Ten years ago, trying to purchase the right GPS (global positioning satellite) unit was just a bit short of "rocket science." Questions like, "Do I purchase a single-channel receiver, a dual-channel receiver, a multiplexing receiver, or a five-channel-parallel receiver?" became major decisions. To confuse the consumer further, ads would show a single-channel receiver that could track eight satellites. Or how about, "Do I need a plotter screen?" and "What's a plotter screen?"
Electronics continue to get better and cheaper. In the case of hand-held GPS units, models that cost $500 ten years ago, today can be purchased (with more features) for $150. New units do more and they do it better. Mapping units? They didn't even exist.
This is a review of three top-end hand-held units, all with the capability to add high-detail mapping. The units are the Garmin GPSMAP 76S, the Lowrance iFINDER, and the Magellan Meridian Platinum. Each unit has been on the market for at least six months. I spent serious time with each unit, but don't presume that I've discovered all their secrets. Each unit performs well. Consumers, in my opinion, will have to base their purchase decision on the comparative features that appeal to them. It may be how waypoints are saved, the map detail, the variety of mapping CDs, the amount of memory, or the look and feel of the unit.
Similarities exist in all these units because of their basic function, which is to determine specific location for the purpose of navigation. All have twelve-channel parallel receivers. Waypoints are saved and recalled. Routes can be created. Several pages or screen choices are available. A variety of formats for writing coordinates exists. The units are WAAS capable. Each unit weighs about eight ounces and runs on two AA batteries. Running time is about ten hours, depending on how the unit is used. I highlight here, unique features or particularly impressive features of each unit.
Receiver Strength: The receivers were checked in several locations, at different times, over several days. They were checked indoors in my office. They were placed in a horizontal or flat position indoors, similar to their position in a boat or on a car seat. Again they were placed indoors in an upright position, at 60 degrees to the horizontal. (Note: Garmin and Magellan indicate that for best performance their receivers should point at the sky rather than the horizon). The receivers were also placed in heavy tree cover and out under the open sky. All the receivers preformed well. In the indoor tests, the iFINDER acquired position the fastest.
Screen Quality: All screens were easy to read in sunlight, shade, and at night. The GPSMAP 76S was a bit sharper, with its 180 x 240 pixel screen, than the other units which have 120 x 160 pixel screens.
Uploadable memory: All three units were capable of transferring detailed mapping information with a computer from CD-ROMs. The iFINDER and Meridian Platinum use MMC cards or SD cards. The iFINDER and the Meridian Platinum can load up to 128 MB of memory. The GPSMAP 76S has 24 MB of internal memory.
Background or base map: All the maps were adequate. They showed main roads and bodies of water. The iFINDER and Meridian Platinum had better lake detail; the GPSMAP 76S had more road information.
Waypoint Storage: The iFINDER stores 1,000 waypoints and 1,000 separate icons called "event markers." The icons or event markers on the iFINDER can be placed on the map independent of waypoints. The GPSMAP 76S and Meridian Platinum store 500 waypoints with icons attached to waypoints.
Garmin GPSMAP 76S: Garmin offers a variety of MapSource CDs. The GPSMAP 76S can use Garmin's MapSource Metro Guide, Blue Chart, Fishing Hot Spots, and U.S.Topo. The Metro Guide CD contains highway information, city streets restaurants, hotels, and a lot more city information. The Roads and Recreation CD shows cities, towns, rural roads, navaids, and more. Searches for "Points of Information (POI)" can be done. Phone numbers and address of businesses, government buildings, and more are available. City streets can be looked up. The Topo CD shows terrain contour and elevation information along with lake and reservoir shorelines. The Hot Spots Map CD shows contour lines and suggested fishing spots for selected lakes in different parts of the country.
Lowrance iFINDER: The iFINDER uses Lowrance's MapCreate 6. The Map Create 6 program comes with two CDs, U.S. East and U.S. West. The CDs provide detailed information on rural roads, highways, cities, and streets. A marine database provides information about navigation, obstructions, and wrecks. POI searches can be done for street addresses, business, government buildings, and more. Unique features for the MapCreate 6 program include the ability to choose your own POIs to be downloaded to a MMC. In other words, a custom map can be created with only the details of your choosing. The "Corridors" feature allows the traveler to create a 20- to 40-mile corridor along selected highways on a trip. This saves memory space since you're not covering a large "block" of territory. Travel information for the selected route can be displayed.
Magellan Meridian Platinum: Magellan's MapSend series of CD's include MapSend Streets & Destinations, MapSend Topoand BlueNav XL Charts. Streets & Destinations is similar to the MapCreate 6 program and the Metro Streets and Roads and Recreation combination. MapSend Streets & Destination, like the previously mentioned programs, has a huge database of points of interest. Streets, businesses, government buildings, and much more can be searched in the data base and displayed on the screen. The BlueNav Charts provide marine cartography, navigation information, currents, tides and more. A Woodall's Campground Database is included in both Streets & Destinations and Topo. Point of interest information can be turned off or on in the unit so only features of your choosing are displayed on the screen. The Topo program includes a 3-D database, contour lines, and elevation profiles.
(Note: For general comparisons, the databases of the Streets and Destinations program and the MapCreate 6 program appear to be similar to a combination of MetroGuide and Roads and Recreation.)
Special Navigation Features: The GPSMAP 76S and Meridian Platinum both have an electronic compass and a barometric altimeter. Vertical elevation profiles can be displayed. Hunters and backpackers may find this feature useful.
Waterproofing: The GPSMAP 76S and the Meridian Platinum are waterproof to IPX 7. Both of these units float in water. The iFINDER is water resistant to IPX 2 standards and does not float.
Celestial Information: The GPSMAP 76S can display tide-station information, best hunting and fishing times, sun and moon rise and set, and temperature. The Meridian Platinum displays best hunting and fishing times, sun and moon rise and set, and a weather screen showing pressure and temperature. The iFINDER displays sun and moon rise and set.
Text Size: GPSMAP 76S offers a choice of text size in data boxes. The Meridian Platinum comes with reasonably large numbers on some screens. Both are easy to read. The iFINDER has the smallest print, which could cause a problem for some users.
GPSMAP 76S: Suggested retail price of the unit is $482. The price of different CDs varies. The MetroGuide CD and the Roads and Recreation CD have a suggested retail price of $116. The Hot Spots Map CD and the Blue Waters Chart CD are locked CDs. When you purchase them, you can choose one region to download. Additional regions require an extra charge.
iFINDER: Suggested retail price is $199. Suggested retail price for the MapCreate 6 program is $199. The suggested retail price of the iFINDER Plus, which includes the unit and MapCreate 6 program is $329. TNo topo programs or offshore charts are available.
Meridian Platinum: Suggested retail price is $400. The MapSend CDs have a suggested retail price of $150.
Lowrance has an emulator on their website that can be downloaded to a computer. The iFINDER appears on the computer screen. The iFINDER can run through all its features by clicking on the function keys. This is a good way for shoppers to explore features. The iFINDER has an Easy Mode and Advanced Mode. By selecting the Easy Mode only basic operating functions are available in the menu, simplifying the learning process. It also has a help function. The Meridian Platinum comes with a simple Quick Start manual and a help function to help the user become familiar with the unit. The GPSMAP 76S has a well laid out, illustrated manual. All the units became easy to use with a little practice.
Conclusion: These are three excellent units. As with most purchases, price and features play a determining role. Dollarwise, the best buy may be the iFINDER, if you are willing to sacrifice some features. If topo maps, lake contour maps, additional navigation features such as compass and altimeter are required functions, then the GPSMAP 76S and Meridian Platinum are good choices.
More information on-line: www.garmin.com; www.lowrance.com; www.magellangps.com.