Pilot Journal
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Best Handheld Products!

Your guide to the newest portable gear

From back to front, Advanced Data Research’s FG-7100, Bendix/King’s AV8OR ACE and Control Vision’s Anywhere Travel Companion.
Like many pilots, I carry a little insurance against the possibility of an alternator failure. I have a portable GPS on my Skylane’s yoke, a handheld VHF NAV/COM in a seat-back pocket and a cell phone where I can reach it. With these, I’ve got backup navigation, communications and (in a pinch) weather information, all running on battery power and completely independent of the aircraft electrical system.

Some pilots go further, carrying portable GPS navigators that also receive signals from the XM satellite radio constellation for en route weather information. Pilots with deeper pockets might prefer a fully functional electronic flight bag (EFB) with computer-based charts. It’s even possible to get portable devices for traffic avoidance and hook those into an EFB or GPS navigator to get something close to a full multi-function display (MFD) presentation.

GPS Navigators & EFBs
The fundamental decision when buying a device for navigation and weather avoidance is whether you want a dedicated GPS navigator or a full-blown EFB (basically a general-purpose portable computer that can be used for other purposes on the ground). Dedicated GPS navigators are designed and built to be used in the cockpit, with displays that work in bright light (and can be dimmed for use at night), dedicated buttons for common functions and mounting hardware for attaching the device to the aircraft yoke or glare shield. EFBs are based on general-purpose hardware, either a small personal digital assistant (PDA) or a larger Microsoft Windows–based tablet PC. Unfortunately, tablet PCs and PDAs weren’t designed for use in the cockpit. Before buying any such device for aviation use, ask to see what it looks like outside on a bright day and also in very dim light. Many tablet PC backlights can’t be turned down enough and can be blinding in a dark cockpit. EFBs also may not be as reliable as dedicated aviation GPS navigators. The same bugs (and even viruses) that bedevil desktop computer users can impact your EFB, especially if you use one of the more sophisticated models. Many vendors of EFB software recommend that you run only their software, with no other applications.

Pilot MyCast from Digital Cyclone
Beyond The Basics
Some, but by no means all, devices offer satellite-radio-based weather (which requires buying a compatible satellite radio receiver and weather subscription) and traffic (which requires a compatible traffic sensor). This is where EFBs have an advantage: They’re general-purpose devices, so you can add weather or traffic to just about any EFB by purchasing the necessary hardware and an appropriate software package. Double-check to make sure they’re compatible with your device, and remember that the more software you add to an EFB, the less reliable it’s likely to be. If you want these features on a dedicated aviation GPS, you’ll have to pay for them up front: only top-end models support them.

While you can’t legally use any portable device as a primary navigation source for flight in instrument conditions, monitoring IFR procedures on a moving-map display is perfectly legal for situational awareness on Part 91 flights and provides a great emergency backup. Some devices offer a complete backup instrument panel, based on GPS position and/or input from an electronic gyro. In an absolute worst-case scenario (simultaneous electrical and gyro failure while IFR), that could save your life.

Also consider mounting and power when you select a portable navigation device—while the term “handheld” is widely used, in practice, you’re better off with a hands-free mounting, whether on the yoke, lapboard, glare shield or in a “dock” on the panel. Most dedicated GPS navigators run on standard batteries and can also be run from a cigar lighter (if your airplane has one). That’s a good solution for most pilots: Run off the aircraft electrical system and save the batteries for emergencies. EFBs, by contrast, almost always have rechargeable batteries and may require special adapters to run off the aircraft electrical system. If you fly only short hops, running off the battery is fine, but Murphy’s Law says the one time you fly an unexpected extra leg will be on a day when you forgot to charge the battery!

The fundamental decision when buying a device for navigation and weather avoidance is whether you want a dedicated GPS navigator or a full-blown EFB.

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