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Electronics

Where To?

The four units displayed in my test lab below—ranging from the diminutive 440 all the way up to the touch-screen 5212—are a good representation of the five multifunction series that Garmin rolled out this year. Actually there are some 20 new models within those series, depending on what's included in terms of charts and functions like sounder and XM weather/radio and how you count them. But let's leave it to the poor buggers in the company's marketing department, and the limitless word space of my blog Panbo, to parse them all, so I can focus here on the bigger picture. Let's start with what Garmin taught me about electronic navigation.

The “Where To?” key leads to destination info, then a guided path or even a traditional route.

Friends, bench testing and boating with the new Garmins got me thinking that despite all the amazing multifunction advances that we have seen, we're still a bit stuck in the world of printed charts and parallel rules. Take the essential process of laying out a route. Well, I've always thought the drill—"first I'll steer xxx out to that buoy, then change course to..."—to be essential. Back in the chart-and-pencil days, it was critically important to think out a trip if there was any chance of a navigational misadventure along the way. The essential issues at hand were "Where's a safe path?" and "How can I assure myself that I'm on it?"

Today constant GPS plotting certainly helps with the latter concern, and click-on-the-chart route creation certainly eases the planning process. But ask plotter manufacturers what they find on units returned for service…typically few routes or waypoints! And that's despite the badgering of old navigation instructors such as me. The truth is that these days, many boaters, particularly newer ones, use electronics to muddle along, and it usually works out. Yet navigational misadventures still happen.

Note how a touched key gives color change feedback.

I think the problem is that "where's the safe path?" is more about the process, a process once constrained to leg-by-leg calculations, than the goal. The real first question ought to be "Where to?", just like the Home screen of all these new Garmins suggests. The company's engineers obviously started with a clean slate, not to mention feedback from millions of boating and driving customers. And car routing, mind you, lacks the hoary traditions of the maritime variety, and the know-it-all instructors. Punching that "Where To?" button begins a novel, and enticing, process.

First you receive a list of possibilities: fuel, repairs, other services, etc. Select your category, and get back specific POIs starting with the closest. Drill down, and you're presented helpful information usually including phone numbers, VHF channels monitored, and even location chartlets. Contemplate your choices—maybe use the XM feature to check the weather en route—and then go to the three "Navigate To" options.

The first is "Go To," the basic single leg bearing/distance function found on every plotter (and that so many muddle along with). But "Route To" surprises, putting you at your destination with a rubber-band-like course line that you can easily zoom in and out of, snapping down waypoints as appropriate. Capt. Cook couldn't picture this process, but once you try it, I think you'll like it. Then there's "Guide To," during which you simply enjoy the scenery while the Garmin examines soundings, bridge heights, etc. against your boat's relevant dimensions and then paints a suggested path to your destination. It's not a real route—no way is Garmin going to decide where to point your autopilot—but you can build a route on it or just drive along it, checking, of course, that the brainy but blind microprocessor did you right.

Actually you won't see the "Guide To" option unless there's a G2 Vision card stuck in the plotter, just like you won't see any fishfinding options on the stand-alone units unless there's a transducer plugged in. This, like "Where To," contributes to a friendly, natural interface, but be warned that the designers have made the optional chart cards quite seductive, even if they don't hammer you with the features you don't yet have.

The Mariner's Eye 3-D view includes AIS overlay and shallows highlighted with hot colors.

Consider Mariner's Eye 3-D, for instance. There's already a plain Mariner's Eye perspective view built into the Garmins, and I find it useful as an adjunct window to a regular 2-D chart, much as I've found the elaborate 3-D views in other products to be valuable accessories. But ME 3-D, which uses elevation details on the Vision card to build over- and underwater perspective, and includes never-seen-before features like hot colors marking shallows and 3-D radar overlay, may finally be the right mix for a primary nav screen. Sorry, Capt. Cook, but the world is 3-D, and given the right presentation, that's the way to navigate it.

ME 3-D is also where I came across one of several undocumented, even unheralded, minifeatures. Navigation aids blink their actual characteristics and do it in a more realistic way than the C-Map Max product that originated this nifty detail. But there have been some negative surprises, too. The worst was excitedly plugging a network of NMEA 2000 sensors into the 4212 only to learn that so far Garmin only supports N2K engine input, and no output. And though the networked displays each generously offer four NMEA 0183 inputs, they don't understand, or can't calculate, a lot of data fields that, say, a Raymarine C- or E-Series can.

Garmin promises to add full NMEA 2000 support eventually and will no doubt be improving the whole line for years to come, all the faster as so much is similar bottom to top. Even that little 440 can show XM weather (and does it surprisingly well). But there are drawbacks to this unified approach. The minimal-key, hierarchal interface can lead to so much button pushing on the smaller units that we may eventually know Garmin owners by their overdeveloped right thumbs! I joke, and no doubt shortcuts will be developed, but note that this very same interface works quite well when used with the 4000 Series' eight soft keys and absolutely sings when manipulated by fingers.

Though I've only touched on a fraction of what's noteworthy about this massive new marine line, I hope I've made the point that Garmin is breaking interesting new ground. But it really did start with a blank slate, and a potential buyer shouldn't count on any particular features to work the way they do on many other displays, even older Garmins. And, as noted, some expected features like N2K are essentially unfinished. Finally, the bigger, rosier picture: Garmin is nowhere near finished with its marine makeover. For instance, it purchased innovative autopilot manufacturer Nautamatic last spring and says the fruit of that union, and more, will be revealed in November at the tradeshow METS. I'll be there and won't be surprised if I learn something.

ELECTRONICS Q&A

What do you think of using a splitter to receive AIS with an existing VHF antenna?—S.M., via e-mail

Frankly, I'm suspect of any antenna splitting, even VHF and FM, because there is inevitable signal loss, at least a little. Plus the active splitter needed for an AIS receiver typically costs more than $100, and you will not receive target information when you're transmitting, which could make a tense moment tenser. Then again, your boat may have a backup VHF and antenna already installed, and using that stick for AIS makes more sense. There are also AIS receivers like Raymarine's AIS250 that have a splitter efficiently built right in.

But bear in mind that since AIS only uses two close-together frequencies at the high end of the VHF band, an antenna tuned specifically to about 162 MHz works better than one of equal power and quality that's tuned to the middle of the whole 156- to 162-MHz band. Many manufacturers offer such AIS antennas in various sizes and dB levels. Even ACR's relatively petite and inexpensive 3.5-foot AIS whip antenna (seen above) has performed well in field testing. Also, AIS antenna height is not quite the issue it is for voice and DSC communications, where you'd like the maximum range possible. And the optimal way to avoid AIS interference from your VHF is to mount the AIS antenna directly below the VHF's. If they must be on the same horizontal plane, then ideally they should be at least 30 feet apart. Such precautions will pay off even more later, if and when you decide to step up to a full Class A transponder or the Class Bs that will soon be available (or so I keep predicting).

Got a marine electronics question? Write to Electronics Q&A, Power & Motoryacht, 261 Madison Ave., 6th Fl., New York, NY 10016. Fax: (212) 915-4328. e-mail PMYElectronics@primedia.com. For fastest response, visit the PMY Electronics forum. No phone calls, please.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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