Pint-size Navigators Put to the Test
Arguably the most powerful navigational tool that can fit in your pocket, the handheld GPS has become more than just a means of fixing one’s position. Matched with today’s data-filled digital charts, the modern handheld GPS is a chartplot-ter, marina guide, tide checker, and more. Alone, or interfaced with the ship’s navigational network, these tiny—and relatively inexpensive—devices can serve quite handily as the ship’s primary means of navigation. Compact enough to be kept in a Faraday cage where they are immune to lightning strikes, they are ideally suited for backup service on a cruising boat.
It’s been two years since Practical Sailor examined handheld GPS devices (published Oct. 15, 2004). This time, we wanted to see how these units have improved and closely study their features to determine which ones best serve a sailor’s needs. While the field is crowded with contenders, many models are geared toward highway navigation, hiking, and other landbased activities. Our focus is performance on the water.
WHAT WE TESTED
We compared a total of nine GPS units supplied by five vendors: Garmin, Lowrance, Magellan, Uniden, and West Marine. The two West Marine models we tested are made by Garmin and marketed by West under its own brand name. Garmin, with several models aimed at mariners, is clearly the dominant player in this field.
As with most electronics these days, we expect manufacturers will soon update the units we tested, adding more features and memory. In fact, in the time it took PS to evaluate these handhelds, West Marine decided to replace the units we tested with newer Garmin models. All the tested units were available at press time.
We included the Garmin 76, the favorite in our 2004 review, as it gave us an opportunity to compare it with its updated version, as well as the more contemporary units. The 76 is one of only two units tested that uses a grayscale display. Brightness and contrast adjustment are activated by quickly tapping the unit’s main power key, which introduces two slide bars on the unit’s display (rated good for visibility). You can then use the 76’s “rocker” keypad to adjust the screen’s appearance. All of the Garmin handhelds we tested use this simple approach for display view adjustments. The Garmin 76 has a clearly marked, straightforward “MOB” button, an important safety feature for a handheld GPS.
To navigate, the user works from five main display pages. The opening page provides satellite acquisition information as well as speed, elevation (pointless in marine applications), and accuracy (useful in thick fog, or for racing sailors pinpointing windward marks). This page also provides time, date, position and coordinates.
The second page is the mapping page, which utilizes Garmin’s Map Source “POI” (point of interest) technology. Remember, this is not a chartplotter; the data is limited to government marks and other major features. This page provides the range and bearing to the cursor, which is positioned using the aforementioned “rocker” key. Position the cursor and activate the nav/MOB key to create a waypoint that can then be labeled by alphanumeric characters via the rocker key, a standard operation for most units. The 76 also includes a compass-pointer page with several data display boxes providing speed and distance to the next waypoint. Racers can use this page to track lifts and headers. There’s also the familiar highway page offering data fields that provide speed, distance to waypoint, actual course, and off-course information. This information is easy to read at an arm’s length. Surprisingly, several more-expensive models didn’t meet this simple requirement.
The Garmin 76 floats and passed our 30-minute water-resistance test with flying colors (See “How We Tested,” page 19). But battery-life is average, and waypoint storage falls well short of the majority of tested units. Minimal internal storage capability will also restrict how much Map Source data can be loaded. The 76 is NMEA compatible and can be interfaced with other electronics via a cable that also supplies ship’s power to the unit for continual use. An external antenna jack allows belowdeck installation, making it possible, and practical, for use as a vessel’s primary navigation source.
Bottom Line: The Garmin 76 is a proven entity that offers straight-forward at-sea functions, but the very basic cartography is archaic by today’s standards. Still, for $230, it provides reliable GPS information for the budget-minded sailor.
GARMIN GPSMAP 76 CSX
The 76 CSx utilizes new chip technology known as SiRF, and the difference between this unit and the majority of its competitors is astounding. The device immediately impressed our tester by its rapid satellite acquisition. In terms of form factor and button placement, the CSx is exactly the same as its predecessor, the older Garmin 76, but the similarity ends there. The software on the CSx is dramatically improved, providing full cartography capability via the company’s feature-filled BlueChart imagery. Plus, its color transflective display becomes more visible in bright sunlight. Interestingly, the CSx screen is slightly smaller than the original 76’s, but the display quality and screen layout more than make up for it. (In fact, as with many handhelds, the screen is too small to display the vast amount of available information that modern software allows. The user must prudently select which information he wants to display or the clutter can be overwhelming.)
The CSx retains all of the marine functionality of the original 76, but also includes a calendar (with moon phases), optimal times to hunt and fish, a calculator and an altimeter. While working with the device’s compass page, we discovered that the unit should be positioned horizontally to maximize the electronic compass’ sensitivity. The difference in responsiveness between a vertical and horizontal case position was profound.
One function we particularly liked was the ability to “drag and drop” waypoints, which allows you to quickly reposition plotted waypoints. The CSx also has a stopwatch page, but no countdown timer—an oversight, in our view. The unit will link quickly and easily to a PC via the USB cable and also has a microSD card slot for chart storage.
Bottom Line: The 76 CSx excels as a primary belowdecks position finder, or as a handheld on-deck machine. At $550, it’s notably pricier than its predecessor, but given the overall upgrade to the software package and general functionality, for many mariners, the extra cost will be well worth it.
GARMIN eTrex LEGEND CX
The Legend Cx was the smallest unit we compared, and for this user, it failed the arm length’s legibility test. The text was especially difficult to read. The Cx uses Garmin BlueCharts, but because of the small screen display we found the waypoint and routing functions a bit awkward to use. Still, it employs the same transflective technology found on six of our nine units, so visibility is enhanced in bright sunlight. The eTrex is waterproof but doesn’t float, which will make the former feature moot if it goes overboard. It lacks NMEA-interface capability and an external antenna socket—major setbacks for those seeking a primary position receiver. Instead of an SiRF chip, it has a 12-channel receiver, and it is considerably slower than the 76 CSx in acquiring satellites. Chart data on the Cx is transferred via a USB cable from a PC to a microSD data card located inside the battery compartment, effectively ensuring unlimited map storage if equipped with multiple microSD cards; this won’t be an issue for most users as the unit wasn’t designed as a primary GPS for cruising boat applications. The absence of a man-overboard button underscores this point. Battery life, however, was outstanding.
Bottom Line: With its lack of interface capability and small size and display—rendering its utility marginal underway—the eTrex Legend Cx was clearly designed for the terrestrial GPS market. Marine applications will be limited to backup duty, or perhaps as a position finder in an abandon-ship kit.
GARMIN GPSMAP 60 CSX
The second-smallest unit in our test, the 60 CSx achieved a better balance between size and usability than the eTrex Legend Cx. Data fields were much more visible while underway, and the control-button arrangement was not only better than the eTrex, it was also more familiar for those who’ve used other Garmin equipment. Like its bigger siblings, the 60 CSx is equipped with full-interfacing capability and can be connected to the ship’s power source, enhancing its potential as a primary onboard positioning device. The 60 CSx is again equipped with the SiRF chip, but we did discover a software glitch as we were attempting to establish its satellite-acquisition time. After powering the unit up, it went immediately to the acquisition page and stayed there for some time while nothing happened. After several minutes we turned the unit off and on. The “reboot” worked, and the satellites and position were quickly set.
Like all of the new Garmins, the 60 CSx has icon-based function selection, which we found simple to use: Scroll the rocker key to an icon and hit the enter key. The CSx also features the transflective display screen that provides excellent visibility in bright sunlight. The 60 CSx doesn’t float, but it is waterproof. The functionality of the unit is nearly identical to the 76 CSx, and unlike the Legend Cx, it has both an altimeter and a barometer, the latter of which is useful indeed for the mariner. Like the Legend Cx, charts are transferred from a computer to a microSD card. Our test unit came equipped with a 64 mB card, whereas the Legend Cx came with an installed 32 mB card. At presstime, these micro cards were available with up to 1 GB storage capacity, so extensive chart storage is a reality since a typical Garmin chart consumes about 10-17 mB of memory, which translates to roughly 60 charts per 1 GB disc. (Memory capability was one of the deciding factors in our selection criteria.)
Bottom Line: Its tidy size, competitive price, and excellent chart-storage capability make this a machine well worth considering, particularly for those whose interest is piqued by the 76 CSx; ultimately, the choice between them may come down to preferences in size and aesthetics.
WEST MARINE 76 CS
At first glance, it’d be easy to mistake the West 76 CS for the Garmin 76 CSx, which share the same manufacturer, case and control buttons. But there are key differences that may tip a buyer’s purchase decision one way or the other. As part of the design criteria, West Marine wisely identified features that would appeal to four primary user groups: powerboaters, sailors, highway motorists, and off-road drivers. It was smart because most handheld buyers will likely use their GPS in multiple applications.
In terms of screen display, daylight visibility and MOB functionality, we’d rate the two units identically. But other features are quite different. One of our complaints with the Garmin 76 CSx was the terrestrially based stopwatch function, which counted up. West got it right for racing sailors by including a “marine timer” function that counts down and even has a selectable “message beep” to provide timing warnings during a starting sequence. The West version also has a tide table, something the Garmin 76 CSx lacks. The West model doesn’t have the unlimited memory expansion capability of the Garmin 76 CSx has, but it does contain 115 mB of internal memory, which will hold a considerable number of BlueCharts.
In choosing between the Garmin and West versions, there are several questions to consider, perhaps the biggest is this: Are you embarking on a world cruise where vast numbers of charts are required, or are you confining your cruising grounds to an area that the internal memory can handle effectively? We suspect that most sailors will realistically do just fine with the internal limits of West Marine’s version of the 76. As for the waterproof integrity of the West Marine 76 CS, it passed with flying colors, and it floats as well. NMEA-interface capability is built in, and the unit can be set up easily as a primary engine for position finding. Unfortunately, the 76 CS does not share the Garmin’s SiRF chip, and satellite acquisition times and below-deck performance were influenced by that fact. But with an optional external antenna, that obstacle could be largely overcome.
Bottom Line: Competitively priced with a host of features we find very alluring, the West Marine 76 CS is the PS choice for best overall in marine handhelds.
WEST MARINE 176C PLUS
The 276C Plus—another collaboration between Garmin and West—is described as a “portable” GPS, as opposed to a handheld. Like the West 76 CS, the 276C has specialized functions to cater to the needs of motorists and sailors. The screen display is excellent, and seems huge in comparison to the pure handhelds; it was easier to utilize the device and read its information. The 276 is completely interface-capable and includes unlimited memory-expansion capability via mini data cards that plug into a dedicated card slot on the back of the machine—there’s no need to access the battery compartment to swap out the data card as with most of the other units with this capability.
We particularly liked the unit’s DSC interface function which, when linked to a DSC-equipped VHF, will provide a clear DSC position-report page that’s easily accessible and will even create a waypoint to the call location.
Less impressive was its performance in the 30-minute water test. The 276C is rated as IPX-7, which means it can be submerged for up to 30 minutes—the same as all the test units. The 276C floated just fine, but upon inspection afterward, testers found that the battery compartment had leaked severely (though the actual battery contact terminals were dry and well sealed), and the data card slot was full of water. No water appeared to have migrated into the machine’s circuitry and a good wipe down with a dry cloth and thorough blow dry to the card port seemed to address the problem. Based on the location of the leaks on the unit as tested, we would say that a more appropriate rating for the 276C Plus would be IPX-3 or 4, as opposed to its advertised IPX-7.
We liked the 276C Plus, but consider it more of a miniature “fixed-mount” device than a true handheld. It’s an ideal chartplotter for small-boat sailors who want big-boat plotter performance, and it’s sized correctly to be quite useful in dashboard-mounted automotive applications, too.
Lowrance H2O C
With a name like “H2O,” the Lowrance unit gave us high hopes. But we immediately noticed that the sealing shock bumper around the perimeter of its case seemed loose and not completely pressed into place. And when we installed the batteries in our test unit, it was clear that you had to be extremely careful when reinstalling the cover to be sure it was properly latched in place; otherwise, it simply fell off. We pointed this out to Lowrance, and its engineers have assured us the matter will be investigated.
It should be pointed out that the Lowrance H2O C had the second lowest price point in our test grouping; clearly a target had been set at below $300, and at $250, that target had been met. Unfortunately, its low price was reflected in its overall performance. The H2O was one of the few units in our test group that did not utilize transflective display screen technology, and it showed. No matter how much we adjusted the contrast and brightness, it was difficult to see in bright sunlight. This deficiency was exacerbated by the very narrow angle view for any visibility at all. More points were deducted for the lack of a dedicated MOB button. To use the MOB function, users must push and hold the “ZIN” and “ZOUT” buttons simultaneously.
To its credit, we found that the H2O floated fine, but unfortunately it failed our immersion test. After removing it from the tank, we found a considerable amount of water in the battery box, which is also where the Navionics-based chart data card was located. After blow-drying the compartment, we turned the unit on and, surprisingly, it seemed to function normally. But the next morning, we noticed the screen display was foggy, and the unit had died after nine hours of battery-life testing.
One strong feature of the H2O is the Navionics cartography, which includes a very sophisticated tide and current function. But other features suggested the unit would be more fitting in a terrestrial setting. The owner’s manual, much of which dealt with land and road navigation, underscored that observation.Bottom Line: The affordability factor aside, the H2O does not match the craftsmanship or features of the other tested units, and would not be on our list of potential buys for a marine GPS.
MAGELLAN eXplorist XL
As with the Lowrance, we looked forward to testing the Magellan eXplorist, which has a nicely sized, rugged-looking case with a well-designed rubber shock bumper around its perimeter. It was also one of the fastest units we tested in terms of satellite acquisition, and it employs Navionics-based cartography, which works well and is rich in features for marine applications. Unfortunately, it had no external antenna option, NMEA-interface capability, or dedicated MOB button. So, once we scratched the surface, our enthusiasm waned.
On the plus side, the externally loaded SD card is convenient and provides the unit with essentially limitless expandability. And it has a 3.5-inch transflective screen that’s easy on the eyes. Still, the eXplorist wasn’t as bright in direct sunlight as the Garmin units that use the same screen technology. The eXplorist also failed the immersion test. After 30 minutes, we extracted it from the test tank, and the only thing missing in the screen display were the goldfish. It was full of water. We never got it working again, and the test was effectively over. Did we mention it sank?
Bottom Line: Based on our experience, PS can’t recommend this unit for boating applications.
The Uniden Mystic was unique among our test subjects: It is the only one that was also a fully functioning handheld VHF radio, with complete DSC capability. The Mystic is not appropriate as a primary GPS engine in that it has no networking capability. It was also weak in the waypoint storage department. Although equipped with MOB capability via a “mark/go to” button, it would take a bit of familiarity with the unit to fully understand the function. The Mystic’s case is rugged, the face of the unit states clearly that it is submersible, and it survived our immersion test without a hitch. It did, however, sink like a brick.
A Uniden engineer PS spoke with described the unit as being a great device for a liferaft kit. In part, we agree: VHF capability, a built-in DSC button, and a fully functioning GPS using Magellan/Navionics cartography would all be useful in such a dire situation. The only problem is that the Mystic uses a proprietary lithium ion battery pack, and there is no provision for using more readily available alkaline or other replaceable batteries. In our battery tests, the fully charged Lion pack only provided 11 hours of service, so for ditch-kit circumstances, we’d recommend having several fully charged Uniden battery packs on hand, too.
In May 2006, Uniden issued a voluntary recall of the charging cradles for the Mystic handhelds. After receiving one report of a battery overheating and melting the battery casing, the company recalled the cradles, which they said could cause batteries to overheat whether or not they were in the cradle. Uniden assured PS that this has been corrected.
The Mystic was one of two units we compared that uses a gray-scale display screen, but it’s a good one with excellent visibility in both day and night-lighting situations. The Mystic does not have a memory-card slot, but as an emergency unit in a rescue situation cartography would play a secondary role to issuing coordinates, which it would always be able to do. The Mystic’s GPS screen displays were standard with a compass page; large data-display numerals that were easy to read underway; a highway screen; and, of course, the chart display. We found the interface between the VHF functions and the GPS functions a little confusing at first—they weren’t intuitive—but once we got the hang of it, it all worked well.
Bottom Line: The Mystic offers the longest warranty of all of the units we compared, and may just be the answer for small-boat operators looking for a dedicated unit combining navigation and communication capabilities. We’d recommend it for sailors who confine their cruising to inland bays and lakes, and as a good device for the offshore cruiser to throw in the ditch bag (along with extra battery packs).
It’s difficult to pick a standout winner in this test. In our view, the Garmin 76 CSx is an excellent performer with memory-expansion capability that’s nice to have, if you need it. The global cruiser might find this feature very attractive.
The West Marine 76 CS (sans the memory-card expandability) includes the requisite internal memory to store enough chart data to cover the vast majority of a cruisers’ needs. It also offers the customized functionality for both powerboaters and sailors, with a proper countdown timer among other features. It doesn’t acquire satellites quite as quickly or hold the fix quite as well as its Garmin counterpart when the overhead view of the sky is limited, but since boaters are generally out in the open—and in light of the fact that an external antenna can be added for below-deck use at a navigation station—these can be viewed as minor shortcomings.
In the final analysis, West did its homework and identified what sailors and boaters really need, and Garmin delivered a solid unit that met those specifications. The collaboration worked. The West Marine 76 CS is our pick as the best marine handheld GPS.
GARMIN, 913/397-8200, garmin.com
LOWRANCE, 800/324-1356, lowrance.com
MAGELLAN, 800/707-9971, magellangps.com
UNIDEN, 800/620-7531, uniden.com
WEST MARINE, 800/685-4838, westmarine.com