaint with everything I've seen or tried is direct sunlight legibility, let me suggest the following solution:

XENARC TECHNOLOGIES CORP. 702TSV – 7" Hight Bright (1,000NIT) USB Touch Screen LCD Monitor with VGA and AV inputs and a suction and adhesive mount.

Stick your "box" under the seat or wherever, a BT GPS on the glareshield, and use this ultra-readable 7" USB touchscreen with a yoke (or other) mount.

Using AnywhereMap Pro with Pocket Plates is an inexpensive and comprehensive solution, but this hardware set-up would work with whatever you want to do.

Using one of these new USB touchscreens solves the heat and bulk and sunlight legibility problem. They're still about $500, but will come down, so something to keep in mind.


Ryan Ferguson said...

I have been flirting with an EFB for a long time now.

I wear three hats. One, I fly bizjets. No real need for the EFB there -- I fly a Pro Line 21 Hawker 900XP, with XM weather, datalink, and IFIS, dual fileservers at that, meaning we're truly paperless in the cockpit. The only time I see a Jepp approach plate is on the MFD. They're georeferenced. Same for airport diagrams. There's no guesswork. It's frigging awesome.

Hat two is my personal Twin Comanche, which has considerably less in the way of integrated displays of information. It is equipped with a KLN-94 GPS and a stormscope. That's it. I'm cheap so I usually just print the plates and carry an enroute chart. I keep thinking it'd be cool to have the EFB for plates, XM weather (although I'm too cheap for the subscription), and sectionals.

Hat three is as a flight instructor. I mostly instruct in light twins and singles, including the Piper Arrow and C-172. I can tell just by looking at your modbook that it would never fly for this particular application. Most flights are in the local area, I know it like the back of my hand, I can print all the approaches I want beforehand and I simply don't need the hassle/bulk of leaving a laptop computer on my lap. Besides my headset, the only thing I usually have up front is a post-it note pad which I keep in my front pocket. Less is definitely more.

Once in awhile, I do a long x/c as a CFI, but "long" in pistons is only a couple hundred miles or so, and it's usually IFR. Still, it'd be neat to have sectionals, charts, etc. all right there.

The main advantage, to me, of an EFB would be simple, FREE chart updates, easily accessible from the EFB. For now it seems like syncing/updating the database is a bit more of a pain than I want to deal with.

Bonuses would be GPS tracking via bluetooth antenna... but then there's charging the antenna, more hassle, etc. I already have an IFR GPS, and despite how ubiquitous and "cool" moving map GPS displays have become, I don't need more than one.

I definitely like gadgets, but aviation gadgets have a way of seeming "cool" initially and then becoming a burden. The modbook seems to work well for you, but I can't see a setup like working for me as a CFI. Maybe in my personal airplane... but even there, it's a bit of overkill.

A smaller tablet-based computer with sunlight readable screen (Asus T-91, maybe?) might be the ticket. I wish the screens would improve for aviation applications.

John Ewing said...


The instruction I do is primarily in the very sort of light aircraft you mention and the Modbook has been working fine for me. I can see how it might not work for others. Okay, that's a simple difference of opinion.

Now as for pilots and flight instructors who show up to fly with just their headset, a pad of paper, a pencil, a pack of Gauloises, and a lighter, well that's a more involved topic, perhaps for another day.