Features April 15, 2004 Issue

Magellan SporTrak PRO Marine

One of a dozen handheld GPS receivers Magellan is marketing strongly to consumer niches, this is a capable device, ruggedly built, with good viewability and navigation screens.

Our last review of handheld GPS receivers was back in the December 2001 issue. In that review, Magellan (now part of Thales Navigation and headquartered in San Dimas, CA) was represented by the MAP330M, and it was noted that the company was soon due to come out with the Meridian series of receivers. 

The SporTrak PRO Marine screen clarity was very good in all conditions, including direct sunlight. We found the buttons and interface easy to work with, but try before you buy. Or download the user manual from the Magellan website to see if it’s your cup of tea.

Time flies in the GPS world, and since that review Magellan has come out with not one but two new lines—the Meridian series and the SporTrak series—with no less than 12 handheld receivers between them. These receivers are beginning to be seen everywhere—Radio Shack, for example, has line-ups of them on display, and a web search lists about a google sales points. Magellan's sales and marketing team is all-ahead full.

Trying to differentiate among all these handhelds would be nigh on impossible without the product comparison chart that Magellan wisely provides on its website to guide consumers. (The actual web address is www.magellangps.com/en/products/comparepick.asp. Click to enlarge.)

What you discover is that most of the basic receiver elements are about the same. For example, they're all 12-channel parallel receivers, WAAS-enabled, with quadrifilar helix antennas. They all have data input and output (NMEA 0183); they all take two AA batteries (bravo!); they're all waterproof and float; they all provide 500 waypoints, 20 routes, and 2000 trackpoints; they all carry the same performance specs and operating limits; they all have the same screen height of 2.2", and almost the same screen widths…and so on.

The differences are in screen type—color or black-and-white; resident memory; built-in base maps and data points; whether screens are user-configurable, and…that list goes on, too, but those are the main differences. Also, the Meridian receivers are slightly bigger—6.5" high x 2.9" wide x 1.2" deep x 8.0 oz.—versus the SporTraks at 5.6" high x 2.2" wide x 1.2" deep x 6.1 oz.

As a group, this batch of receivers covers a big span of customers in many different niches.

Receiver Features
Some months ago, Magellan kindly loaned us the marine-oriented representative of the SporTrak line, the SporTrak PRO Marine. It comes loaded with 15 megabytes of data on cities, highways, waterways, parks, and airports (this data is pretty much common to all receivers, although the storage capacity varies), and also marine-oriented information on buoys and beacons, lights, fog signals, etc. These basics can be enhanced by an upload of much denser marine information from a CD of Magellan's proprietary vector cartography, called MapSend BlueNav, which is derived from Navionics Gold vector charts.

We loaded the cartography for our sailing area into the receiver from the CD, and found the process easy. The only fly in the ointment was that we lacked a serial port on our computer, and had to buy a serial-to-USB adapter. That's a $40 connection, and many computers are being made without serial ports these days—so be careful.

The receiver itself is built ruggedly, with front and back halves screwed together through a beaded gasket. The 2.2" x 1.4" screen sits above eight buttons and a cursor pad, all thumb-operable. Buttons for Zoom In/Out, Navigation, Menu, Go-To waypoint, Enter, and Escape (cancel), are simple, once you get used to the button icons, and we found the user-interface quite intuitive. However, as we always say, a programmer's logic can make good sense to some people and baffle others. It's always wise to visit a piece of electronics in a store for a while before buying, to make sure your logic and that of the programmer are agreeable. Or download the manual in PDF format from Magellan's website.

Performance
We took the receiver out in many conditions and found the screen display clear and easy to read from many angles, even in strong sunlight. The BlueNav cartography, which was discussed in our review of the Magellan FX324 chartplotter in the February 15 issue, performed well, with accurate location of buoys, rocks, and other marine interests, at least in our area. There's minimal delay as new sections of chart are quilted in from the sides, or in zooming and panning.

Backlighting is good for both screen and keys. To turn on the backlight, you press and hold the power on/off key for two seconds. A second long press increases the light level, and a third turns it off. This isn't a great arrangement. It's possible, while fumbling in the dark for the light, to start the five-second power-down sequence. When you get the light going, you have to cycle through the brighter setting in order to turn the light off. If you try to turn it off with a quick push from the first light level, the power-down sequence starts anyway, and you must press the Escape key to stop it. In practice, none of this is very difficult, and the button is located to be easily found—but these things must be learned.

Something else to be learned is the relationship of zoom level to the density of vector data. Going to Menu-> Map Setup->Detail, and adjusting the settings through five levels from "Lowest" to "Highest" actually changes the zoom level; it doesn't simply add or remove vector layers at whatever level you're at. Add this to the fact that there are different densities of information in different locations, and it's hard to predict just what will happen when you make an adjustment.

This phenomenon (we won't call it a problem; it's just a fact of life) isn't limited to Magellan—it's common on many GPS handhelds with vector cartography on board.

We think that relying on vector cartography in a handheld GPS for actual safe navigation on the water is just silly. The cartography is aimed at drivers and hikers, with other markets thrown in via extra vector data. You can't see much on the tiny screens (even screens twice as big as this one), and as clever and fun as they are, they're no substitute for paper charts or good-sized chartplotter displays.

Most sailors know this, and regard the charts/maps on receivers this size to be handy for providing occasional waypoint and point-of-interest references. With real study and practice, these devices can become quite useful. But few would call them complete navigation packages. They're position-finders with added features.

The Magellan SporTrak PRO Marine is a strong GPS handheld overall. While the cartography seems to us no better or worse than that on other receivers we've seen recently, all nine of its navigation screens are well-designed and easy to understand. User-configurability is good. Screen visibility is excellent. Its current street price of about $270 is reasonable. It's part of an impressive sales and marketing effort on the part of Magellan and Thales, and the SporTrak series should be well supported.

Contact - Magellan Consumer Products, (Thales Navigation), 800/669-4477, www.magellangps.com.

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