Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

PilotPlates & Reader Plates

Approach plates meet electronic books

Reader Plates (above) and PilotPlates are two products that put instrument approach plates on Sony’s PRS-505 .
Ten years ago, I started off on my first really long cross-country trip: a two-week flying vacation from my home base in Modesto, Calif., to Parkersburg, W.V. I literally started out with a suitcase full of charts, including approach plates for the entire route. One major problem came when all my IFR charts expired halfway through the trip. From then on, I’d check with the FBO at every airport where I landed to see what charts were available.

Today, it’s possible to get all the charts I used in electronic form, and display them either on a multi-function display (MFD)—if you’re lucky enough to have a technically advanced cockpit—or on a carry-on electronic flight bag (EFB). But short of that ubiquitous suitcase full of charts, what can back up an MFD or EFB?

I’ve just finished testing two products that can partly solve this problem, providing electronic approach plates (but not sectional or en route charts) on an electronic device that’s physically smaller than (and almost as light as) a single volume of paper approach procedures. Both products are based on Sony’s Portable Reader System (PRS-505), an electronic book that measures 6.9x4.8x0.3 inches and weighs just nine ounces.

It’s important to note that the PRS-505 isn’t a general-purpose computer. It won’t browse the Internet or read e-mail, and you can’t use it to take notes. It’s designed purely as an electronic book viewer. This has advantages and disadvantages: EFB vendors sometimes describe themselves as offering a portable MFD, and there’s some truth to that—connect an EFB to an external GPS and you’ll get moving-map functionality. The PRS-505 won’t do that, nor will it load sophisticated flight-planning software. It’s a viewer, period.

On the plus side, at an MSRP of just $299, the PRS-505 is amazingly cheap, and its rechargeable lithium-ion battery (similar to those found in most notebook computers) holds a charge for more than a week. Over several days of intermittent use (and several hours of intensive testing), I saw the battery charge indicator drop from full to about three-quarters. That’s a major contrast with most of the EFBs I’ve tested, which are completely run down after only a few hours of continuous use.

One reason the PRS-505 has such good battery life is its passive liquid crystal display, which has no backlight. It’s fine in daylight (indeed, the brighter the light, the easier the display is to see), but at night, you’ll need to use a flashlight, just as you would with paper approach plates.

Documents (in this case, approach plates) are loaded onto the PRS-505 by connecting a cable to a regular notebook or desktop computer. Download the latest charts from the web to the computer, then copy them to the reader. This means that on a really long trip, where you may need to update charts, you’ll need to carry a notebook PC with you as well as the reader—but you won’t need to fool with the notebook PC in the air.


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