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May 17, 2007

The Handheld Chart Plotter Comes of Age

Use it as a cheap backup - or to take you across the world's oceans

The increasing capabilities of compact electronics have ushered in a relatively new category of instrument, able to take you from virtually any starting point to any destination as easily as changing a single map cartridge.

The handheld chart plotter, while relatively new on the marine scene, is a surprisingly full-featured, compact and high-performance piece of electronics able to play either a backup or primary navigation role as needed.

Regardless of how serious an angler you are, cost represents a major factor when purchasing electronic equipment, and the handheld chart plotter addresses this concern in spades. Any of the handheld chart-plotter models discussed in this column - of the sort available at this time only from Lowrance and Garmin - can more than adequately handle your navigation needs. And on smaller craft - especially coastwise short-range boats - it can save money as well as space on your console.

With the various aftermarket brackets available, you can mount a handheld on the console directly in your line of sight, and rarely will you have to worry about space or exposure to water, spray, rain, etc., because handhelds are at least waterproof if not submersible. The economical price of these units frees up your budget for other gear significant to your fishing, such as a higher quality sounder or a radar unit.

Can a handheld replace a full-size unit? Sure, if you only use your chart plotter to mark waypoints to, from and around your fishing area. If you require more sophistication and use of all the features in the cartography, relegate the handheld to a backup role.

From a safety aspect (assuming you already have a fixed chart plotter), having a backup unit - especially one at these price points - makes a good deal of sense. If you depend on your chart plotter for navigating in unfamiliar waters or on chart plotter and cartography to get you in and out inlets safely, a handheld constitutes cheap insurance.

Other Players
As noted, Garmin and Lowrance represent the only two players in the handheld chart-plotter game. Magellan plans to reenter this field, but details seem hard to come by. A Magellan spokesperson called its version a "crossover GPS" and says the company will aim the product's initial release at the land market, with a marine emphasis to come at a later date. Magellan has been in the marine-GPS game for quite a while, although it currently seems to be focusing on the very popular - and lucrative - land-navigation segment. Nonetheless, I've used an old non-waterproof Magellan GPS 310 housed in a clear-acrylic-front Cell Safe case on my boat 24/7, seven to eight months a year for well over six years, and I've had absolutely zero problems. It was plenty accurate enough to get me out of at least one serious whiteout fog-bank situation. I expect Magellan to be competitive when it enters this category.

Bushnell says maybe it will enter the marine market. Known mostly for its optical products like binoculars, spotting scopes and rifle scopes, GPS is a new play for the company. Potential marine handheld chart plotters include two waterproof units - one gray scale and one color. These work with a subscription download of topographical maps. Presently Bushnell can't display marine charts or use marine cartography.

And Then There Is ?
In this column, I'll use Garmin's GPSMAP 76CSx and Lowrance's iFinder Expedition C as examples of currently available handheld chart plotters. The characteristics of these units carry through the rest of both companies' handheld lines.

For starters, both are waterproof to IPX7 standards, meaning they can survive 30 minutes at 1-meter (just over 1-yard) submersion. With batteries, the Garmin (7.6 ounces) weighs less than the Lowrance (8.7 ounces), but is slightly larger. Will they float? The Garmin will (yes, I tried it); the Lowrance won't (ditto).

The Lowrance measures 5.75 inches long and 2.5 inches wide and tapers in thickness - bottom to top - from 1.25 to 0.75 inches. The Garmin is fairly consistent in thickness at a bit over an inch and is about 6.25 inches long and 2.5-plus inches wide.

Both have color screens, with the Lowrance's slightly larger at 1.7 inches wide versus 1.5 for the Garmin. Both are 2.25 inches long.

Due to their puny screen size, I initially considered these chart plotters worthless. I admit that, after playing with them for a week or so, that's not the case. Lowrance's TFT screen shows brighter and sharper than Garmin's, but I found both easily readable.

When manipulating the charts, both units require some getting used to since the usable magnification (i.e., optimum readability) has you running off the screen more quickly. Should you choose a handheld as your primary chart plotter, you'll get used to it; using it as a backup will highlight this tendency as problematic - not impossible, but problematic.

Interestingly, from an ergonomic point of view, both are set up exactly opposite of each other. The Lowrance has the screen below the keys, while the Garmin has the screen above. You won't notice a difference with the unit mounted in a holder on your console, but you will when holding it in your hand. Having cold fingers as stiff as the arms of a 10-day-dried starfish probably doesn't help in determining which is more comfortable, but I'll give the nod to Garmin's design.

Bells and Whistles
What would any electronic equipment be today without bells and whistles? The Lowrance boasts an integral MP3 player (from an MMC/SD card) and a built-in voice recorder for making notes. Why? I guess because they can. Not being a music aficionado, it's a feature I would never use. I can see some possible use for the voice-recorder feature, but it wouldn't be a deal maker/breaker either way.

Lowrance uses traditional-size SD cards (about 1.25 by 0.875 inches); the Garmin uses a microSD card, which brings new meaning to the term "butterfingers." My not inordinately calloused fingertips simply couldn't feel the half-inch square card, and I dropped it the first time I took it out of its slot. (Both place chart media in the battery compartment.) While you'll probably never need to change cards at sea, I especially wouldn't want to try it with the micro cards. If music CDs and DVDs ever get this small, you'll need a CD holder built for a dollhouse.

Both units have an electric compass, which seems to work pretty accurately when not in motion, in comparison to the headings of my trusty Suunto mirror compass.
Oddly - from a mariner's perspective - the feature I found the neatest was present in both units. It also qualifies as the single most un-needed feature a GPS/chart plotter could have insofar as boats are concerned: a barometric altimeter. I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The battle of the manuals (those things we men never read) goes to Garmin. Although both units have a quick-start section to get you up and running (if not in a snap, certainly in about 20 minutes), Garmin's version is easier to use. The Lowrance manual has an intimidating 130 pages versus Garmin's 109. But size doesn't matter (yeah, right). The Garmin manual has an index - rudimentary but helpful - and the Lowrance manual doesn't, so it's two-zip, Garmin to Lowrance, on the print front.

Since I believe these handhelds should take you "from your door to your fishing spot," you'll need charts - and you have lots of options with both manufacturers. Lowrance utilizes its proprietary NauticPath and inland-waterway maps, as well as Navionics charts.

Garmin utilizes its proprietary and well-respected Blue Charts and offers its big-lake and full range of land and topographic charts in the miniSD format. Not to be repetitive, but ? those miniSDs are small.

When it comes to navigation, both units come as feature laden as most full-size chart plotters. Both have 16-channel WAAS GPS receivers, and external antennae can be mounted to both, if so desired. Both have MOB functions - press and hold a key for the Garmin; press two keys at the same time for the Lowrance. Both interface with PCs and other electronics just like the big boys and have multiple power options (AA batteries, cigarette lighter, rechargeable batteries, etc.; do not wire the cigarette adapter straight to your 12 volt, please). And both are NMEA-0183 compatible.

Both units allow logging of a ridiculous number of waypoints, but I'll give the edge in numbers to the Lowrance on that. Both can plot, calculate and save tracks. (The Garmin can read in Loran TDs.) Both are semi-armored, with the armor functioning more as a grip enhancer; I found them hard to drop even with a cold-benumbed hand.

Lastly, they run pretty close price-wise, with suggested retail prices of $409 for the Lowrance and $482 for the Garmin. Smart shopping can drop both prices.

The Day of the Handheld
Not fanatically involved with navigating via chart plotter? Prefer paper maps to electronic? Perhaps you fish pretty much the same turf most of the time, want a safety factor built in for inclement weather, or want a small economical piece of equipment to do most of what a larger, more expensive piece of equipment does. You can save your dinero for a different piece of expensive electronic equipment if a handheld chart plotter fits the bill.

And believe me ? it's better than a sextant. But that's another story.