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August 03, 2009

One in the Hand

Navionics' Navigation App for iPhone Rides Crest of Tech Wave



In search mode, the software lets you open favorites, search by name or search by category to find nearby marinas, retailers, repair shops and boat dealers, as well as access local tide and current information. Tide and current icons also show on the Navionics maps. Tap on an icon to get the same information. Note: If you use the Navionics software on an iPhone (vs. an iPod Touch), you can locate a marina, tap its phone number and instantly make a call.


Tide information displays on a wave graph and includes a digital readout of the amplitude and direction. Below the tides, Navionics includes sunrise/set and moonrise/set and phase information.


Current information displays on a wave showing direction and speed, all above the sunrise/set and moonrise/set and phase data. Users can advance through time to determine water-current activity in the future.


The black outline shows the scope of the Navionics Marine: US East map for iPhone.

Like many other tech-heads, I pre-ordered the first iPod Touch prior to the September 2007 launch. So this spring, when Navionics announced its 2.0 mobile app for iPod Touch and iPhone, I promptly accepted a free trial offer from the company.

Unfortunately those first-generation Touches don't have what it takes to run most of the new apps, so I couldn't use 2.0. Sensing my mood, the folks at Navionics offered to loan me an iPhone to test the app. I gleefully accepted.

In the six weeks or so that I had the phone, Navionics released 2.1. And just at press time for our Sept/Oct issue, the company released 2.2. But we're all used to that kind of accelerated software progess by now.

I've yet to use 2.2, but 2.1 really impressed me. No, this won't replace your fixed-mount GPS/plotter, and if you carry it as a backup, make sure you own a charger and have an onboard receptacle. An iPhone's charge lasts anywhere from five to 300 hours, depending on what it's doing, how you're using it, the condition of the battery, and the version and age of the unit.

The most prominent changes between versions 2.0 and 2.1 included adding a bearing and camera. The bearing allows you to navigate more formally to a target. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's look at the software's basic operations.

Navionics loaded my loaned iPhone with its Marine: US East charts, covering the coastal and offshore East Coast plus the Gulf Coast of the Florida peninsula. On my first trip - fishing around Marco Island on Florida's southwest coast - I spent some time getting to know the software.

The main screen seemed very intuitive. Tap the GPS button and the GPS in the iPhone finds and displays your position. Zoom in and out by tapping the + or - signs on the touch screen or pinch inward to zoom out/tap twice to zoom in. "Search" lets you locate favorites, such as marinas and boat ramps, and waypoints you've stored, plus access tide and current information. "Track" shows you the track of your vessel.

I stored several of our tracks during the Marco Island trip and could compare the patterns we fished each day - I had the permission of our captain, by the way. If we caught fish at a particular spot, I could store the location as a Favorite. With 2.1, I could also take and save a photo of the shoreline.

"Distance" lets you manipulate two electronic pushpins to determine how far you are from your destination. One pushpin appears at your current position. You simply drag - using your forefinger on the touch screen - the second pin to your destination, and the digital readout at the top of the screen tells you the distance between the two pins. If you're moving, the software tells you your vessel speed and remaining distance. I used this feature as we headed back to port on our final day from a location offshore.

"WP" means, of course, waypoint. Tapping WP and then tapping the screen lets you drop a waypoint anywhere you like. You can save the waypoint, determine its distance from anywhere on the map or erase the waypoint.

"Settings" allows you to personalize a number of options, including mph/knots and feet/meters, set a safety depth, and even input your cruising speed and fuel consumption rate. When you plan a route, the software calculates how long each leg of the journey will take and how much fuel you'll burn. I would imagine that particular capability might mean more to cruisers than anglers, but it's still a nice tool to have if your vessel is not equipped with the latest digital gauges.

One caveat that many regular iPhone users already know: Tapping a small screen with a fingertip is fairly imprecise - whether you're marking a waypoint or dragging the distance pushpin to a location.

At this writing, the Navionics software did not feature an input screen for GPS coordinates, which would greatly increase the navigation precision. Currently, the only way to store waypoints for fishing or navigate by the numbers is to physically locate a spot while in your boat - a wreck or other feature - then at the moment your vessel is on top of the point, tap the screen on your current-location arrow. You can then save that point, name it and place it in your favorites. When you call up your favorites next time, you select that location and you can see a compass bearing to that point.

With the latest 2.2 version, Navionics allows you to create and save up to 100 tracks from recent trips, use as many as 99 waypoints to plan and store 100 routes, plus store 200 Favorites (including photos, objects, tides, currents, POI, etc.) and share them on Facebook. The tide/current information now also includes moon phase.

I found the tide/current information particularly helpful for angling. If this was the only feature the software offered, it - alone - would be well worth the $4.99 pricetag right there. Of course this information is based on tables, so you won't see onscreen the modifying effects of strong winds and other weather conditions. But you can go forward in time to see when the tide might be optimal at a particular location.

The Navionics software encompasses an amazing number of functions just six months out of the box. I can only imagine what the next six months may bring. Add to that the dizzying number of other angling/boating applications available to iPhone/Touch users, including satellite weather and sea-surface temperature mapping, fishing logs and games, real-time wind information from NOAA buoys, anchor alarms, emergency distress service, even an app that tells you the G force from the impact of that last wave - and you will likely find many features you just have to have.

But don't just take my word for it: Here are several links from, a hands-on, technical blog/website devoted to marine electronics and operated by Ben Ellison, senior electronics editor for Bonnier Corp., which owns Sport Fishing. Ben evaluated the Navionics software in June alongside programs designed by several competitors, and reported on its use during a cruising trip.