Features April 15, 2005 Issue

Large Screen Chartplotters

With its excellent user interface and large display, the Raymarine C120 squeaks by Furuno's GP1900C in a test of four big-screen units.

The Raymarine C120 seems to have it all: a large display area, good viewability day and night, and easy-to-use functions. Its only drawback is the lack of an alphanumeric keypad, but it's an option.

We've been saying now for several years that bigger is better in chartplotter display screens. Considering that the ocean (as well as other bodies of water) is rarely stable, waves can be jarring, thus making reading small screen graphics, letters, and numbers difficult or impossible. Ultimately, the difference in viewability between 5-inch and 10- or 12-inch displays is stark. That's why we rounded up three chartplotters with 10-inch screens, and one with a 12-inch screen (Raymarine's C120) for this test.

These units range in price from around $2,600 to $3,900. Garmin supplied its new network-capable display, the 3010C. We also used the Furuno 10-inch screen already installed on one of our test boats. Simrad sent us one of its 44 series displays in a chartplotter configuration, the CP44; this particular model has since been discontinued and replaced by the CX44. Both share the same screen and have similar software; other details are discussed here.

How We Tested
Viewability—both during the day and at night—was again one of our chief concerns and a critical factor in how these products fared in our testing. The displays were rated under a variety of lighting conditions, from bright sunlight, to cloud-obscured daylight, to nighttime conditions. Each screen was viewed from various angles (with and without polarized sunglasses), and when applicable, we used different color palettes in the background. Each unit was given a night-view rating based on the screen's viewability during twilight as well under total darkness.

We mounted all the display units (except the one from Furuno) temporarily on wood bases using the accompanying bracket. This allowed us to examine the units on our test boat as well as indoors using an AC to DC power supply.

The Furuno equipment is permanently installed on our test boat for long-term testing. The Furuno and Simrad units had live GPS fixes during on-the-water testing. The Garmin and Raymarine units did not have GPS modules fitted during any testing. Both, however, did have cartography aboard—the Garmin used a Blue Chart while the Raymarine operated with a Navionics card.

Each chartplotter was evaluated for user interface by performing various operations with each display unit. The units with intuitive software, alphanumeric keypads, and numerous dedicated function keys were rated highest.

Raymarine C120
Raymarine's new C-series displays can connect to and display a variety of information from numerous sources. Several radar options are available, as well as a black box sounder, and WAAS GPS module. We did not connect the Raystar WAAS GPS module to our C120 display. The unit did, however, have a cartographic card from Navionics that allowed us to test many functions even without a live GPS fix.

We found the C120 performed well in daylight viewability testing, earning an Excellent rating. But it did darken when viewed through polarized sunglasses. The C120 screen brightness controls are accessed with a momentary press of the on/off button, triggering the onscreen appearance of a bar graph showing the current level of brightness and a soft key with day/night palette selection. Screen backlight adjustments can be made in up to 64 levels with the rotary knob. Toggling the soft key determines a day or night palette selection. Pressing the "OK" button confirms your choice.

As our evaluations progressed to night viewing, we dimmed the C120 in the day setting first. Then, as it got darker, we switched to the night palette. At the very lowest levels in both day and night mode, which will actually blacken the screen, we noticed the screen backlighting was not perfectly even across the full screen. In actual operation, we don't think this will be an issue, but it's worth mentioning. Keypad lighting on the C120 is linked to the screen brightness level and not separately adjustable. We rated night viewability as Good.

The Raymarine software in the C120 is the most intuitive of any unit in our test group, in our estimation. It makes good use of its five soft keys and numerous dedicated pushbuttons. We cranked up this machine and started using it right away without any reference to the operating manual. Cartographic data presentation is also well done. We especially like the increased letter and number size used for the display of water depths on the map display.

Access to waypoint data is accomplished by pressing the WPTS key. Doing this resets the soft keys to perform commonly needed waypoint functions. Waypoint lists can be set up in separate groups for quick access based on user criteria. The list itself has been updated to include the group name, lat/long, bearing/distance, a 16-character name, and a 32-character comment for each waypoint. All this should make obscure waypoints in a large list much easier to identify. We rated the plotter interface Good for the Raymarine C120. Only the lack of an alphanumeric keypad (an optional one can be added to the system) stopped us from giving it an Excellent rating.

Chart redraws on the C120 were very fast, taking less than a second to fully redraw the chart after a map range change. Minimum range with a Navionics card installed is approximately 1/32 of a mile—that's the smallest range setting available on any of these units.

Bottom Line: With its bigger screen, competitive price, and intuitive software, the Raymarine C120 is our top pick.

Furuno GP-1900C
Furuno's 10-inch display screen is available in numerous model designations. The GP-1900C designation is the chartplotter version. Our actual testing was conducted on an 1833C radar display, which is part of the NavNet package we installed on our test boat. Because all Furuno NavNet 10-inch displays are identical internally, chartplotter operation and screen qualities are the same no matter the model. (Differing model numbers simply designate whether a unit has been shipped with a radar antenna and, if so, which one.)

Day viewability on the Furuno display was rated Excellent; it had the brightest screen. Using polarized sunglasses, we viewed the screen from head on to a 45-degree angle, and noted no darkening. Water areas are generally shaded in light or dark blue, making those a bit more difficult to see in bright sunlight. Viewing is better when lighter colors or white are displayed. Screen fogging due to high outside air temperature and humidity has occasionally been evident on the 10-inch screen. Usually, this slowly dissipates and does not interfere with reading the screen.

For night testing, we left the display screen in the daylight palette and used the eight levels of brightness control to dim the screen. As the natural light faded, we switched to the twilight palette and tinkered with the brightness.

Later, we tried the night palette. Both the twilight and night palette use dark colors and appeared nearly identical in function. Control panel button backlighting is adjustable separately on the Furuno screen.

We rated night viewing on the 10-inch display Excellent. It dims further than any of the other screens we reviewed and would do well on the darkest of nights.

Commonly used functions are controlled by dedicated pushbuttons or the five soft keys. This limits the need to view multi-layered menus for most regular tasks. For example, to save a waypoint at the boat's current position, simply press the Save/MOB key momentarily. This enters all the needed data into the waypoint list and creates a numbered waypoint.

To edit any waypoint data, like changing the name from numbers to letters, just use the trackball or cursor pad to select the newly created waypoint, then press the edit soft key.

Pressing the Save/MOB key for three seconds will activate the MOB function. If you press the enter knob, the Furuno immediately draws a line to the MOB, automatically selects full-screen plotter mode, and displays MOB range and bearing. One feature we really like and always use with the Furuno system is the user-adjustable course predictor. It offers a graphic line display showing the boat’s present course; we match that up with the line to our next waypoint and know that we're on course.

All five soft keys normally operate at least two functions depending on the mode in use (one function is user-selectable). Nomenclature describing the current function of each soft key is displayed on screen, next to the key, in large easily readable letters. Soft key labels display the currently assigned function, the second function, or can be hidden from view by pressing the Hide/Show key. Waypoint, route, and menu lists are also displayed in an easy-to-read format and type.

Onscreen data box information is user-selectable and the boxes can be moved, displayed, or hidden. Manual data entry on the 10-inch display can be done quickly and easily with the alphanumeric keypad. Screen redraws are quick, but not as fast as some of the other units tested. Furuno's alphanumeric keypad and versatile software garnered it a Good plotter-interface rating.

Pressing the Display key brings up a menu of pages for the user to select. Pressing the key again displays several split-screen options, or you can create your own screen layout and designate it as a hot page, making it easily selectable anytime. We've found this method of page selection to be fast and easy to use. Furuno's 10-inch display can be divided into as many as three windows displaying data from three different sources. A soft key is designated to allow the user to switch control between windows.

By adding optional equipment, any Furuno 10-inch NavNet display can be used as a radar screen, depth sounder, video display, or weather fax. Of course, the respective components must be part of the NavNet network to display information from all of these sources.

Bottom Line: This unit's only drawback is its slower chart redrawing.

Garmin 3010C
Like the Furuno, the Garmin 3010C 10-inch display screen is network-capable and can be used as a radar, sounder, or weather link. Our only caveat is that a software upgrade may be required. Two different radar systems, a 2 kw or 4 kw unit, became available for the Garmin network in January. Since the inputs to the 3010C are all network- based, a network port expander is needed to install a 3010C as a stand-alone chartplotter.

We rated day viewability on the Garmin 3010C Excellent. The Garmin screen was bright and sharp when viewed straight on without polarized sunglasses. However, when using polarized sunglasses, some screen darkening was noted both straight on and at side angles.

Best viewability was obtained by selecting the sunny color palette for daytime testing. Screen fogging was apparent in the display and most likely caused by the high outside air temperature and humidity of our south Florida test locale. It did not interfere with reading the screen and would slowly dissipate over time.

In our night view testing, we followed the same procedure used with the Furuno unit, leaving the screen in the daylight color palette, and then used brightness control to initially dim the screen. As the outside light level dropped, we switched to the shade palette and adjusted the brightness as needed. The Garmin will not dim as far as the Furuno screen and it doesn't have controllable panel lighting. These two items are enough to rate the 3010C Good rather than Excellent for night viewability.

Numerous dedicated function keys are available to control and implement commonly used operations like marking a waypoint, changing the displayed page, turning data windows on or off, or getting to the main menu. Garmin also uses easily accessible menus to allow the user to customize display pages. For example, pressing and holding the Enter/Mark pushbutton will save a waypoint at the present position and open a waypoint review page to allow the user to either accept or edit the waypoint.

Five soft keys at the bottom of the screen change function based on the page currently displayed. A label listing each soft key function is directly above the pushbutton. We found waypoint, route, and menus displayed in easy-to-read and easy-to- use formats.

Data boxes can be selected with the Data/Cnfg. key. Holding the key for two seconds brings up a data box configuration menu that allows the user to select data box info and size. One or two data box columns containing from four to seven data boxes each can be selected.

Manual data entry on the Garmin display can be easily accomplished by using the alphanumeric keypad. In our opinion, having an alphanumeric keypad is a huge advantage over any other manual data entry method. The keypad, plenty of dedicated pushbuttons, and Garmin's easy to use software are the reasons for Garmin's Good plotter-interface rating.

Screen redraws on the 3010C are lightning fast, even on long ranges with high map detail. Garmin uses five display pages in the 3010C: Map, Sounder, Compass, Highway, and Video. Toggling the Page button moves from one main page to the next. You can modify each main page to include the display of other information in a split screen.

Here's an example of what you could do with a full network installation containing all the optional equipment. On the map page, you could add up to two data boxes, show the sounder display, or look at video; up to four windows can be displayed simultaneously. The Fctn. (Function) key controls the information in each window. This will highlight the selected window with a yellow box and configure the soft keys for that function.

Bottom Line: Right up there with the Raymarine and Furuno.

Simrad 44-Series Chartplotter
The Simrad 44-series chartplotter is a stoutly built, quality machine. Screen size is comparable to the other units tested: 10.4 inches on the diagonal, with a resolution of 640 x 480. The newest version of the 44-Series carries the CX designation. According to Simrad's Tom Burke, "The CX44 is a building-block-based chartplotter with radar hardware already built in. To utilize the unit's radar capability all you need to do is add a radome or open array and your CX44 is a chartplotter/radar. To provide fishfinder capability, just order the EM4X echosounder upgrade kit ($872). This kit provides the electronics to drive a pair of 1,000W echo-sounder outputs."

At test time. the CX44 was not yet available. Both units share the same screen and have similar software. The Simrad 44-series screen is nearly as bright in daylight conditions as the Furuno, and therefore scored an Excellent for daylight viewability. We were pleased to note the screen does not darken when viewed with polarized sunglasses, and 15 levels of screen brightness are available, with keypad brightness adjusted separately. Nine screen color palettes are available: 1 and 2 are designed for bright sunlight, 3 for normal daylight, and 4 for night viewing. We used number 1 for our day view ratings and number 4 for night viewing—the color changes do make a difference in viewability. Settings 1 to 4 are not user-adjustable. A user can customize the remaining palettes numbered 5 to 9.

After dimming the screen backlighting fully with screen brightness control, we changed to color palette 4 to optimize the screen for night viewing. We found this method worked well and produced impressive results.

Memory capability on the Simrad 44-series chartplotters is huge; they can store 10,000 waypoints with 25 character names, 1,000 routes, and a whopping 50,000 trackpoints. Operation of the Simrad is accomplished through a number of dedicated pushbuttons that include Track, Chart, Echo, Pilot, and Page. Each of these buttons usually triggers the display of a predetermined screen or up to two user-customizable screens that may include up to four split screens. Toggling the Win key allows the user to select the active window from those displayed.

Here are examples on how the main function keys work. If you press the Chart button the unit will display a full screen map with data boxes down the right side of the screen. A quick push of the button again toggles to the full screen map, with data boxes placed at the top of the screen. Once in the chart mode, pressing the Enter key brings up a menu allowing you to do things like get range and bearing to the cursor, as long as the cursor is active prior to hitting the Enter key. If it's not, the same menu will pop on screen, but certain cursor-related functions are disabled.

Another dedicated function key located on the perimeter of the cursor pad is the "Goto" key. Pressing it brings up the “go to” menu with options for navigating to the cursor, a waypoint, or along a route.

Though the Simrad unit has outstanding hardware, its software is not as intuitive as the best of the other units tested, in our opinion. Most of the other plotters can be operated without ever cracking the manual. The Simrad required us to occasionally reference the operating manual. Although the Simrad is a bit difficult to use at first, its software sophistication, alphanumeric keypad, and abundance of dedicated function keys earned it a Good rating for plotter user interface.

Bottom Line: The Simrad has a very nice 10-inch screen. Its price—nearly $4,000—is its big drawback.

All four units scored Excellent for daytime viewability, but there’s still a pecking order. We'd rank the Furuno No. 1 in this regard; it's definitely brighter than all the others. The Simrad would rank No. 2; it's not quite as bright as the Furuno, but like the Furuno, it suffers no ill effects from viewing with polarized sunglasses. The Garmin and Raymarine units, which we'd rank a bit behind the Simrad in screen brightness, are very close in overall daylight brightness levels. Both darken a bit when viewed through polarized sunglasses.

Bigger differences appear in night view ratings. Here we'd rank the Simrad No. 1, followed by the Furuno. The Garmin and Raymarine units are somewhat less sophisticated in night lighting control.

All four units were rated Good in plotter interface, but again there are differences. The Raymarine is No. 1, even without an alphanumeric keypad as standard equipment. The Garmin would rank No. 2, the Furuno No. 3, and the Simrad last. Though the Simrad has a superb screen and decent software, we'd eliminate it first. It's over $1,000 more than any of the other three and has software that's harder to use than the others.

The Furuno, Garmin, and Raymarine products are priced competitively, and in our opinion, you can't go wrong with any of the three. However, we must whittle. so every minor difference and operational nuance must be considered. Though the Garmin viewability ratings are equal to the Raymarine, we'd eliminate it next. It's priced a bit higher than the other two, has a shorter warranty period, and garnered a viewability rating below the Furuno's.

The Raymarine C120 has a larger screen area for the same price and software that is a step ahead of the Furuno. So the C120 is our top pick. But the runner-up, Furuno, has a lot going for it, including a proven track record of reliability with several years out in the field compared to the C120's mere months. Even though the C120 screen is larger, the Furuno 10-inch NavNet display remains the brightest during daylight and a slightly better performer at night. Still, the extra screen area and the intuitive nature of the Raymarine software won us over.


Also With This Article
"Value Guide: Big Screen Chartplotters"

• Furuno, 360/834-9300, www.furuno.com
• Garmin, 913/397-8200, www.garmin.com
• Raymarine, 800/539-5539, www.raymarine.com
• Simrad, 425/778-8821, www.simradusa.com

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