comment by Dojan ·
2021-09-14T19:55:15.780Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Need: Chart plotting software for navigation at sea; integration with AIS, radar and other NMEA connections; displaying GRIB files.
Other programs I've tried: Garmin, Simrad, B&G etc proprietary solutions (only sold with GPS plotter hardware); Navionics, Isailor, Nimble Navigator, ZyGRIB (only does GRIB files).
I do a fair bit of ocean sailing on small sailboats (between 1 and 3.5 circumnavigations so far, depending on how you count). Unlike on land with Google Maps or Maps.me, at sea most modern navigation solutions center around an expensive GPS-plotter unit, that comes with proprietary software. While some are better than others, they are all A: universally and ridiculously overpriced, and B: quickly outdated with no upgradeability. The one thing they have going for them is that the hardware is generally ruggedized for the marine environment. I have tried many different units on different boats, but never found one that I like. This situation means that many boats have an old (10 or 20 years) plotter unit around that they don't generally use and that might not work anymore, and instead use an app like Navionics or Isailor on a tablet (Navionics in dangerously bad imho, Isailor is marginally better). While this can be convenient for casual use, it is not a fully fledged system, and I consider that practice unsafe (un-ruggedized hardware, tablet might randomly hang or refuse to work (for example without internet access), automatic background updates can suddenly break things, tablet can easily be lost overboard, loosing or destroying your charging cable now becomes a life-threatening danger, etc, etc. The problem is mainly that many people don't realize the degree of trust they are actually putting on the system).
OpenCPN is an opensource alternative that in my opinion handily beats all alternatives that I have tried in pretty much every way. It displays both raster and vector charts of many formats, handles both routing, tracks and waypoints and can send commands to the autopilot, and it displays AIS signals in the most intuitive, informative yet unobtrusive way I have yet seen implemented. It can even be ECDIS-compliant (legal for use on big ships), if paired with compliant hardware and set up right. It is very stable, and has extensive documentation and a helpful community. It runs easily on a RaspberryPI or similar low power devices (very important on some sailboats with limited power available, or as a backup unit). While the software is free, charts and hardware needs to be supplied by the user. High quality charts are provided for free by the governments of some countries (US and New Zealand for example), can be found for free online (pirated), or purchased. Hardware can be anything that runs Windows, Linux, OSX, BSD or Solaris (or Android, see below). I make sure that my primary unit is rugged and protected (like a Panasonic Toughbook for example), and run a backup copy on every single computing device onboard.
Issues with OpenCPN include horrible touch-support (there is an android version, but it sucks, useful as an emergency backup only), some unintuitive and quirky solutions (akin to many other opensource programs), lack of polish of the user interface compared to some proprietary solutions (again, akin to many other opensource programs), along with the need for more technical skills, especially for setting it up. There are some bugs and some missing features, but fewer than any other modern system that I've used.
I regularly set out to sea, literally and directly trusting OpenCPN with the life of me and my crew.
I realize that this is pretty niche and probably not relevant to most readers here, but it's the one area where I feel like I might have something to add :) Hope it's helpful for someone! If you are interested, I'm happy to chat more about OpenCPN, navigation or sailing in general.