Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ForeFlight Mobile v3

Today marks the release of the latest refresh to one of the more popular iPhone aviation applications - ForeFlight Mobile version 3. The new version provides some significant new features, including the ability to download, store, and view airport data, VFR and IFR charts, and instrument approach charts. The flight planning features have been significantly enhanced, allowing you to enter routes containing VORs and intersections as well as departure and arrival procedures. And lastly, there are some nice refinements to the user interface you'll use to access these features. I found a lot to like in version three, so let's dive in and look at some details.

Who's got the Button?
Launch ForeFlight Mobile version 3 (FFM v3) and you'll immediately see the newly designed user interface. Instead of a row of five buttons at the bottom of the screen, FFM v3 provides a high-level interface that groups the functions into nine areas. You access the area you want by tapping on the corresponding icon. "But I liked the old interface!" you say? I wouldn't worry too much because this is a thoughtful reorganization. The ForeFlight team artfully added a bunch of new features while keeping the older features that worked well. Previous users should feel right at home with v3.

First things First
One of the first things I recommend doing with FFM v3 is tap on the Accounts button where you'll set up some basic information like your ForeFlight and DUATS account login. You don't have to enter any DUATS information and if you don't, FFM v3 will use its own account information to retrieve weather data and file your flight plans.

This is also where you choose your subscription plan. Until January 1, 2010 you can buy a 3-month plan for $24.99 or a whole year for $69.99. If you are upgrading from FFM v2, a year's subscription will cost you just $39.99. Again, that's just until January 1. Is it worth the price? More on that later ...

It seemed odd to me that the Accounts section was NOT the place for a user to enter their personal information like name, address, and phone number. That sort of stuff gets entered and remembered when you create a flight plan, which I'll cover below.

I recommend your next stop be the Download area, where you'll select what data you want stored on your iPhone. You can select just the areas your interested in for airport diagrams, terminal procedures, and IFR and VFR charts. Now I have a lowly iPhone 3G (not the 3GS) with a mere 8Gb of storage, so I did some careful picking and choosing. Even so, the downloading via WiFi took quite some time. Depending on the configuration of your iPhone and how much storage you have available, you may need to carefully consider just what airport and chart data you need to keep on your iPhone.

In the future, storage space limitations may become less of a problem since Toshiba has just announced the availability of 64 Gb NAND Flash Memory. Unlike the iPod Touch, iPhones have less available hardware space due to the phone hardware, hence they can only hold one Flash chip. With the larger NAND flash memory on a single chip, we should start to see iPhones with more storage space. Of course this is small comfort if you have an older device with limited storage and a slower processor.

A Brief Pause
As an aside, if anything gives me pause about iPhone apps it's that those that require a lot of data are currently limited to WiFi as the primary method of getting that data onto the phone. You may recall that in my review of GoodReader I described the method of transferring data using USB. Turns out that this feature had to be removed as third-party apps transferring data to an iPhone via USB is not approved by Apple. Obviously Apple has concerns about security and preserving the stability of their interfaces, but it seems to me that over time this cannot stand.

Remember that these are my perceptions and, in the words of the Big Lebowski:
That's like ... just your opinion, man!

Will iPhone apps that require tons of transferrable data continue to flourish and function properly? Time will tell.

Maps or Charts?
A popular distinction made by aviators about maps and charts is that a chart is something designed to be drawn or written on. FFM v3 uses the term Maps and since you can't (yet) drawn on these representation, who am I to argue? I found the VFR and low-altitude en route IFR charts to be reasonably useful considering the iPhone's small screen. This sort of app just cries out for a larger screen, like the much-rumored iTablet device that Apple is allegedly poised to release sometime in 2010.

I'm not sure I'd rely on these charts in flight, even though you can access them with your phone in airplane mode. For preflight planning and armchair flying, they're reasonable. Until a reliable iTablet-like color reader becomes available, I'm still carrying paper VFR and IFR charts, thank you very much.

Playing Favorites
The Favorites area is very similar to the feature of the same name in FFM v2. You can store favorite airports here and get a quick overview of the weather. My only gripe here is that if you go to Favorites and decide you want to add a new airport, you must first close Favorites and open Airports. While I understand this might have been a "purity of user interface" design choice, it's still tedious. I'd like to be able to tap on Edit and have the option of adding a new favorite airport. Again, just my opinion, man ...

Image is Everything
The Imagery area where you can get a high-level view of the current US Radar, surface analysis charts, and freezing levels, to name just a few. You can also get a high-level view of TFRs as well as international weather products for Mexico, NAV Canada, Europe, and South Africa.

... But not Forgotten
Tap the Recents icon and you can access the airports, imagery, and routes that you've been playing with. I found the most useful part of this to be the recent routes. In fact, when I was flying freight and had to file my own flight plans for ad hoc and repositioning flights, this would have saved me a lot of time. If you fly regularly to a variety of airport, I think you'll find this to be a great feature.

Some Familiar Bits
Tap on the Airports icon and you're confronted with an alphabetical list of states or countries, depending on which option you choose at the bottom. Narrow your search by selecting the state or country, then drill down to the city name and choose the airport. This could be somewhat problematic given the odd fact that many airports (especially in the US) are known by several different names, like KSNA/Santa Ana/John Wayne/Orange County or KSTS/Santa Rosa/Sonoma County/Charles M. Schulz. Don't get me started on how the FAA still mixes ICAO and non-ICAO airport IDs in their various publications ...

Hmm ... notice how Anguilla is listed as being part of the US? It's most definitely not!

Wouldn't it be cool to have the same search function available in FFM v2, just in case you're not sure the city name of the airport in which you are interested? Well that feature is still available at the top of the main FFM v3 screen - so obvious that you may have missed it. Here you can enter an airport, route, tail number, city name or ZIP code, just like before.

This is a cool feature and I just used it yesterday when a student asked me "What kind of jet is that?" Unsure of the aircraft's type given the odd paint scheme and the fact that I was looking at it from the rear, I surreptitiously entered the aircraft's tail number in FFM's search field and then confidently replied "Well that's a Citation X, of course!"

Flight Plans
I found the best way to create a new flight plan was to use the Routes feature (described below), but you'll use the Flight Plans feature if you have a bunch of flight plans already stored and want to file one. Simply select the flight plan you want from the list, edit any items that you need to change like departure time or people on board, then tap File. You'll need to specify an EDT at least 5 minutes in the future in order to file.

Full Route Clearance
My favorite feature in FFM v3 has to be Routes because it understands VORs and intersections as well as departure and arrival procedures. Secondly, you can leave the route blank and then ask FFM v3 to tell you what routes ATC has been assigning between the two airports. This is handy in Northern California where you seldom hear "Cleared as filed ..." One limitation is that if you are flying between two airports that no one else is using, FFM v3 won't be able to provide you any ATC assigned routings.

One feature request regarding Routes is to allow an altitude to be specified as 9000FT, 9000FEET or (even better) 9000'.

Cost of Admission
There's no doubt that FFM v3 is thoughtfully designed, well-crafted software that packs a huge raft of features into a very small package. It's hard to remember that just a couple of years ago it took a laptop or a phone conversation with Flight Service to do all of the things that FFM v3 can do. This brings us to what Pee Wee Herman once said: "Everyone I know has a big but." My misgivings about FFM v3 center around two main issues.

Just how much can a lowly iPhone be expected to do? Apparently, quite a bit. But if these full-featured apps continue to grow in complexity and in the amount of data they must manage, something's gotta give. I may be proven wrong about this, but I used to develop software many years ago and my spidey senses are tingling. As iPhones do more and more, I get more and more nervous and start thinking about my back-up plans. Maybe that's just me?

I'm all for people getting paid for their work (Hey, you're gonna click on that donate button on my blog, just as soon as you finish reading this, right?). FFM v3 is certainly well-designed software that is chock full of features. As to whether or not the subscription cost for FFM v3 is cost effective depends a lot on you, the individual pilot. I don't think the costs are unreasonable, but for pilots who fly infrequently there are cheaper ways to do what FFM does. Remember that there's a tension between cost-effective and cool/convenient/hip/sexy.


Anonymous said...

As far as the charts are concerned I agree that these charts I wouldn't rely on for in flight use but not because of the small screen. The map projection is all distorted and the margins are all gone. Stitching them together does seem cool at first but when I look at the boundaries where they are put together information gets cut off in various places, I'd be very worried about relying on this for in flight use.

John Ewing said...

I remember a pilot to whom I showed the then just released Jeppesen VFR+GPS charts. He pooh-poohed them saying they didn't shown enough topographic detail. When i pressed him on this, he explained that he'd recently flown through a mountainous area at a pretty low altitude and felt he needed that detail. My observation was "If you're flying that low, you best not be looking at a chart - you best be looking out the damn window!"

A chart is, after all, just a chart - not a guarantee that you won't fall of the edge of the earth.

Patrick Flannigan said...

Looks like Foreflight has really grown into a great iPhone app.

I have to agree that the charts aren't anything I'd want to rely on too heavily. Not so much because of the resolution, but because of the screen size. Scale it up to something like a Kindle and I'd feel fine shooting an instrument approach on the thing.

Thanks for the in-depth review John.

Anonymous said...

I just read this posting and I feel like making a comment too regarding the charts they use. I personally wouldn't use it for real life flight planning either, but the map projection being distorted isn't much of an issue for me like another poster said. It's the stuff on the chart edges that gets truncated which keeps me from wanting to use it for flight planning or in flight nav. It is rather funny because I noticed on the foreflight facebook page which I'm a fan of had a question posed by someone whether or not the charts would be approved for navigation use and one of the foreflight members basically distanced themselves from it by saying they aren't in a position to make a legal determination. But it is clear that the charts come from runwayfinder and the site periodically has a popup that says it's not approved for navigational use, so I'm sure foreflight knows that. They just don't want to say it probably because they think it might hurt sales, which if true I think is actually a disservice to their customers, they should be upfront about it at least *if* someone asks them. Be that as it may, it's still nice to use for quickly checking areas out but one should still reference the real charts when doing a final planning for the sake of safety. Experienced pilots probably realize all this anyhow, but as a former cfi I hope the newer pilots out there use it appropriately and not as a substitute for the real thing.