In Living Color

The Skyforce Skymap has it, plus streamlined operating logic. But we think its a tad too pricey for portable use.

Were not sure if GPS moving maps in living color top every pilots wish list. But wanted or not, here they come. In the panel-mount world, color maps are somewhat old hat, with impressive models from ARNAV, Avidyne, Argus and, recently, Garmin.

At $7000 to start, however, none of those products are exactly the sort of must-have or impulse purchases that drove the handheld market into a pitched frenzy four years ago. Inevitably, color displays had to find their way into portable maps and the first serious entry comes from AlliedSignal in the form of the Brit-designed Skyforce Skymap and Tracker.

Skyforce has been around for a while, marketing mono and color moving map GPS units in Europe since 1995. At Oshkosh last summer, AlliedSignal announced its purchase of Skyforce, an obvious bid to bring color technology quickly into the Bendix/King line.

In that sense, neither of these models are entirely new and earlier versions of them made brief appearances at U.S. tradeshows. But the Skyforce/AlliedSignal combined effort marks the entry of the first practical portable color map.

No Price Breakthrough
Four years ago, we boldly predicted that the cheap full-color moving map would never come to pass. Whether the Skymap proves us wrong depends on your definition of cheap. At $2670 retail for the portable version, its inexpensive as avionics go but at the top of the price heap for portable gear, by a wide margin.

There are a range of models here so lets sort through them first. The portable color model can be purchased in one of two versions. The Skymap IIIC ($2670) is self-contained, complete with its own GPS engine, remote antenna, and case. The so-called Tracker version-which sells for $2420 list-has all the accessories but no GPS receiver. You have to plug the Tracker into an existing panel-mount or portable through an RS-232 port.

AlliedSignal is also offering a dedicated panel-mount version of these products, both of which are similar to the portable system, except for a front loading data card and an extra card for autopilot coupling. The GPS-equipped version is called the Color Map CM2000 and lists for $5000 while the CT2000 (no self-contained GPS) lists for $4200.

If youre willing to forgo the front datacard, AlliedSignal has a rack mounting option ($200 list) that allows the portable versions to be flush-mounted in the panel.

Got all that? There’s more. Skyforce also makes mono versions, the Skymap II portable, which sells for $1299 and the Tracker-again, you provide your own GPS-for $929 list.

With no other portable color maps out there-yet-the only obvious competition for Skyforce seems to be from its own mono versions or the league-leading Garmin 195.

Magellans megamap EC-20X is pricier than the Garmin and Skyforce mono models, but the Magellan has proven to be a niche seller.If weve learned anything about the portable market, its that screen size doesnt come cheap, either in terms of price or overall bulk. Although its clearly intended for yoke mounting, the color Skymap pushes the limits of what can and ought to be mounted to the controls, in our view.

At a few tenths of an ounce shy of 2 pounds, the Skymap is 10 ounces heavier than the brick-like Garmin 195, which is itself no ballerina in the weight and balance arena. Overall size is 4 1/4 X 6 1/8 X 2 1/2 inches deep, making it shorter than the Garmin 195, but wider and nearly a full inch deeper. (At its thickest, the 195 is 2 1/8 inches deep. (The mono version is a relatively svelte 1 3/4 inches thick.)

The payoff for the Skymaps bulk is a 3 X 4 inch color screen, 30 percent larger than the Garmins and, thanks to the color, dramatically easier to read in most regards, especially at night. To be fair, some of the Skymaps extra display real estate is occupied by key labels but the map is undeniably larger than the 195s and larger than any other portable GPS, except the EC-20X.

The Skymap comes standard with, a kneeboard-type strap, a remote antenna and a power/data cable. The yoke hardware is a $65 option. If you plan to run this thing, you’ll need a working cigarette/accessory plug or power source in the 10- to 33-volt range.

The color screen is a serious power hog so internal battery back-up isn’t an option. The map becomes slightly warm to the touch but a tiny cooling fan keeps things we’ll under control. (The mono version can be operated on batteries.)

As mounts go, the Skymaps is well-designed and we’ll made although the wise pilot will take care to secure it carefully. If this thing were to come adrift in turbulence, it could deliver a good whack to the noggin. One shortcoming of the mount is that it allows the map to be positioned so it can be used only in portrait mode.

Landscape mode-that is, with the map horizontal-is a settable option, and in our view, is the better choice, since the all-important key labels are more easily readable. (More on that in a moment.) This product is designed for either portable or panel mount use and in the panel, landscape would be the logical choice.

The standard in moving map GPS has been to offer a handful of screens such as a surface-detail map, an HSI, a numeric nav page and a satellite status page. The Skymap is similarly configured, although the choices have some options we havent seen. For example, the basic map-called the VFR map-has surface detail to include roads, lakes, railroads and cities. Overlayed on that is numerical nav information such as bearing, track, distance and groundspeed.

A so-called IFR map strips out the surface detail and projects IFR data-intersections, flightplan route, airports, VORs and obstructions but not airways-against a black background. Either the VFR or IFR maps can be overlayed with large text to digitally display distance, bearing and ETA/ETE. These are separate map selections reachable by stepping through two menu selections.

The Skymap also has an HSI-CDI in Skymap menu-speak-accessible via menu step through. Like the real thing, the Skymap HSI has a green D-bar, a settable OBS and TO-FROM flags.

Stepping through menus to navigate these various options is more awkward than using a dedicated key but the Skymap addresses that with something unique: A joystick for quickly toggling between displays, entering data and slewing the cursor around the map for distance/bearing and airspace information.

Map Detail
With color available, the Skymaps surface map can be made to look just like a sectional-almost. The colors of landmass background and map icons-that is, airports, VORs, NDBs, roads and so on-can be customized to suit the user. You can set landmasses to be green, water blue, roads black or any combination you like, including some downright ugly possibilities. We found that restraint with regard to color customization is the best policy, so we stuck with green or white landmasses, yellow towns and black roads.

Color, line weight and style can all be customized for major and secondary roads, railroads and water outlines and you can easily set the scale at which these elements appear on the map and/or engage an auto declutter feature.

This is critical, for one downside of this color map is that at scales above 15 miles, its difficult to make much sense of any map detail. We found the best scale to be 8 miles, which happens to be the start-up default scale. By comparison, the Garmin 195 holds readable detail to the 30-mile scale.

The Skymaps screen brightness, contrast and viewability are excellent and vastly better than any monochrome unit weve tried. It washes quite a bit in direct sunlight but still remains legible if viewed at a straight-on angle. At shallow viewing angles-say the right seater trying to look at the screen on a yoke mount-the display vanishes in reflection.

For night ops, the brightness is continuously variable via the power knob but could stand more dimming range on the lower side. (Skyforce is working on that.) As our eyes adapted to darkness, we found the VFR maps lowest brightness setting slightly too bright but not intolerable.

Basic navigation information appears as small data tags overlayed on the map display. This includes distance to go, bearing, track, ETE/ETA, scale, a CDI and groundspeed. Other than a screen selection that bumps up the text size on distance, bearing, ETA/ETE, these data tags arent customizable, which is a feature we miss.

For example, we prefer to place bearing and track side-by-side on the display but the Skymap software doesnt allow that flexibility, as do the Garmin and other products.

One useful feature the display does have, however, is a constant position reference giving bearing and distance to either a VOR or airport, with the choice being selectable.

In our opinion, the Skymaps best display is its IFR map, which depicts airports and IFR fixes (VORs, NDBs and intersections) against a jet black background, with the pilot-selected route overlayed in white or any other color you might like. To cut down on reflected brightness at night, the IFR map is a good choice and is wonderfully easy to read at scales 15 miles or below.

Off the Track
As a ground nav unit for car use, the Skymap is wanting. It frequently shows positions we’ll off main roads and since these are repeatable, we deem them to be map base errors. Furthermore, we noted at least one misnamed town with a geographical error of some 10 miles. Taken together, these don’t inspire confidence in the underlying map base. In a unit costing this much, we expect better than this, even if the map is intended solely for aviation use.

The aeronautical database, supplied by Jeppesen, appears to be more accurate. Its stored on a 4MB flashcard accessible by removing the receivers rear cover. Database revisions cost $165 each but can be bought via subscription service. The database contains the standard stuff on airports: Runway diagrams and lengths, elevation and relevant frequencies.

It also contains-and the map displays-obstacles as small red tower symbols on the map, with MSL/AGL height projected when the cursor is placed over the symbol. For VORs and NDBs, the Skymap has a clever feature: Pushing a soft key labeled IDENT plays the Morse identifier. Never mind that the Skymaps feeble internal beeper is utterly inaudible unless wired into the aircraft audio panel.

Whats missing from the database? Approaches, which the Garmin 195 and IIMorrow Precedus have. However, the Skymaps database does contain the named approach fixes so its possible to construct approaches manually using the route function.

Easy Ops
In our view, the true of measure of GPS operating logic is being able to turn the thing on and operate it without reference to the manual. The Skymap passes that test with flying colors, pardon the pun. In our view, it has one of the most logical and simple operating schemes of any avionics weve tested.

Simply turn it on with the power switch and the map initializes itself, no with no need to confirm database currency or other such folderol. All of the control functions are contained in a series of soft keys along one edge of the screen, supplemented by a small joystick. Each of the soft keys carry a specific label: GO TO, NAV MENU, ZOOM OUT/IN and MAIN MENU, for example and these change according to the menu selected.

To navigate through the various functions, simply press the appropriately labeled soft key, which leads to a series of sub-menus and specific point outs on how to do what. For example, punching the NAV MENU leads immediately to a screen allowing you to use the joystick to select a VFR or IFR map or the HSI screen.

The soft key labels change with each menu selection, thus on the NAV page, youre also given the choice of stepping into the route page or searching for nearest airports. Most of the screens allow quick toggling back to the map with a single keystroke. With each menu selection, a helper screen appears to prompt you through set-ups, which are all but foolproof to begin with.

The most complex menu is the map configuration screen, which offers more than 40 customizable choices, ranging from the usual north up versus track up, through autozooming and color choice, to include white, black, light and dark blue, magenta, brown, green, red and yellow, most of which can be assigned to surface features and navaid icons at will. The screen itself can be oriented in landscape or portrait mode and when possible, landscape is the better choice because the soft key labels are easier to read horizontally.

Oh Joy
A consistent complaint weve heard from readers is the utter tedium of entering fix names into a navigator using knobs and buttons. Wouldnt a keyboard be easier? Yes, it would, but portable devices-and few panel mounts-have room for that. The Skymaps joystick is a nice gesture in the right direction.

With it, you can quickly toggle the cursor to the appropriate field and slew it around to input the characters you want. In principle, its no different than the Garmin 195s single-point rocker key, but in our view, the joystick is faster to use.

Just for kicks, we timed the simple task of selecting GO TO a fix. The Garmin required a dozen keystrokes and an average of 45 seconds while the Skymap took half as many keystrokes and 20 seconds. In both units, the short cut method is to place the cursor directly over the desired fix and punch GO TO. Again, the Skymaps joystick and superior screen visibility give it a slight edge over the Garmin 195 for this task, in our view.

Another Skymap feature we liked was the ability to slide the cursor to the edge of a depicted special use airspace-say a Class B or D area-and punch the MORE INFO key to pull up the ATC frequencies. (The database is blind to sector frequencies, so you have to sort through the list and guess which freq is right, but at least you have a place to start.)

The Skymap has room for 99 stored routes and these can be constructed manually using the joystick input method or visually directly off the map by dragging the cursor around with the joystick. The latter is a nice concept but the reality falls short, in our view. If you want routes, its easier to build them manually.

What to Do
Clearly, the Skymap and Tracker are stop gap technology, yet two more waypoints on the road to the avionics nirvana that seems to shimmer ever beyond reach just over the horizon. Were fond of the phrase market clarification but we doubt if such a thing will occur within the next five years.

Each new product cycle brings more choices in a market already flooded with a box for every purpose. Competition is a good thing, of course, but picking the right product grows ever more complex.

Where do these things fit in? First the SkyMap IIIC, which includes its own GPS receiver. This unit retails for a rather pricey $2670 in the portable version and $5000 for a dedicated panel mount variant. Allowing for the usual cutthroat discounting, you might find the color portable version for $2400 and the panel mount for $4500. (Figure $5000 installed.)

Frankly, we think those price points are out of whack on the high side. The best of the capable portable maps-Garmins 195 and GPS III Pilot and Lowrances lesser but capable Airmap 100-sell at prices between $600 and $1100.

That means that in the portable arena, the Skymaps color option costs between two and four times more than the cheapest mono options. The color is nice but for the price premium, the Skyforce brings only two things to the table: color and a simple operating system. Taken together, these don’t justify the bucks, in our view.

Similarly, at $5000 for the panel-mount CM2000, a VFR-only color map, the value comes up short when you consider that for a bit more, you can install a decent GPS mapcom, such as Garmins 250XL or IIMorrows GX65. That said, the CT2000-color panel mount, DIY GPS-when paired with an IFR navigator, represents a better value than the Argus 5000/7000 color maps.

The best overall choice, in our view, is the Skymap IIIC or the Tracker version as a panel-mount supplement if you plan to wait out the switch to IFR GPS for the foreseeable future or you have something like a Northstar M3 GPS or a Trimble 2000 thats recent vintage but mapless.

We see the Skymap in that context as a much better value than the rather pricey Argus color units, which are smaller and project less map detail. As we noted in the moving map roundup in the March issue of Aviation Consumer, the Skymap may eventually include the ability to accept datalink information from a dedicated source of some sort so the unit has some future.

That said, we expect to see more color moving maps emerging this year but thus far, from what weve been told, none will be cheap, leading us to conclude that even though a colorful new world is upon us, the road to it is paved with greenbacks.

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Color Display Checklist.
Click here to view the Color Displays.
Click here to view “Sky Map II Mono.”
Click here to view the Portable GPS Guide.

-by Paul Bertorelli