Jepp takes new approach with SolidFX reader

 - May 25, 2010, 9:56 AM

Pilots now have many choices for viewing approach plates, arrival and departure charts and airport diagrams in the cockpit, from traditional paper to electronic flight bags (EFBs), built-in avionics and a plethora of devices from Apple’s new iPad to handheld computers, Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader and other devices adapted to the task. Taking an opposite tack, Jeppesen and SolidFX have teamed to deliver a novel entrant in this market segment, a standalone chart reader that, to a greater extent than the other solutions, is a direct replacement for paper charts.

With their FX8 and FX10 Portable Aviation Information Manager, Jeppesen and SolidFX wisely did not try to make something that does everything and focused instead on key utilities such as chart display and an e-reader for books and newspapers.

One might wonder why aviation needs a dedicated chart reader, and we asked SolidFX’s resident Ph.D., Jeff McDonald, this question. After all, many business aircraft are now equipped with EFBs of various capabilities, and some can display charts on cockpit avionics.

The fact that many aircraft now have moving maps and charts on cockpit displays is exactly why the SolidFX unit is necessary, McDonald said. If the moving map is already on the instrument panel, then an EFB is redundant, and having a separate chart reader makes sense and costs less. And with charts in the avionics displays, a dedicated chart reader provides an excellent backup and avoids the need to carry paper charts as a backup method.

Jeppesen has priced the eChart updates on the SolidFX devices to fit with that philosophy. Instead of charging hundreds or thousands of dollars for subscriptions for the SolidFX reader, if you already have a JeppView subscription for your cockpit avionics, for example, adding the FX8 or -10 eChart subscription is reasonably priced at $55 more per year for the continental U.S. and an additional $770 for a worldwide subscription.

The larger FX10 ($1,595) with a 10.2-inch display was the first SolidFX unit to market, but now the 8.1-inch FX8 ($1,195 for either the FX8-G or FX8) offers similar capability at a lower cost and lighter weight and in two versions, one with wireless connectivity and one without. The wireless connectivity allows users to purchase and download e-books from companies such as Barnes & Noble and download newspapers as well. The FX8-G, however, cannot receive chart updates wirelessly. All updates are done by plugging in a USB cable to an Internet-connected computer using the Jeppesen Services Update Manager. FX8-G wireless connectivity is not yet available in Europe, but will be eventually. SolidFX also plans to offer the FX10 in a wireless version.

All of the SolidFX units display Adobe PDF files clearly, including e-books in PDF format and FAA publications such as the Instrument Flying Handbook and Aeronautical Information Manual. Adding new PDF-based documents to the FX8 and FX10 is as easy as plugging the unit into a computer’s USB port then dragging
and dropping files onto the FX8 or -10’s personal documents folder. I tried loading some NACO charts on the FX8, and while they are viewable, they have none of
the functionality of the Jeppesen charts. The Jeppesen charts are priced so reasonably that it would be a waste of time to try to save money with NACO charts.
The SolidFX display uses E Ink electronic paper technology, which is found on most dedicated e-book reader devices and provides plenty of contrast as well as readability that improves in direct sunlight. There is no backlight, however, so external lighting is needed for night operations. Battery life on the 20.1-ounce FX10 is about 10 hours, while the 12.6-ounce FX8 lasts about 24 hours per charge.

The FX8 and -10 do not have GPS receivers and do not display any position information on charts. For now, Jeppesen does not offer en route charts on the SolidFX, but these will be available later. The displays use touch-screen technology, which enables unusual features like the ability to pan the chart to look at a specific area or to zoom in by drawing a box around an area with the stylus. Chart details are super sharp at any zoom level.

The displays also have a notepad function, where the user can annotate a chart, such as drawing an arrow on an approach plate pointing at the final approach fix or writing an important number on a blank area. The function includes pre-formatted pages and a flight-plan form that the user can fill out with the included stylus.
Another useful feature of the drawing capability is highlighting the pathway of an ATC taxi clearance on an airport diagram. SolidFX is working on customizable note-pad templates, so users will be able to create their own blank forms for the notepad function. This feature is scheduled to be released with version 2.0 of the SolidFX software at EAA AirVenture in late July.

The larger FX10 shows approach charts in full size, while the FX8 either shrinks them down slightly (in full chart view mode) or allows the user to view part of the chart on the screen. In this case, the user can switch between top and bottom views to see all of the information on the chart. Charts can be viewed in landscape or portrait mode.

SolidFX doesn’t include any yoke-mounting hardware with the units, but users can buy suitable mounts from Ram Mounting Systems.

Both the FX10 and FX8 include PDF versions of their user manuals, but the manuals are much easier to view on a computer, and searching for information is also easier on a computer using a normal keyboard to type in search terms. Oddly, when using the search function on the FX10 or FX8, there were no live links to the search term. For example, when I searched for the word “notepad,” the function returned this result: “see the Notepad section in Advanced Operations.” However, there was no live link to that section. Also, I found that while there are links in the table of contents, once I clicked one of those links, there was no easy way to return to the table of contents.

Searching for airports worked fine, and as soon as I selected two characters from the onscreen keyboard, a list of possible airports appeared, and I could select the chosen airport from the list with a tap of the stylus. Charts can be saved as favorites, which makes retrieving them easier and allows users to save charts for a particular trip ahead of time.

While the stylus is the easiest way to navigate the FX10 and FX8’s touch screen, all is not lost if it falls into a cockpit crack. Simply switch to “no stylus” mode by moving the power switch to the left and holding for five seconds. Using fingers on the touchscreen isn’t as precise as the stylus, but it works. The stylus does come on a lanyard, which is a safer way to keep it from disappearing.