Apollos MX20

VGA like graphics, infinite expandability and a mid-range price makes this one a strong contender in the MFD market.

The big aviation tradeshows have much in common with their automotive counterparts. Which is to say manufacturers often launch trial balloons-concept cars in the auto biz-that sink like stones.

When UPSAT/Apollo (then IIMorrow) unveiled its MX20 big screen multi-function display a couple of years ago, it had a concept-car whiff to it. Nice, we thought, but will it ever happen?

Indeed it has and despite blistering competition from Garmin and other manufacturers, UPSAT/Apollo has persevered and produced what we think is the best all-around choice thus far in a multi-function display market that hardly lacks for choice.

That said, were not ready to anoint the MX20 with the mark of perfection just yet; it does have some warts. Were hoping these will be sorted out over the next year as the product matures. In the meantime, given the MX20s price and features, we predict it will find plenty of buyers.

We installed a loaner MX20 in the company Mooney and flew it for some 40 hours. Here are our impressions of the box, its capabilities and limitations.

Basic Box
As evident from the chart on page 6, the MX20 shares a crowded field. As large MFDs go, its in the computer group, meaning at first glance, its more cockpit PC rather than avionics that happens to be run by a computer. The Avidyne FlightMax and Archangel CDS also occupy this category.

Is this distinction important? We think so. In our review of the Avidyne FlightMax (see the January 2000 Aviation Consumer) we werent thrilled with waiting for the machine to boot up like a standard desktop computer or having to twiddle our thumbs while it safely shut itself down. We have an avionics master switch on the panel and we like to use it, thanks. (More on this later.)

The MX20 is a large box, measuring 5 inches high by the standard 6.25 inches wide with an 8 inch depth. We installed it on the far right side of the Mooney panel and, frankly, it was a bit of a squeeze. (The Avidyne was an easier fit, being an inch shorter in height.) To make the MX20 fit, we had to trade-in our Bendix/King KT76 transponder for a lower-profile UPSAT/Apollo SL70. Other than the cost, the trade-up was a plus.

However, our panel has a Shadin fuel flow instrument and a GEM at the top of the right stack. Without those, the fit would have been more comfortable. Nonetheless, before opting for an MX20, we strongly advise owners to slide existing avionics out of their trays and do some exploration with a tape measure.

Also, look carefully for any obstructions that might get in the way. Were sure many owners will see higher-than-expected install bills because trays, wiring and other elements will have to be repositioned to accommodate the MX20s size. If youre prepared for it, no problem. If youre not, the invoice may be higher than you anticipated.

The MX20 is a cockpit PC with a Pentium 266 MHz processor running Windows Embedded NT. (See sidebar for more.) There’s no conventional hard drive, rather all data storage is to a solid-state flash-type device with no moving parts, a smart design feature in our estimation.

The screen measures 640 by 480 pixels or 307,200 total pixels for what Apollo says is equivalent to VGA. By comparison, Avidynes FlightMax series has a display of 320 by 234 pixels. The MX20 screen is AMLCD, a backlighted LCD design thats commonly used in notebook computers, although the pixel density is less than that of typical notebooks and desktops. Even so, this puts the MX20 display at the top of the heap among aviation products.

UPSAT says its capable of 65,536 colors. we’ll have to take their word for it but we can say the screen appearance is impressive, especially when the VFR sectional-type maps are displayed. In our view, the color and clarity are phenomenal, outdistancing the closest competition, which we reckon to be Avidyne and Garmins 530, no slouches in their own right.

Viewed straight on-or from the angle youd typically have with the box mounted center panel-viewability is excellent, even in direct sunlight. Screen brightness can be set automatically or manually, a nice option. Viewed from a greater angle, we noted some loss of contrast and we occasionally found ourselves craning sidewise to see fine detail in bright ambient lighting. We would give the Avidyne a slight edge in being readable from a greater viewing angle.

Advice: Even if you have to move a transponder, DME or other secondary box to the far right panel, get the MX20 into the center panel. Its intended to be and is a primary navigation box.

The MX20 hardware/software is open architecture, which makes it ideal for talking to peripherals such as Stormscopes, radar and other navigation boxes. It has three RS232 I/O ports and one RS422 serial I/O. (Presently, it has no ARINC 429 capability, which we suspect is something heavy iron drivers will eventually want. That bus I/O is in the works.) Unlike the Avidyne, there’s no CD-ROM or external disc drive capability, but the MX20 will support an external alpha keypad for data input. (No user programming or system revision is allowed.) The MX20 requires two databases, one internal for terrain and the other a front loading card for navigation revisions. (Annual cost for the flight data is $595; no price yet on the terrain revision but it wont need to be revised often, if at all.)

The MX20 is designed to receive its position information from an external GPS or loran of any type that will spit out a 232 position sentence. It also has an onboard GPS option but this is intended as a time source for datalink work; you cant navigate with the onboard source.

What It Displays
In display function, the MX20 has more in common with Garmins 295 than it does with panel-mount competitors. Setting aside the external inputs, it will display sectional-type VFR maps-proprietary vector graphics, not raster scans of actual charts-high and low-altitude VFR charts, terrain and flight plan summaries taken from the GPS.

It will also accept traffic information from UPSAT/Apollos emerging ADS-B technology and, in the works, BFGoodrichs Skywatch system. Airborne radar input is also planned, first for digital radars then analog models. This capability should be available next year, with Skywatch by the end of the year.

Lightning data display from the WX-500 is already available, as is ground datalink for weather information. (This assumes, of course, that youve sorted through the datalink options which, at this point, are rudimentary and hardly market ready.) TCAD and engine monitor functions are also planned, with no definite schedules promised.

As with the Avidyne and Garmin 430/530, the weather display can be overlayed on the basic navigation display, be it VFR or IFR charts, thus providing geographic positioning of hazardous weather within the limitations of the Stormscope or radar. Eventually, all of this data-including datalinked ground radar-will be integrated on a single display, with the elements individually de-selectable via menu choices. For basic navigation, we found that the MX20s strongest features are its VFR and IFR maps. The VFR map looks somewhat like a sectional, but not exactly. Terrain is color coded, with low-lying areas in green, higher terrain in mountain brown and water in blue. Drainage areas are nicely shown, as are major surface features such as roads and rivers. Thanks to the screens color resolution, shading is employed, not just solid colors. Road labeling is somewhat sparse and doesnt go into any more detail when the scale is drilled down to the microscopic. Nonetheless, we found the VFR charts adequate to navigate busy airspace, sans paper maps.

As is the case with all maps, there’s an ideal scale that represents the best comprise between clutter and necessary detail. On the MX20, this varies with airspace but we found scales above 30 miles to be of limited use, with 10 miles ideal for navigating congested Class B airspace. Speaking of Class B, its shown on the map as bold white lines overlayed on the surface detail with vertical limits displayed much as they are on a sectional, although not quite so prominently. (The Garmin units can display this information electively; but neither unit can figure out the appropriate ATC sector frequencies, which are often right there on a paper chart.)

Map symbology is good, with airports plainly visible, along with principle navaids. One symbol we don’t much like is a VOR-type rose around airports. This is confusing and, in our view, unnecessary. It can be turned off with a de-clutter feature but you lose other valuable detail.

IFR Charts
The second navigation map is the IFR chart function. This is somewhat like NOS IFR enroute charts but departs in symbology and expressed detail. Against a white background, airways, intersections, VORs, NDBs, airport and other nav features are shown, but no surface detail.

For night operations, the white background can be inverted to black with a couple of keystrokes, virtually eliminating the bright-object nuisance factor in a dark cockpit. The same feature can be applied to the VFR map. With the manual dim function engaged, the MX20 can be reduced to threshold brightness at night.

A third map function is intriguing but perhaps not something youd use everyday. Its called the terrain function and it uses an 96MB internal geographic database, encoded altitude and GPS position to identify hazardous terrain ahead of the aircraft. (Hazardous means 500 feet or less below the current altitude.)

When selected, the display looks a bit like airborne weather radar, with the terrain above the aircraft painted in red, yellow showing less than 500 feet of clearance and green showing 2000 feet under the keel. Poor mans GPWS? Well, yes, but since it relies on altitude data from the aircraft encoder and rudimentary terrain information, the system is strictly advisory, not the sort of thing youd want to fly nap-of-the-earth missions on dark and rainy nights.

Also, the MX20 figures out true altitude by correcting pressure altitude from the transponder so it needs local baro information. Our version of the software prompted for this every 30 minutes but later software will allow de-selection of this nuisance reminder.

In order to function effectively, the MX20 requires a detailed terrain database, which is a factory installed card inside the box. Although not flyspeck detail, the terrain resolution is quite good, down to 60 arc seconds. It does not include obstructions, however.

Like the Avidyne, the MX20 will display a flight plan page, which is sent over from the GPS. This describes the route in tabular form but omits one important item: ETEs/ETAs, which is the reason youd want that display, for IFR reporting in non-radar areas. We would like to see it added, which Apollo says it will do. (Avidyne has it.)

Operation, Set Up
The MX20 is admirably free of illogical controls; in fact, its admirably free of any controls. It has a dozen buttons, only two of which are labeled: FN for function, MENU ENT or menu and confirming selections.

The rest are line-based soft keys whose function changes with context. We flew the MX20 for more than 20 hours without having to refer to the manual and we honestly doubt that anyone will have trouble making it play right out of the box.

Punching the function key, for instance, pulls up a menu of labels along the bottom edge of the screen, each above a soft key labeled with the desired map, such as VFR, IFR or terrain. The soft keys have standing functions-in and out for scale adjustment, panning and waypoint information.

The menu key calls up a list of options that control screen configuration, de-cluttering and defaults. You can, for instance, set the MX20 to display airport icons and identifiers, icons only or no information at all. The same logic applies to major navaids and surface features. The menus are designed to allow simple step-throughs.

The map itself-whether VFR or IFR-can be configured to display numerical navigation data along the bottom edge of the screen or in the corners. Or the navigation data can be switched off. With the Garmin 430, we found little need for it but at times, this data may prove useful.

We rate customization of the screen as good to excellent. A couple of complaints: There’s an annoying delay between pressing the key and seeing the results. On scale ins and outs, you have to push and wait, push and wait. On this count, Avidynes instantaneous scaling with a knob instead of soft keys is the better design, in our opinion, as is probably a function of software.

Second, de-cluttering via the menu is sometimes uncertain and somewhat awkward. In the complex airspace around New York, the navigation and airport labels crowded each other to the extent of unreadability, as per every other moving map.

But Garmin has a better solution for this; punching the clear key invokes three tiers of decluttering, selectively removing layers of unneeded information. The MX20 requires menu step-throughs, which is not quite as convenient, in our view.

Other Inputs
Our Mooney can best be described as all dressed up and no place to go. Although we have the latest in moving maps, were stuck with the old-fashioned dedicated display for lightning, a Strike Finder to be specific. We therefore didnt use the MX20s weather display capability. According to Apollo, an MX20 coupled to a WX-500 will flash a lightning flag when the Stormscope sees lightning. Strikes can be displayed on the map as red Xs at scales above 30 miles or they can be manually deselected.

Similarly, traffic information from the Skywatch system or Apollos own ADS-B anti-collision system can be displayed on the map, complete with flight information and altitude. Avidyne has pioneered the use of an MFD for radar display but Apollo is not far behind. As of mid-summer, Apollos Sam Seery told us radar capability for the MX20 will be available by the first quarter of next year and other external inputs will be available in the future.

Increasingly, the MFD field is developing into an apples and oranges market. Readers sometimes ask, which should I buy, the Garmin 530 or that Apollo MX thing? In our view, thats like asking if you’ll have a hot dog for lunch or a salad for dinner. Theyre both food, but theyre different things altogether.

The MX20 is toe-to-toe with the Avidyne FlightMax series and of the two, we think the MX20 is the better value, especially for light aircraft. It has a better display, operates less like a computer and more like avionics and, alas, its $4000 cheaper. However, Avidyne leads in radar display for the moment, so if thats your priority, it may be the better choice for now. We rate the two about equal in terms of overall capability and operability; each has its own plusses and minuses but both are intelligently geared for future expandability. But in our view, the MX20s vector maps are superior to Avidynes scanned charts, whose detail degrades at larger scales. The same goes for IFR charts; the MX20 wins.

When the choice boils down to an MX20 or a Garmin 430/530, the recommendation is less clear cut and depends on what else you have in the panel and what you plan to add later. Do you want Stormscope? Radar? Airborne datalink? The MX20 will handle it all, the 530 everything but radar. (Garmin is still pondering whether to add that capability.)

If you already have a recent vintage GPS-or even a GNS 430, as we do-the MX20 map more than earns its keep for position awareness at an affordable price and-more important-future upgradeability, especially for weather datalink, something most pilots say they want.

Yet more capability appears to be just over the horizon. Under the Capstone project-an FAA pilot program in Alaska using datalink and ADS-B in lieu of ATC radar for separation purposes-UPSAT is equipping each test aircraft with a GX60 IFR GPS, MX20 and the necessary datalink technology for about $15,000. UPSATs Seery tells us this price will probably hold when the system goes to market a few years hence.

That means youd get the large display, IFR GPS capability, ground datalink of weather and traffic/anti-collision display through both ADS-B and the FAAs emerging traffic information service, which is already in place and ready for use for anyone capable of receiving the data. (TIS tracks airborne targets through a central network, then processes the data for flight tracking purposes.)

At this juncture, we think the MX20s capabilities are we’ll suited to provide owners with these options at reasonable prices and we think this box is a worthy competitor in the MFD market.

-by Paul Bertorelli

Also With This Article
Click here to view MX20 Displays and Controls.
Click here to view MFDs Compared.
Click here to view “Mixture Off, Switch Off… Is It Safe to Turn Off the Map?”
Click here to view the Checklist.

Contact- Apollo/UPSAT; 2345 Turner Road SE; Salem, OR 97302; 800-525-6726; www.upsat.com.