Navman Tracker 5600 vs. Si-Tex ColorMax 6
The Navman 5600 screen has been improved, and its controls are good, but the Si-Tex machine outshines it in most important areas, including sunlight viewability and price.
In our never-ending quest to keep up with changes in the marine electronics world, we've recently taken to publishing evaluations of one or two devices at a time, rather than try to round up half a dozen or more units and evaluate them all at the same time. There are two reasons for this. First, it lets us spend more quality time with each unit, and report on it in greater depth. Second, it often happens that by the time we round up a whole bunch of similar gizmos, test them, and publish the results, at least one of those units will have been discontinued, replaced by a new model, or priced differently.
What We Tested
In this review we compare two small color plotters. One, the Si-Tex ColorMax 6, is relatively new to the market. The other, Navman's Tracker 5600, has been around for about two years.
The Navman 5600 was reviewed in Practical Sailor's April 15, 2003 issue, along with nine other machines. The review was favorable until it came to screen visibility in bright sunlight. There, the 5600 rated last in the pack. As we said then, "It just wasn't in the ballpark with the others during the bright sun evaluation."
Since then, the 5600's screen has been upgraded. According to Navman spokesman Andrew Goldman, there have been changes to color palettes, an improved final screen coating, and an increase in the screen's nit rating. (Nits are the number of candelas per square meter of screen space. A candela, defined by Britannica, is "the luminous intensity in a given direction of a source that emits monochromatic radiation of frequency 540 x 1012 hertz and has a radiant intensity in that same direction of 1/683 watt per steradian (unit solid angle)." So there.
Despite those improvements, the Navman 5600 manual tells the new owner to "Choose a location that is easily seen and not exposed to the direct sun or water."
Meanwhile, the Si-Tex ColorMax 6 (which is the plotter component of the Dynamic Duo we covered in our June issue), is billed as having a "brilliant color LCD daylight-viewable display to show outstanding clarity in bright sunlight on open boats."
We wanted to see if we could improve our review of the 5600, while comparing it to a similar-sized machine specifically made for sunlight viewing.
How We Tested
As noted in that April, 2003 article, and since then in other articles, the basics of GPS receivers are so well established that it doesn't make much sense these days to test for positional accuracy, or even for speed of satellite acquisition. We have focused instead on screen viewability in direct sunlight, and on the user interface — both software logic and the ergonomics of control through buttons, soft keys, and keypads, etc.
In this case we connected both machines, side-by-side, to a 12-volt power supply on our test table, with the antennas outside, and went back and forth between them, simply working through basic functions and settings, using the latest-issue C-Map NT chart chip for our geographic area ($211). We then took them outside on a bright, sunny day, faced them toward the light, and checked their screen visibility with and without polarized sunglasses. Then we took them back inside and worked with them some more on and off for several days—and at night with the lights out.
What We Found
We didn't have the Navman 5600 from our 2003 review on hand to compare to the new version. However, working from memory and photos, we'd say there's been a good incremental improvement in the overall visibility of the NavMan screen in sunlight. If we hadn't had the 5600 sitting side-by-side with the Si-Tex machine, we'd have been more impressed. As it was, though, there was no contest— the Si-Tex far outpaced the Navman in the sunlight viewability department.
Of course, since the Si-Tex is billed as sunlight viewable and the Navman isn't, such a comparison is beside the point: If you need to choose between these two products for a location in direct sunlight, buy the Si-Tex. However, put both machines in the shade, and the playing field starts to level out. Now, on to the notes for the plotters.
Navman Tracker 5600
The Navman plotter has a 12-channel, WAAS-capable GPS receiver. The LCD display is 234 x 320 pixels (6.4" diagonal) in a portrait layout. It accepts one C-Map NT chart chip, which is inserted into a plug-like rubber holder that fits into the side of the device. It's a secure, watertight arrangement.
All the buttons are located on the right side of the machine, so all functions can be controlled easily with the right thumb. Escape, Display, Menu, and Enter are arranged logically around a four-way cursor pad, with Escape at the top and Enter at the bottom. There are only five other buttons—Range +/- (zoom in/out), Waypoint, MOB, and Power.
We found the cursor pad on the Navman a bit heavier to the touch than the mini-joystick on the Si-Tex machine, but at the same time it was sturdy and comfortable, and more predictable in its operation. It would probably be easier to use in a seaway.
In an experiment with scrolling speed—with the zoom level on the chart at its closest focus—we found the Navman faster in both directions (N/S and E/W) than the Si-Tex machine. However, the Si-Tex refreshed its screens much faster and more often during that scrolling.
Neither of these devices has an alphanumeric keypad, so entering waypoint names and information manually is tedious. However, we found it a bit easier to follow Navman's interface and operation in these matters.
The button backlighting on the Navman is excellent, and the night-viewing palette is effective. The portrait orientation of the screen is neither better nor worse than a landscape view, in our opinion, especially when you're dealing with screens this small—you can't see too much either way.
Bottom line: The screen improvements on the Navman do help, and now that we're not expected to mount it in direct sunlight, we can stop holding it up to that standard. If you put it in the shade, this plotter will perform well, and the controls are among the least complicated, most practical we've seen. But then we come to the topic of price. More on that under Conclusions.
Si-Tex ColorMax 6
Si-Tex's new offering is an 18-channel, WAAS-capable receiver (six more channels than the current standard, though product literature mentions only 12), with a 320 x 240 pixel LCD display in a landscape orientation. It accepts two C-Map NT data cards, which are inserted upwards into the bottom of the unit, and protected by a rubber plug.
Most of the buttons are located on the right side of the machine, and are operable with the right thumb, except for four soft keys below the screen. Hitting any of the soft keys from the chart view brings up the four soft key options – Chart (back to chart view), Nav, Road, and Status. Nav and Road display typical data like course and speed over the ground, course to steer, and cross-track error; Nav shows the distance left or right of course on a bar, and Road displays the same thing on a vanishing grid. Cursor control is via a mini joystick (similar to the ShuttlePoint used by Standard Horizon on their plotters). In general, we really like this type of cursor control. Once you get used to it, it makes chart scrolling, managing menus, and entering waypoint data fast and relatively easy. However, much depends on the sensitivity and smoothness of the joystick itself. While we liked the ShuttlePoint, on the Si-Tex plotter we tested, the joystick was a bit skittish and hard to control. Even with speed settings adjusted for chart vs. menu movement, control was alternately either too sluggish or overly sensitive. We needed to adjust our thumb pressure and patience considerably to operate the thing accurately. We checked with Cynthia Cagle at Si-Tex, who told us that the company has given the machine a software upgrade to smooth out those sensitivity issues.
In scrolling at the closest zoomed level, the Si-Tex plotter was slower than the Navman—however, the Si-Tex, which uses an Intel X-Scale processor, refreshed its screen quickly and completely every few seconds, something the Navman didn't do as it moved from chart area to chart area.
The Si-Tex machine has an interesting Grounding Alarm feature, in which it scans the area ahead of the boat for objects that pose a collision danger. The operator defines the extent of the search area, which is marked by a triangle on the screen ahead of the boat when underway.
The most obvious positive feature of the ColorMax 6, however, is its excellent screen visibility in direct sunlight. It's clear from dead ahead out to fairly wide angles side to side.
Bottom line: An admirable plotter—excellent viewability, six extra GPS channels, fast processing speed, and some advanced features not found on other small plotters. Also, it costs less than the Navman.
It's good to know that Si-Tex was aware of the problem with the joy stick sensitivity, and has addressed it with a software update. We'll check on that, of course.
Specifications for the Navman Tracker 5600 and Si-Tex ColorMax 6 are listed in the updated Value Guide at the left. Again, if you need one of these two plotters to be mounted in direct sunlight, the Si-Tex is the clear choice. It also has more GPS channels and a faster screen refresh rate than the Navman. It can hold two data cards instead of one, and it comes with a plastic, foam-compartment carrying case, which will protect the unit if you often have to demount it and stow it belowdecks to keep it from being filched. Finally, the Si-Tex is less expensive (see Value Guide chart).
If the Navman could approach the Si-Tex in price, and we were operating in the shade, we'd consider it, because we found its button ergonomics and software logic a bit easier to master than the Si-Tex's. But at the current prices, the Si-Tex ColorMax 6 has much more to offer.
A cautionary word: Working with electronic cartography on screens of this size is like trying to navigate through a keyhole. It's possible, and it's a big step up from charting on a GPS handheld—but it's still frustrating. You can never see the big picture in sufficient detail, and working with the controls down at the close zoom levels verges on silly. Try to do the lion's share of your waypoint setting and naming at home or at least at rest. If this size plotter is what you can fit and afford, so be it, but if at all possible, go for a bigger screen, like the Si-Tex ColorMax 11 (10.4" diagonal screen).