Features May 2006 Issue

Radar Shootout

Furuno, Raymarine score; Northstar disappoints.

The Furuno performed flawlessly, is easy to use, and reasonably priced.

The last radar test PS did was back in the fall of 2004, and consisted of small 2 kW entry-level radar units with 7-inch screens. This time, we decided to test 4 kW units with LCD screens from 10 to 12 inches. The units had to have a radome-style antenna in the 4 kW power rating and had to be capable of being networked into a system (not PC-type configurations). When we cross-checked radar specifications against our test parameters, we came up with a strong field of six best-sellers: Furuno’s 1834C NavNet VX2, Garmin’s 3010C with GMR-40 Radome, JRC’s JMA-5104, Brunswick’s 10.4-inch Northstar 6000i, Raymarine’s E120, and Simrad’s RA41C. In the end, two units were clearly superior.

FURUNO 1834C NAVNET VX2
Furuno’s 1834C radar system is a well-built, professional-grade radar system. When we opened up the 1834’s radome, we were greeted with the cleanest and most organized design of our test group. The 1834C’s antenna array (the component that rotates) is a composite design that is unlike the 100-percent slotted metallic arrays used in the Simrad and Northstar designs, or the 100-percent printed circuit board (PCB) arrays used by Garmin , JRC, and Raymarine. Furuno, with its 1834C radome, has opted to install a half-height printed circuit board antenna inside a slotted metallic array to achieve the best technology that each component has to offer. Furuno’s attention to detail even shows up in the drive motor that is used to rotate the array. The motor is fitted with a brass gear, not plastic as found on the Northstar and Simrad units. The payoff in using higher-quality motor components is that the Furuno radome spins in complete silence.

The 10.4-inch landscape transflective technology (TFT), color, multi-function display that Furuno is using with the 1834C has also undergone some tweaking from the previous NavNet 1 design. The NavNet VX2 uses a glass screen with better bonding agents, which help to minimize moisture fogging on the display screen and provides a better image when viewed through polarized sunglasses. These displays are blazingly bright, offer a high level of radar picture control with a precision rotary control knob, and the operational menu is very intuitive.

In the performance arena, Furuno’s 1834C scored highest in both close-in and distant target detection when operated in the manual mode. The initial setup of the 1834C is a bit involved in comparison to other units in our test. The Furuno required that we access an installation menu and select the radar scanner type, radar antenna height, and perform a radar optimization test. This sounds involved, but the NavNet VX2 is fitted with an on-screen installation wizard menu that guides you through each step.

The auto mode of operation is not the 1834C’s strong point, as we were consistently able to tune a better picture than the 34’s auto mode provided. But the picture that the 1834 delivers in the auto mode of operation is clearly more defined than that of the Garmin or the Northstar.

Bottom Line: Years of design refinement have served this product well, not only in the performance category but also in cost. It appears that refinement instead of redesign for Furuno paid off in lower manufacturing costs, and Furuno wisely passed along these savings to its customers. The unit is also the least expensive in our test field.

GARMIN 3010C WITH GMR-40 RADOME
The GMR-20 (2 kW) and the GMR-40 (4 kW) are Garmin’s first entries into the marine radar market. The GMR-40 stands out from all other radome antennas in our field because of its low-profile radome. (An even lower-profile GMR-41 was due for release when PS went to press.) The GMR-40 stands just 7 inches tall, compared to the standard 10-inch “wedding cake” style of most other 4 kW radomes. Unfortunately, Garmin’s low-profile comes with a weight penalty: The radome weighs almost 10 pounds more than a Furuno 1834 radome, which makes the Garmin the heaviest in our field.

Garmin shipped us a GMR-40 with its 3010C 10.4-inch color LCD multifunction display. The 3010C is an excellent GPS chartplotter in terms of control and image. But when we connected the GMR-40 radome to the 3010C display, we noticed from the very beginning that this radar scanner had a very different operational feel and style of control than the other units. One difference is that the Garmin is controlled via an ethernet connection to the 3010C. This means that the radar picture is actually being collected and processed in the antenna and then downloaded to the 3010C display. We noted that the radar picture’s refresh rate or “sweep” looks a little choppy until all sectors download. (Garmin attributed this to software algorithms in the scanner that could be fixed, but the company had not logged any complaints so far.) Although the Garmin 3010C is an excellent GPS chartplotter, it lacks a rotary control knob, which would make it easier to shape and fine-tune radar images.

The GMR 40 functioned well in the close-range target resolution test and was able to detect our foam floats as individual targets in both the automatic and manual modes. This unit has the narrowest horizontal beam width, 3.6 degrees (narrower beam widths typically yield better resolution), but it stumbled a few times in the automatic mode when we were tracking some of the commercial fishing vessels entering the harbor at the half- and 1-nautical mile scale. It appeared as if the strong returns of the harbor’s granite walls confused the auto gain feature, so the vessels entering the harbor adjacent to the seawall were painted as blobs extending from the wall. At the same time, the Simrad’s auto mode clearly distinguished the same ships. In the long-range detection test, the GMR 40 was very sensitive and displayed good target return echoes in the manual mode; the auto mode sensitivity was average.

Bottom Line: The Garmin 3010C is a quality GPS product with an attractive price. GMR 40’s radome is too heavy; its one-year warranty period is too short; and the possible installation issues with the radome interconnect cable keep this unit from rising above the middle of the pack. In our opinion, Garmin needs to work on the details, like adding a rotary control knob to the multi-purpose display for better control. A more substantive installation manual (eight photocopied pages came with our unit) would also help.

JRC JMA-5104
Although this unit is marketed by JRC as a “black box” radar, we wanted to include it in our test because of JRC’s radar experience and the JMA-5104’s unique installation configuration. Although the 5104 can be ordered standard with JRC’s 10.4-inch LCD monitor, this unit is gaining market popularity for those who want a no-nonsense, stand-alone radar, and don’t need a fancy waterproof TFT sunlight-viewable monitor.

The JMA-5104 consists of a compact remote keyboard, a robust black box processor, and a 4 kW radome. The unit JRC shipped included a 10.4-inch color TFT monitor, which fell well short of the brilliance exhibited by all the other monitors tested. JRC’s 4KW radome antenna is fitted with the new style PCB circuit board style antenna array. The component layout and EMI shielding of the 5104’s radome is nowhere near as neat and compact as the designs of Garmin or Furuno, but the overall design of this unit seems to work very well.

The unit’s strongest point was user interface. The 5104’s remote keyboard comes with four rotary knobs, one each for tune, rain, sea, and gain, in addition to one large “jog” dial that controls the EBL/VRM and guard alarm zones, and a trackball. Because this unit is a dedicated radar system, you gain simplicity in picture presentation and control, but lose some features you get with integrated chartplotters. The JMA 5104 is not capable of radar overlay to a chart, which is a standard feature option on most multi-function displays.

Short-range target detection and overall picture presentation of our test harbor was superb. On the long-range test, the quantity of echo return from the distant shoreline was a bit on the low side. The long-range detection was adequate, but a notch below some of our other units.

We called JRC about the shortcomings that we experienced at distant ranges. What we found out was that deep in the JRC radar installation manual, there is a little-advertised menu setting under the title “setting transmission power control” that allows a user to bump up the radar’s power level. We also learned that our unit came with an open scanner antenna (one that had a motor rotation control function), which gave access to a second-level menu feature designated “S-Buoy Detect,” which allows the unit’s transmission beam to become more focused on distant targets.

Bottom Line: The JMA-5104 is a good, solid unit that can be used where space restrictions don’t allow optimum radar display positioning. In using the high-quality remote keyboard of the 5104, coupled with a good grade LCD monitor from a local PC chain store, you can effectively build a custom radar solution. The major draw back of this unit is its price. At a street price of $5,600 with the monitor, this radar is out of range of most recreational vessels, no matter how many secret weapons JRC has loaded into its unit. The 20-meter radar antenna cable that is provided standard with this unit (double the length that is provided with the Northstar and Simrad) is appreciated on vessels that have long cable runs back to the helm.

NORTHSTAR 6000I / RAD4K
Given that the Northstar’s 6000i is an icon in today’s GPS market due to its bright display screen, intuitive menus, and fast chart re-draws, we were ready to be impressed by its 4 kW radome. As it turned out, the radome appeared to be identical to the Koden unit (model number RB715A) used by Simrad, except that the Northstar system also came with a radar-processing box (also Koden).

To make room for the soft key menu, the radar picture is only displayed as a 6-inch-diameter circle on the 6000i’s 10.4-inch landscape display. Northstar’s gain and sea clutter controls required some hunting; they’re located on the display’s second menu page.

Unlike every other radar we tested, the Northstar radome doesn’t power down when you turn off the control unit. It will still draw power—which measured 1.2 amps—unless you shut it off with a separate toggle switch that Northstar provides. The manual indicates that you can install a power control relay so that the radome will turn off when the control unit is powered down.

The 6000i fared a little better in long-range test than the short-range, but, overall, the performance in both manual and automatic modes was lackluster. The installation manual suggests waiting five seconds to judge the results of any manual tuning change, which makes fine-tuning tedious compared to the other units.

All of the other radars we tested were more responsive than the Northstar. It was the only system that relied on a single NMEA 0183 port for data transfers between the control unit and the radome, and this older-style data gateway is likely part of the reason for its sluggishness.

Bottom Line: This unit falls far short of what we expected for Northstar quality and performance.

RAYMARINE E120
The E120 is Raymarine’s 12-inch, sunlight-viewable color MFD (multi-function display) that showcases Navionics’ new Platinum cartography (rated best in our February 2006 issue). In comparison to Raymarine’s older sibling, the C-series, the Raymarine E-series is constructed of an aluminum housing (not plastic like the C-series or the Garmin 3010C). The screen brilliance on the E-series is about 20 percent brighter.

Installation is straightforward. Right out of the box, the Raymarine had a solid picture of the test harbor. In the close-in target test with the E120, we not only picked up our target floats, but a curious bird that we hadn’t first noticed. Obviously, this radar unit’s auto mode is on the mark. In the long-range test, the Raymarine exhibited solid target returns from the distant shoreline, scoring it first place in the automatic mode, but yielded to the Furuno when compared side-by-side in the manual mode. The E120 is capable of manual radar tuning via a rotary control knob, like Furuno’s NavNet VX2, but Furuno offers more control.

For upgrades, Raymarine allows users to download the latest software upgrades for the C and E series free on its website onto a flash memory card and transfer it to the machine. You can also use the cards to store all of your waypoint and track data onto the card—without the assistance of a PC. The memory card now becomes your memory back-up and allows you to directly share your waypoint and trip data with other C- and E-series users. Finally, plug-and-play as it was meant to be.

Bottom Line: The performance of this radar product is at the top of our list, as is the brilliance and viewing angles of the MFD display. It also boasts intuitive soft keys, excellent night illumination levels, and flexibility to grow the system with future enhancements. With its 12-inch screen, the Raymarine is about $1,100 more than a comparable Furuno 1834C. If money is no issue, and you’re tempted by big screens and the chartplotter features in Navionics Platinum charts (our top pick), then the Raymarine will suit your needs just fine.

SIMRAD RA41C
The Simrad RA41 is a two-component, no-nonsense radar system that is supplied with Simrad’s excellent 10-inch color TFT sunlight-viewable monitor and a Koden model RB715A radome. Although the Northstar 6000i and Simrad use the same model Koden radome, the Simrad radar, in our opinion, is much more refined and easier to use than the Northstar.

We chose the Simrad RA series radar instead of Simrad’s CX series because we wanted to test one of the few remaining stand-alone radars on the market. The RA is not fitted with a GPS chartplotter, so its design and processing power are dedicated to radar performance. This full-feature unit is capable of adding a second remote station, so it will fit into an integrated system. Although the RA does not have radar/chart overlay, it does have a semi “3D” mode and a feature that Simrad coins “multi-vision.”

Overall, the RA41 performed well. When we tested close-in target resolution, this unit painted two very sharp and defined target echoes from the pair of lobster trap floats that we set out in the harbor. In the long-range test, the RA41 was a bit under par, with results comparable to the Northstar and the Garmin. The rotary knob controlling gain, sea clutter (STC), and rain clutter (FTC) had a nice feel.

Deep in the menu mode of the RA41 is a user setup feature that allows you to double the speed of the radar antenna scanner to 48 rpm. We activated the high-speed scan rate to see whether we could detect any difference in the way that the commercial traffic entered the harbor at our test site. The result? Only a noisier radome. Upon further inspection, we found the noise coming from the meshing of the plastic gear on the scanner’s drive motor with the metallic gear of the scanner antenna.

Simrad’s “multi-vision” allows you to split the radar screen in vertical halves and display a different radar range on each half. For example, the operator can set half of the display screen to watch the half-mile scale while dedicating the other half of the screen to watch the three-mile range. Simrad accomplishes this with a high-rpm antenna option. The RA41’s processor addresses each of the two side-by-side radar scales one at a time. The scanner will refresh the port side image first, while holding the same range on starboard. Then the starboard side image will be refreshed while the port side is held static.

When operating the RA41 in multi-vision mode, we found that if we made any change to the radar’s operational range scale, while we were the dual range mode, the starboard side picture presentation would go completely blank for a solid 10 ten seconds before its picture would reappear. Thus, if we were tracking a hot target bearing down on us, and we had to drop the half-mile range scale to one-quarter mile or up the range to three-quarter mile, the starboard 50 percent of our close-range scale would be blank for 10 seconds. That’s a big problem, in our view.

Simrad said that when the dual range mode is selected, the high-speed antenna scan does not automatically engage. We went through the rather cumbersome procedure to engage the high-speed rotation and indeed, the fast antenna scan rate solved our picture re-draw issue. Still, we felt switching speeds should be automated for this mode, or at least easier, and the display should clearly indicate the radome rpm.

Bottom Line: We liked the viewability and high quality of the RA41’s TFT display, but we felt that the radome antenna design was lacking. The upcoming DX series radomes are supposed to automate the rotational speed for multivision mode, as well as be quieter.

CONCLUSIONS
The best performer is also our Budget Buy: The Furuno 1834C NavNet VX2 is priced right and is a serious navigational tool, manufactured by a company that is synonymous with marine radar. We were hoping for a little more performance and a better warranty with the new Garmin GMR-40. The picture on the Northstar 6000i was lost in translation, in our opinion.

The Raymarine E120 radar also performed excellently, making it a Recommended choice for those who don’t mind paying $1,000 extra for Navionics platform and other bonus features.

We liked the rotary controls on JRC’s JMA-5104, and found this unit’s performance and intuitive operation to be quite good. For helm mounting, look for an alternative sunlight viewable LCD monitor.

Simrad’s RA41C is a good performer that allows the operator to adjust the picture with relative ease. The multi-view feature, in our opinion, still needs refinement. The good news is that Simrad seems on the verge of launching a radome that should improve this feature.

 

Also With This Article
"How We Tested"
"Finding a Home for Your Radome"
"Making the Most of MARPA"
"Value Guide: 4 KW Color Radar"
"The Dawn of All-Digital Radar"

Contacts
• Furuno, 360/834-9300, www.furuno.com
• Garmin, 913/397-8200, www.garmin.com
• JRC, 206/654-5644, www.jrcamerica.com
• Northstar, 978/897-6000, www.northstargps.com
• Raymarine, 800/539-5539, www.raymarine.com
• Simrad, 425/778-8821, www.simradusa.com

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