Diving into Plotter/Sounders
Navman out-pixels em all, and Furuno bests the rest.
In past issues, we’ve pointed out the many advantages that “fishfinders” have for the cruising sailor, even if he cares not a whit where the striped bass are running. Bottom line is that visual representation of seabottom contours is a far more useful navigational tool than a simple spot reading.
In the second part of our plotter-sounder series, we look at bigger, and generally more sophisticated combo units. These units cost more than the smaller units we reviewed in our April 2006 issue, which brings them closer pricewise to more powerful multi-function displays (MFD). (The SI-TEX in this test is, in fact, one such “black box” unit.) However, a dedicated plotter-sounder usually draws less power and is easier to install, so it remains a viable alternative, either for a bargain-hunter shopping for a color plotter, or for a circumnavigator who wants marine-grade components backing an aging MFD or PC-based system. The small boater gets a fishfinder as a bonus, the voyager backs up two key nav functions.
What We Tested
For this test, we looked at units with color screens from 6 to 7 inches on the diagonal. We tested five machines from five manufacturers: the Furuno GP-7000F, the JRC Plot 500F, the Navman Trackfish 6600, the Simrad CX33-E, and the SI-TEX ColorMax Wide. We used C-Map cards covering South Florida in all of the machines.
How We Tested
All display units were mounted side-by-side on a portable wooden base. We used each unit’s accompanying mounting bracket. The rig was temporarily fixed to the leaning post on a 25-foot Contender, one of the powerboats we use for testing electronics at sea. On the first day, we reviewed each unit’s sounder. We used the transducers that were s.hipped with the units, mounting them temporarily on the test boat trim tabs. Evaluations were made over known bottom structure, including a large steel wreck, in depths from 2 to 125 feet. All sounder testing was done in 70-degree salt water. Sounders were rated on their ability to show bottom detail, their ease of use, and their array of features. Daytime viewability was also evaluated.
On the second day, we reviewed, operated, and rated each chartplotter. The easier and more intuitive a unit was to use, the higher the rating. We used each unit’s supplied GPS antenna to receive satellite position signals; all were mounted in close proximity to minimize variations in position data. As we cruised, we used each unit’s course predictor, entered waypoints, edited them, deleted them, and checked the man-overboard function. We also set up a short route to assess how easy it was to use this function.
As always, we reviewed and rated each unit’s display screen for viewability under a variety of conditions. We looked at them in bright sunlight, shade, near darkness, and at night. In the daylight, the tester looked at the screen from various angles, with and without polarized sunglasses, and from differing sun angles. During night testing, we paid particular attention to the quality and adjustability of the units’ backlighting.
Power usage of each unit was measured with a Sperry multi-meter with the sounder pinging away and the screen set at maximum daylight brightness.
Installing each unit requires mounting the display head, the transducer, the external antenna, plus running the necessary wiring.
Our test version of the Furuno GP-7000F was equipped with an external GPS antenna, an integral sounder, and a dual-frequency transducer. A large plastic mounting bracket ships with the GP-7000F. It is fastened with four screws, which held the display unit securely. Wiring for power and the transducer hook to the back of the display unit with multi-pin twist-lock connectors. The GPS antenna attaches with a threaded connector. For us, wiring was simply a matter of connecting the power wires to the source.
The Furuno screen has a landscape layout with a resolution of 234x480 pixels. We found the eight-level brightness control range to be adequate when used in conjunction with the four color palettes. In daylight conditions, the Furuno was easy to see, and we rated it Excellent. It showed no screen darkening when viewed through polarized sunglasses. We rated the screen Good for nighttime viewability.
Most functions are manipulated through page-specific, multi-layered menus or soft keys that have a different feel than previous Furuno products we’ve tested. Although it accepts Navionics charts, the GP-7000C software is tailored to take full advantage of the C-MapNT Max features. This Furuno is as fast or faster than any other unit in this test and definitely one of the fastest we’ve ever tested. Using the route, waypoint (wpt), and soft-key pushbuttons makes entering and manipulating waypoints and routes a simple and straightforward proposition. Names can be up to 12 characters long with an additional 13-character comment.
Other notable features include three soft-key-selectable map orientation settings, an adjustable course predictor line, and a display-mode page with 14 selectable pages that include 11 different split-screen formats.
The ability to display vital data—speed over ground (SOG), course over ground (COG), and water depth—in a large digital format for viewing from a distance is limited.
The GP-7000C’s internal sounder is rated to put out 600 or 1,000 watts depending on the transducer installed. We tested at the 600-watt power level using a transom-mount Airmar P66 dual-frequency transducer (50/200 kHz). Typical of other Furuno sounders we’ve tested, this one has all the features one could hope for, including a pair of automatic gain settings, auto and manual depth ranging, shift, marker zoom, bottom lock, bottom discrimination, and full-color A-scope.
Bottom Line: A bit on the high side price-wise ($1,644), the Furuno has good overall performance and a full two-year warranty.
JRC Plot 500F
The Plot 500F from Japan Radio Corp. that we tested was equipped with an external GPS sensor, an internal 600-watt sounder, and a dual-frequency transducer. The display unit can be mounted on the supplied metal bracket or flush-mounted using threaded holes on the back panel. We bracket-mounted the unit; the installation was easy and straightforward. Power wires, transducer cable, and the GPS antenna connect to the display unit with twist-lock connectors.
Diagonally, the screen measures 6.5 inches with a resolution of 234x320 in a portrait layout. Ten levels of control are available for screen brightness and contrast. On the plotter side, the JRC uses adjustable levels for land and sea areas in place of selectable color palettes.
The JRC garnered a Good rating on day viewability. Though it lacks the fine details of the higher-resolution displays, it is bright. We noticed little if any darkening when viewed with polarized sunglasses, but darkening does occur at angles nearing 45 degrees with and without polarized glasses. The JRC earned a Good rating for night viewing; it doesn’t dim quite as much as we’d like.
Common functions are controllable from dedicated pushbuttons or via the four soft keys, minimizing the need to enter multi-layered menus. Waypoints can be saved at the boat’s position with the joystick. Names can be up to eight characters, and a comment up to 23 can be added for further identification.
Other JRC features include an adjustable course predictor and a data page with SOG, COG, and water depth in large text, which we found easily readable at a distance of 10 feet. Screen redraws on the JRC can be slow, sometimes taking up to 5 seconds to totally redraw the map after a range change. However, unneeded map display data can be reduced by the user, and we’d expect this to speed up redraws. Certain data like tide information and satellite status is displayed over the top of the chart display. It was hard to read when the brightness and contrast settings were not adjusted properly.
The sounder has variable range marker, zoom, bottom zoom, bottom discrimination, A-scope, shift, and water temperature display. Gain level can be adjusted easily with the gain button and rotary enter knob. We like rotary knobs for quick manual- gain adjustments, and the Plot 500F maintains that traditional control. One feature on the JRC sounder we especially like and have not seen much on other units is the 5-foot stepped manual depth ranging. This feature, which is controlled by the rotary enter knob, allows you to adjust the depth in 5-foot increments from 0 to 5,000 feet—a feature usually only found on far more expensive machines. We rated the JRC sounder Good for presentation and Excellent for user interface.
We found the JRC on the web for $1,259 when equipped with a GPS112W sensor.
Bottom Line: This unit went out of production as we went to press, so some very good deals might appear soon. We’d choose another unit though if you can’t find a bargain on this one.
Navman Trackfish 6600
Navman, a subsidiary of Brunswick Corp., packages the Trackfish 6600 with the display unit, a GPS sensor, and a dual-frequency transducer. We mounted the display unit using the accompanying swivel bracket, which was a little wobbly side to side. Our preference would be to flush-mount it using the supplied hardware and threaded bushings in the rear panel. Connections to the Trackfish 6600 display are all made with color-coded factory-installed twist-lock connectors.
The Navman screen is nearly 7 inches on the diagonal but this measurement belies its true size. The high-resolution screen, with an 800x480 pixel count, measures more than 6 inches tall, about the same height as a 10-inch display. This makes for an impressive sounder or chart view in full-screen mode. The high pixel count makes everything on screen extremely sharp. Fifteen levels of brightness control took the Navman screen from one of the brightest in daylight to the darkest at nighttime. We were impressed and rated it Excellent during the day and Good at night. There was one quirk: At night, there was a loss of detail in the map when testers viewed the screen from the right side. This loss of detail did not take place when we looked at the screen from the left.
We found easy access to a well-laid-out main menu as well as numerous page-specific menus, which made operating the Navman very easy. Saving waypoints from the map page is a snap. One weakness we noticed is the short waypoint names: only eight characters are allotted.
Other operational highlights include split-screen sizes that can be quickly adjusted to any portion of the screen from 20 percent to 80 percent. Another is a data page with eight user-selectable boxes that we could see well from more than 10 feet away.
When using the Trackfish in sounder mode, the tall display really shows its stuff. It has almost twice the screen space devoted to showing the water column than the units with a landscape layout. The Navman’s 600-watt sounder features auto zoom, marker zoom, bottom discrimination, and a full-color A-scope. The A-scope function on the Trackfish is taken to the next level as it can be displayed over as much as 80 percent of the screen width and used for manual gain adjustment—great for anchoring. Though the Navman sounder lacks a few functions like shift and a full-height bottom lock, it more than makes up for this with its easy use and crisp, large screen. We rated it Excellent for both presentation and usability.
We found the Navman Trackfish 6600 on the web for $1,499.
Bottom Line: The Trackfish 6600’s sharply defined display and powerful yet user-friendly software make it our top pick.
We’ve always been impressed with the robust construction of the Simrad plotters and sounders we’ve tested, and the CE33-E holds up that tradition well. Our test unit came with a GPS antenna and a built-in sounder. An optional dual-frequency transducer completes the package. We mounted the display using the accompanying metal bracket; it held securely. Wires are connected to the rear of the case with twist-lock connectors. Access to the SimNet port (certified NMEA 2000) is on the rear panel, too. Simrad uses its own style connectors for this network but does offer cables with a SimNet connector on one end and a certified NMEA 2000 connector on the other.
Our test unit was equipped with a 6-inch color screen in landscape layout; resolution was at the lower end of our group: 320x240. Fifteen levels of screen brightness control and nine color palettes make for a wide range of screen-brilliance settings. Keypad brightness is adjusted separately. The CX33 screen performed well in sunlight, but it darkens a bit when viewed with polarized sunglasses. Details don’t appear as crisp on the Simrad as they do on some of the higher-resolution units. At night, we noted the CX33-E did not dim as far as the Navman, even with the night palette selected. We rated the Simrad Good for both day and night viewability.
Though the Simrad has outstanding hardware, its software is not as intuitive as some of the other units tested. Most others can be operated right out of the box without ever cracking open the manual. To run the Simrad, we needed to occasionally refer to the manual. Although the Simrad is a bit harder to use at first, its software sophistication, alphanumeric keypad, and abundance of dedicated function keys earn it a Good rating for user interface.
Simrad’s built-in sounder is rated at 600 watts, with features that include marker zoom, bottom lock, shift, and A-scope. The CX33-E sounder software utilizes an active cursor pad function that allows the user to adjust the gain without going into any menus. We like the easy access gain control.
Even though we found its menu system less user-friendly than some of the other units, the Simrad sounder earned a Good for user interface due to features like the active cursor. Presentation also was rated Good.
When equipped with a transom-mount transducer, the Simrad is $1,195 on the web.
Bottom Line: The Simrad has a slightly smaller and significantly lower resolution screen than some of the better units, plus its software is not as easy to learn.
SI-TEX ColorMax Wide
The ColorMax Wide chartplotter is paired with the SI-TEX ES502 black box sounder to provide both plotting and sounder capabilities. It can also accept radar inputs from a SI-TEX radar sensor. Additional equipment in our test package included an external GPS sensor and a dual-frequency transducer; the unit is also available with an internal GPS antenna. The ColorMax Wide comes with a quick-release bracket that allows easy removal of the display without fooling around with any wiring or connectors. A nice feature but, in our opinion, the bracket is a little wobbly. Flush mounting is another option and can be easily accomplished using the threaded holes on the rear panel. Installation wiring is more complicated because of its black box sounder, which needs to be mounted in a spray-free environment. Several small wires need to be connected from the display mount to the antenna and the sounder.
The SI-TEX uses a landscape layout, measures 7 inches on the diagonal, and carries a resolution of 480x324. It has six levels of brightness and 11 levels of contrast control. Using a combination of these controls and one of the four selectable color palettes provides more than ample management of the screen brilliance in day or night conditions. When viewing the unit with polarized sunglasses, our tester noted no screen darkening. We rated the ColorMax 6 Excellent for both day and night viewability.
Selecting a present position waypoint with the ColorMax Wide takes a tad longer than on some of the other machines. Placing the cursor on a waypoint brings up soft-key functions to move, delete, edit, and go to that waypoint. Routes with up to 50 waypoints can be built right on the map page with the cursor and enter key. You can easily modify the route on the map page. Waypoints and routes can also be entered using a computer and C-Map’s PC planner software ($179).
Other plotter highlights include two map orientations, an easy-to-see course predictor line, and adjustable data boxes. Limited split-screen capability and less-than-friendly software hold this unit back.
The SI-TEX ES502 black box sounder has dual-frequency capability (50/200 kHz), 500 or 1,000 watts of output power, zoom, full-color A-scope, shift, and water temperature display. To select the sounder screen from the map page, you must go deep into the menu system. The soft keys for the sounder—gain, noise, and range—become active when the unit is displaying the sounder in full screen, or when the sounder is the active window in a split-screen display. There is no fast way to select full or split-screen sounder. The sounder worked best when we operated it in manual modes; auto gain and depth ranging did not work very well, in our estimation. When compared to the other test units, the ES502 only managed a Fair rating for ease of use and a Good rating for presentation.
We found a package consisting of the ColorMax Wide, the ES502 black box sounder, and a transducer priced at $1,253.
Bottom Line: While price makes this an attractive entry point to black-box systems, this unit did not stand out in this particular test.
The Navman screen is impressive and so is its software. Navman products haven’t always performed well in our testing, but the company has hit a home run with the Trackfish 6600. We especially like the tall screen for sounder usage and the ease with which the split screen sizes can be changed. Its moderate price and full two-year warranty are pluses.
Furuno garners our second choice with some improvements over previous units tested. We like the longer waypoint names and lightning-fast screen redraws. The Furuno sounder has all the features one could ask for, but it’s the priciest of the bunch.
The JRC and Simrad were running, neck-and-neck, but the Simrad takes the Budget Buy title because it costs less and will be more readily available since the JRC production has ceased.
• Furuno, 360/834-9300, www.furuno.com
• JRC, 206/654-5644, www.jrcamerica.com
• Navman, 800/628-4487, www.navman.com
• Simrad, 425/778-8821, www.simradusa.com
• SI-TEX, 727/576-5734, www.si-tex.com