Today’s onboard electronics can be a dizzying mix of useful and sophisticated technology with capabilities that boggle the mind. At the heart of any good system there should be a quality chart plotter that allows the navigator quick and easy access to charts, waypoints, routes and overall situational awareness. Fortunately, there are plenty of chart plotters available and selecting the right one for you is a matter of determining which features best fit your needs.
There are several factors to be taken into account when selecting a chart plotter including the size of the display along with how and where it will be mounted. Do you require multiple displays that interface with one another, or a stand-alone unit? In which area will you be boating and what charts do you require? What type of screen would you prefer and do you want other features on your chart plotter such as radar, sounder, video input or even engine data? One man’s bells and whistles can be another man’s necessity.
Size Does Matter
It is generally recommended that chart plotter consumers should select the largest screen size that helm real estate and the wallet will permit. If you take an average sized NOAA paper chart, reduce it and segment it to fit into a small screen size, you will quickly realize that bigger is better. The larger the screen the less zooming and panning will be necessary. And for those of us needing glasses, bigger screens are simply easier to see. Chart plotters are commonly available with screens as small as four inches to as large as the largest widescreen TV. The common and popular sizes for most craft are in the 4, 5, 9, 10, 12, 15 and 19 inch sizes, measured diagonally across the screen. Prices jump incrementally with every inch so a balance between size and cost is advised. Screens used in most marine chart plotters are high-grade displays, with high pixel counts and bright backlights, that allow easy viewing in bright sunlight and when wearing polarized sunglasses. Another factor to determine screen size is to remember that most chart plotters are now multi-function displays – meaning they will display a lot more than just charts and include things like depth, radar, weather or other information. This may result in using split screens to show different data.
What you want displayed on your plotter along with your charts will also help narrow down your choices. Some plotters are stand-alone, others may have a sounder built in (usually for not much more money than stand-alone units). They may also have the capability of plugging in radar, video and black box modules. Manufacturers such as Lowrance’s HDS Gen2 Touch series have chart plotters that have sophisticated sounders built in, with down and side sonar imaging along with radar plug-in capability, as does Garmin in its new line of 10, 8 and 7 inch GPSMap XS series chart plotters. Larger units such as Simrad’s NSS or NSE series displays; Raymarine’s E series, or Furuno’s Navnet TZ units, are available in screen sizes 12 inch or larger, give more sophisticated networking capability, with multiple display possibilities, repeating charts and information between them. Many of these larger plotters add features such as sounders by adding black box modules that tie into the network, increasing capability and cost.
Most manufacturers now offer some kind of wireless networking to a tablet or smartphone with their mid and high-end plotters. Some newer manufacturers’ applications will turn your tablet or phone into a full functioning remote rather than just a repeating monitor. This can be useful for trip planning while in your cabin or sitting comfortably in the salon or cockpit enjoying a sundowner. An example would be Simrad’s GoFree wireless system composed of a wireless transmitter that is connected to one of its chart plotters and a GoFree app that is downloaded from the Android Market or iTunes. The tablet can then, theoretically, act as a remote second station.
Many chart plotters are now being offered with touch screens along with software that replicates the tablets we are so familiar with. Not all touch screen units are the same, however, and it is recommended to get your hands on one (pun intended) and try it for yourself. With some plotters you may find icons are small and hard to hit in a rocking boat. Operating systems vary in logic and use, and features such as pinch to zoom may be available only on some models and not others. Definitely try before you buy to find the system that is the most fluid for you. Touch screens are proving to be pretty robust and are a quick and easy way to get around pages and functions on chart plotters. Doing away with many buttons, some of the new chart plotters with touch screens are now going with an all-glass look, lacking bezels, and can be flush mounted, giving a sleek, uncluttered and futuristic look to your helm.
Probably one of the most important and most often overlooked features of a chart plotter is the cartography it is able to use. Some manufacturers use proprietary cartography based on their own surveys along with raster and vector charts from various sources. Garmin is one such manufacturer and offers Blue Chart g2 Vision cartography that allows for auto-routing capability (set up the plotter with your draft and overhead clearance and just move the curser on the chart to where you want to go and it creates a safe route for you automatically), along with many other features. Manufacturers such as the Navico group utilize Navionics software. Some of their units are even able to record sounder information and manual entries to a storage card and then upload it to the Navionics website, creating detailed custom bathometric charts with user data filling in and adding detail. Other manufacturers such as Furuno, Standard Horizon and Hummingbird can utilize Jeppesen C-map cartography. Jeppesen is now offering C-Map 4D cartography. This cartography includes raster and vector chart capabilities with 3D charting, easy routing (Jeppesen’s routing capability is possible when boat parameters are entered), and satellite imagery. You can even add on by purchasing separately highly detailed bathometric and fishing charts. Before investing in a chart plotter, it is a good idea to research the cartography that is preloaded or the charts that can be purchased and added. Certain charts may be better for your proposed boating area than other manufacturers’ charts. This is especially true if boating internationally. Do your homework so you won’t be disappointed.
As time passes chart plotters are getting faster, more powerful with larger memories, processors and instruction manuals (or PDF files). By doing your homework and deciding what you want from your chart plotter and how it should perform, you will get the right one to help you navigate with confidence.
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Glenn Hayes is a freelance photographer and writer living in West Central Florida. Specializing in marine and location photography, his work covers commercial, editorial and fine art work. www.HayesStudios.com