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Author Topic:   Chart Plotter and Fish Finder
sam t posted 06-19-2013 08:07 AM ET (US)   Profile for sam t   Send Email to sam t  
In purchasing my first chart plotter and fish finder combo and looking for reviews of different brands, I want a good, general-use device for casual boating on the waters of northern Michigan. A few people have steered me toward Garmin (models 441s or 541s) because they "are most durable" and "user friendly, with intuitive interface" and have the "fastest chip".They are also more expensive than similar models from the other brand. I am considering Lowrance. Thanks for your advice!
Jeff posted 06-19-2013 09:07 AM ET (US)     Profile for Jeff  Send Email to Jeff     
I have not found Garmin units to be any more durable and user friendly than others. I would file that under brand loyal dock talk.

After selling my Newport that had I nice Garmin 400 series unit on it last year, I found myself in the same situation as you this spring with my boat. After looking and going back and forth I decided to go with the Lowrance Elite 5 DSI. It provides a better sonar image than the Garmin unit and is $200 less than the 541s. I also preferred the standard NOAA chart coloring of the Lowrance plotter image VS. the Garmin coloring. I am very happy with my purchase.

One thing that might seem small but can be a pain: the Garmin Bracket system was always a hassle for me. It always took some monkeying to get it in the bracket or out of it. The Lowrance unit has a fast and simple one handed locking system. It is on our off in no time. Being that I always remove my electronics and stow them when I on not on or using the boat, the Lowrance design is great to have.

Here is the unit I bought. You can purchase chips with super detailed maps and bottom contouring but for me, the base map is more than detailed enough. Chartplotter.html

This unit has the Navionics Gold Charts already built into it, if you wanted it. html

contender posted 06-19-2013 09:43 AM ET (US)     Profile for contender  Send Email to contender     
Sam: This last boat show here in Miami Beach, I spoke to a lot of reps of electronics stores, some of them have been in business for over 40 years. One of the dealers told me that he carries all the different electronics you could want (some I never even heard of or were not familiar with) And that he could sell me anything. He told me hands down to get a Garmin. Between getting repairs least amount of repairs and parts availability the way to go is Garmin. I purchase a large Garmin 4212 (has buttons instead of a touchscreen only difference between a 5212 and cheaper) and it does it all.
Today all electronics are pretty good, I really do not see too much difference in one unit from the other. This is where you need to make a choice as far as user ability, how it mounts and the most important are you happy with the unit. Since I have been dealing with this electronics store for a long time I took his word for there is a store in NC called: The GPS Store, has good prices and you can compare the units to each other and with a salesman on line you ask some questions...Good luck
jimh posted 06-20-2013 08:17 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
jimh posted 06-20-2013 08:31 AM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
It is extremely difficult to make a rational assessment of the many smaller combination chart plotter and SONAR devices that are now on the market and discover a clear winner. The market is very competitive, and I can't see any one brand or model as being significantly ahead.

When you buy an electronic chart plotter you will need electronic charts. The present market has the brand of plotter tied closely to the brand of charts. After you pick a brand of plotter, you will be stuck with the charts that particular brand and model can use. If you are navigating in the Great Lakes the charts are all based on NOAA charts, in the main, and they will be similar. If you are fishing on small inland lakes the charts can be substantially different. It is important to check the charts for the lakes and water you want to navigate and fish. There can be substantial differences among brands in these charts.

The most important criterion for a recommendation has not been given: the price range. There is really no upper bound to how much you can spend. To limit recommendations, you need to set a price range.

Re the mystique of the GARMIN devices: yes, there is a cult of GARMIN users who think their device is superior. The knock on GARMIN for a long time was their SONAR. They did not seem to be expert in SONAR, but the newest models of their GPSMAP devices are providing the absolute latest SONAR technology, pulse compression (also called chirp), at a very modest price. However, pulse compression is really a big asset in deep water. If you are fishing a lake with 50-feet of water, it probably makes no difference.

I think it important to have NMEA-2000 network ability in a chart plotter. I would insist on that. Most plotter have it now.

Peter posted 06-20-2013 11:50 AM ET (US)     Profile for Peter  Send Email to Peter     
I installed all new electronics on my new-to-me boat this spring. I had a clean slate to work with and over the course of about 6 months looked very hard at all of the makers -- Simrad, Lowrance, Raymarine and Garmin.

For my system I ended up with a Garmin 5208 as the primary chartplotter and Radar screen and a Garmin 740s to serve as the primary sounder screen and as the back up chartplotter and also can be used as a back up radar screen. I chose Garmin over the others for the simple reason that I found the user interface the most intuitive to use. These two units are networked via NMEA 2000. They share low bandwidth numerical data, but not high bandwidth detailed data like radar or sounder image data.

I find that the sounder image is quite good from the 740s using an Airmar P66 transducer. My typical depth range is not more than 200 feet so a high power sounder system wasn't necessary.

Having now had touchscreen after buttons on prior electronics, I would not go back to the buttons.

jimh posted 06-20-2013 02:57 PM ET (US)     Profile for jimh  Send Email to jimh     
Re a touch screen user interface, I have only had a few moments to use one, but I found it amazingly fast and friendly. I used a Lowrance HDS-9 Gen2 Touch chart plotter and SONAR. It was very fast and agile with the touch screen. Curiously, I am now reading that a recent software update has caused the user interface to slow down and feel sluggish. When a device like a computer or software controlled device begins to have a long latency between control input and response from the device to the user interface, the latency is very annoying and makes the user feel like the device is unresponsive and slow. A fast-reacting user interface is important to make the user feel like the device is working and responding.

The touch screen I tried was at a boat show, and it had been given a good work out that day by other users, yet the screen was not full of smudges and finger prints, and that surprised me.

As for intuitive user interface you only need it to be intuitive the first time. Once you have used an interface, you know how it works and how it is organized. Then the question of it being intuitive is moot, and you are more concerned with how logical and well organized its structure and controls are arranged.

Regarding the learning curve for mastering a device, these chart plotters and SONARs are very sophisticated devices, and it seems silly to expect that you can become an expert on using one in just ten minutes. It probably took you months to learn the addition tables, which are very simple rote memory items. Why people think that they ought to achieve expert-level mastery of a complex boat electronic device in five minutes is beyond me.

I feel very at-home with the controls of my HDS, but most of the familiarity came by having the unit at home, on my bench, and making a very thorough study of it while I wrote a lengthy on-line guide in HTML to its controls and menus. If you invest time with any device, you will gain more familiarity with it.

swist posted 06-20-2013 03:39 PM ET (US)     Profile for swist  Send Email to swist     
jimh - while I concur with what you say about user interfaces not needing to be intuitive once they are internalized, it is still the case that frequently used functions need to be easily accessible, and that doesn't mean you have to push 6 buttons and go through 4 menus before you can do what you want. I have a 2-generations old chartplotter and it annoys me how many buttons you have to press to do certain simple things when the boat is bouncing around. Looking at the latest generation leads me to believe a lot of that has been fixed.

When I worked in the computer biz (around the time of the Civil War) we had a saying on user interface design - "Easy things easy. Hard things possible". Probably still applies.

fno posted 06-24-2013 07:17 PM ET (US)     Profile for fno  Send Email to fno     
I have had many a Garmin GPS from the early handheld no maps units to the older chart plotter on my Whaler and also includes several automotive guidance units (some stolen, some lost) I can highly recommend them all for their ruggedness, ease of use, and features. The sounders are another story, but I am not current with the latest hardware. One criticism I have is that almost every Garmin that I have purchases has been superceded by a new model with more features within 6 months of my purchase. I suspect that they have calmed down a bit with new model releases since then, but it was disappointing to buy a new GPS/ chart plotter and find in 4 months that it was old technology. By the way, the 20+ years old handheld with a monochrome 1-3/4" screen still works like a champ. My buddy borrowed it for a Virgin Island bareboat cruise and used it to mark waypoints all week.
swist posted 06-25-2013 10:52 AM ET (US)     Profile for swist  Send Email to swist     
Couple more things on Garmin.

1) Their customer support is supposed to be good. Indeed, I have had pretty good luck communicating with them, but I was disappointed how short the time interval was before they stopped repairing an obsolete model, or stopped carrying parts. But this may be a universal problem.

2) I am an electrical engineer and had occasion to disassemble by Garmin GPSmap for a repair. (I was lucky in that I could locate the part in question, and that it was easily replaceable. The philosophy on these units is the same as most consumer electronics - most any problem and you toss them).

I was not at all impressed with the internal construction of the unit. Again, it seemed no better than most consumer electronics, and probably not even as good as some laptops. I was expecting to see a bit more robust construction in a unit designed for seagoing use. Instead I found a *very* thin motherboard, multilayered at that. A lot of the etch was so thin you almost needed a magnifying glass to make it out. The connectors between the motherboard and and other components were elcheapo, the wiring gauge was as small as it could be. And most importantly, the weastherproofing components were just OK. The adhesive/sealant holding the screen to the inside of the case looked pretty reasonable, but the gasket running around the rim of the unit was some cheap material - after a few years it had already shrunk enough to no longer be all that effective.

sam t posted 06-25-2013 01:41 PM ET (US)     Profile for sam t  Send Email to sam t     
Ordered the Lowrance Elite-5 Gold, on sale @ West Marine, for $299. Best price I could find on a similar Garmin unit (441s) was $411. I'll see how it goes!
kwik_wurk posted 06-25-2013 02:14 PM ET (US)     Profile for kwik_wurk  Send Email to kwik_wurk     
At that price I think you made a good choice. -- My recommendation would have been Garmin. (Mainly because of their ease of use.)
Marko888 posted 06-25-2013 05:29 PM ET (US)     Profile for Marko888    
I'm a Garmin fan as well. My experiences have been consistently good with their products, including the online updating of firmware, map data, etc.

At a covered-helm boat, I would choose a touch screen model, but my conclusion is that buttons work better on an open boat. The touch screen gets covered in finger prints, fish scales, etc, and in direct sunlight, this makes the display harder to see. I also find the Garmin menus to be easier to navigate with buttons.

I find modern electronics to differ mostly in the software, so recommend choosing the brand/model that supports the map data you need, and whose software works most intuitively to YOU.

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