Features February 15, 2004 Issue

Magellan FX324 Map Color

Magellan makes a creditable comeback with this colorplotter. We found the ergonomics good, but viewing the cartography in direct sunlight was almost impossible.

We last reviewed color GPS chartplotters in the April 15, 2003 issue. In that review, the Standard Horizon 150C came out on top, with the Si-Tex Nautilus and Garmin 182C virtually alongside. We thought then, and still do, that the Garmin’s BlueChart is the best choice in vector cartography. It's not necessarily more accurate than other vector charts, but it mimics the NOAA chart look closely, and is thus more familiar-looking. Trouble is, it's proprietary to Garmin. It would be nice if it ran on other platforms, too.

The Magellan FX324—button ergonomics, user interface, and cartography are good, and receiver sensitivity seems excellent. Just give it some shade.

Missing from that review was any offering from Magellan, a company that led the way into GPS navigation for pleasure craft back in the late '80s, but then suffered a few ownership and identity crises, and gradually fell behind as Garmin took the market by storm. (Some readers will remember the Magellan Nav 1000, the white, blocklike, single-channel receiver that introduced many to the wonders of GPS.)

Magellan is now owned by Thales Navigation, part of the much larger Thales Group of companies, which are based all over the map. (Thales of Miletus, by the way, was partly known for the sound mathematical advice he gave navigators of his day, back in the 6th century B.C.)

Under the Thales aegis, Magellan is pushing to make a strong showing again in the marine GPS field. Their mainline contenders in this effort, in North America, are two mid-sized chartplotters, the FX324 Map and FX324 Map Color, and the Meridian Marine and SportTrak Pro Marine lines of handheld receivers.

A month or so after our last review, Magellan sent their then-new FX324 Map Color chartplotter for evaluation. We were able to spend some time with it on the water last summer and fall. Although we can't make a side-by side comparison with the 10 plotters we saw last spring, we can offer the following information and thoughts.

This is a 12-channel parallel receiver with a 16-color TFT screen and remote antenna. Screen resolution is 320 x 240, or 5" on the diagonal. It accepts one chart chip on its right side, and keeps it secure with a tight, gasketed plug. Its standard mounting configuration is on a bracket, which is included. There's an optional flush-mounting kit.

Plotter operations are done on a full alphanumeric keypad, which makes entering waypoints and other information faster than the Toggle/Select/Enter method necessary on most machines without keypads. The Magellan also has a four-way toggle pad, used to adjust chart position and to select on-screen menu options. The Enter button is at the lower right corner of the machine, which enables the user to perform all functions easily with the right hand only. The green power button and red MOB button are set apart and easily identified. Between them, just to the right of the screen, are buttons to call up "Position," "Nav" functions, "GoTo" waypoints, and "Plot," showing the vessel's position on the chart. This last button should perhaps be called "Chart," since that's what it summons. A context-sensitive Menu button, and an Escape button, are above the toggle-pad.

In the Plot mode, the "7" button serves as zoom-out, and the "9" as zoom-in. The "8" allows a choice of pre-set zoom levels, selected by the Enter button. The zoom keys could be better marked, in our opinion, but it doesn't take long to get used to them.

We found the Magellan operation quite intuitive, and never had to refer to the manual for the basic functions. With some consultation in the manual, the user can learn how to customize and configure displays, enter data for tide and current calculations, and so on. Just remember that what's intuitive to plotter designers and programmers is very often at odds with what's intuitive to the user. We would suggest spending a solid half-hour with any plotter, down at the local electronics chandlery, pushing buttons and making sure the programmers' logic agrees with you, before buying.

All buttons are properly back-lit— enough to be easily identified, but not too bright.

Magellan's cartography is called MapSend BlueNav. It's derived from the Navionics Gold series of vector charts, but is proprietary to Magellan. (So now, fellow consumers, we have BlueChart and BlueNav, both of which can only be run on their purveyors' machines. Quick, which is whose?)

In our evaluation we ran the BlueNav XL vector chart chip, which covers a relatively large area. Also available are BlueNav Local chart chips, covering smaller areas in more detail, and BlueNav CDs, covering North America, Europe, and much of the Pacific. The CD information can be uploaded (one chart at a time) into a handheld receiver or computer, and requires activation by phone.

It's hard to tell how accurate any vector chart might be without going out and seeing for yourself if the marks, rocks, and land masses are in the right places. The BlueNav chart of our area of Long Island Sound seemed accurate and more or less correctly labeled; however, there are little mistakes here and there, as there seem to be with most vector charts we've seen. In this case, for example, we found "Neck" spelled "Neack." On one of the charts from a BlueNav CD, a casual glance showed Nantucket spelled correctly in one instance, and misspelled an inch away. We have plenty of typos in Practical Sailor, too, so it's easy to regard this kind of mistake as benign. Mislocation of rocks is another matter. We saw no egregious examples of this, even when we checked in difficult rock-strewn areas.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. We found it very difficult to use the cartographic functions of the FX324 Map Color in direct sunlight. We checked it in several sessions, with and without haze, with the sun above and behind us, on and off the water, looking directly at the screen and at angles up to about 45°. At the maximum brightness setting (and after trying all three choices of color palette) we found the screen brightness and clarity poor. (The FX324 Map Color has no contrast adjustment, while its black-and-white sibling does.) We'd put it in same ballpark as the Navman 560—the head-on view is on the dim side, and the angled views start fading to black at about 30°.

Consequently, we can't recommend the Magellan for installation directly on a steering pedestal or bulkhead where it will be unshaded. Belowdecks, or under a bimini or other shade, it will do well enough.

We e-mailed Magellan our concerns. Spokeswoman Angela Linsey-Jackson replied: "As for the less than ideal visibility in direct sunlight, we have not yet been able to find a solution that would allow us to continue offering the color screen, alphanumeric keypad, and other functionality usually found on a more expensive product, at the more affordable price that sets our product apart."

Strangely enough, the numbers-only displays are quite good in sunlight—it's only the chart view that seems to suffer.

Night-time viewability of both charts and number displays is excellent. We've found this to be true of all the chartplotters we've reviewed recently. Again, the Magellan's buttons are backlit to the right intensity.

Zooming and panning is fast enough while moving the cursor on the active screen, but when moving to an adjacent off-screen chart, the screen refresh rate is only fair, typically taking 5-7 seconds to quilt-in a fresh chart section from one edge. While we didn't measure the quilting rates of the other 10 plotters last time, we suspect that the Magellan would be in the middle of the bunch, at best.

Satellite acquisition and position information is excellent in virtually all receivers these days, with the satellite constellation in full bloom and 12 parallel channels to keep track of things. Even so, this Magellan managed to pinpoint itself while deep inside an office, connected to a 12-volt power supply, with its antenna lying at 45° in a cardboard box. Impressive.

Bottom Line
It's good to see Magellan re-situated with Thales, and working to make a comeback in the marine GPS world. This FX324 Map Color plotter isn't, in our view, the strongest in its field, and its poor viewability in sunlight is a disappointment. However, button ergonomics, user interface, and cartography are good, and receiver sensitivity seems excellent. It's a solid effort, and most likely an indication of more good things to come. If you don't plan to mount it right in the sun, it's worth considering, especially if the price is right on a given day.

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


Also With This Article
"Value Guide Recap: Color Chartplotters."

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