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 6.9×4.8×0.3 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.
The PRS-505 doesn’t use a touch screen; instead, it has physical buttons down the right side and on the bottom of the unit’s display bezel. I prefer those, as I’ve found touch-screen devices difficult to use in the cockpit (especially in turbulence), but I’m aware that some pilots disagree.
Now that we understand the PRS-505, let’s consider two products that put FAA/NACO-standard instrument approach plates on it. PilotPlates from Flight Level Publishing (www.pilotplates.com) is designed to fit on a standard PRS-505 without requiring an external memory card. To do that, it divides plates into eight regional downloads covering from three to 14 states. Within a volume, plates are organized by airport identifier, with shortcuts available through the PRS-505’s table of contents, allowing you to search by city or airport name. This can lead to a lot of button pushing. Finding Modesto, for instance, requires either 19 button presses to page directly from the table of contents, or 10 button pushes from the “Airports by Name” page. Either way, you get to a list of available pages including alternate minimums, take-off minimums, airport diagrams, approach procedures and any SIDs or STARs.
When you find the chart you want, it appears on the PRS-505’s 4.3×3.5-inch display in considerably less than life size. It’s readable, but can be difficult for those of us with older eyes. Pressing the PRS-505’s Enter button (a round button on the lower right) zooms in to a slightly enlarged view of the approach minimums on most charts, but cuts off the briefing strip at the top of the chart. Some pages, including chart legends, are best viewed in landscape (sideways) orientation, which can be done by holding down the PRS-505’s Zoom button (on the lower left side) for five seconds; in these cases, you can view only half the chart at a time.
Reader Plates from Reader Plates LLC (www.readerplates.com) takes a slightly different approach to presenting the same information. A single download contains NACO approach plates for the entire United States. That’s too much to fit in the PRS-505’s 128 MB internal memory, so you’ll need a compact flash card, which fits in a slot on the PRS-505. This costs a bit more (around $20 for a 2 GB card), but lets you bring a complete set of plates with you and leaves internal memory free for other documents (you might want a book to read in case weather doesn’t cooperate en route). Reader Plates uses the PRS-505 Collections function (available from the main menu) to organize plates by state, which gets to Modesto with just five button presses. It offers the same basic set of charts as the competition, but has a different strategy for zooming: Pressing the Enter button toggles between the regular portrait-mode view and enlarged landscape-mode view of the top and bottom halves of the chart. This requires you to turn the unit, but I found the larger text much more readable when zoomed in.
Both products are sold on a subscription basis. PilotPlates costs $249 per year, and Reader Plates costs $9.99 per month. In each case, a subscription covers the entire United States. At this writing, I’ve learned that Reader Plates now are available for Amazon’s Kindle DX—more on that in “Readback” and in a future edition of Tech Talk.