Best Marine Handheld, Portable and Fixed Mount GPS Systems Review

Posted by
Ryan Peters
Updated by
Bill Miller
Last updated:
May 1, 2021

You know it wasn't so long ago that it was pretty difficult for mariners to figure out where they were in the world. They either had to use celestial navigation or they had to use an electronic means of navigation most of which had drawbacks of one sort or another. Now with GPS you can find yourself with great precision, literally anywhere in the world. You know in 1990 we were introduced to the first practical personal GPS, and I have an old Nav 1000 Plus from Magellan. I remember going to the boat show in Chicago and seeing this for the first time it was being sold for the remarkably low price of two thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars. And it's a pretty basic unit. Well things have certainly changed since then. We like to divide the world of GPS's up into three different categories: we have handheld devices, portable devices, and fixed mount devices. In the following buyer's guide to GPS or Global Positioning System we're going to go through each of those three types so that you can figure out what's best for you.

Versatile Portable Handheld GPS

So our first category of GPS are portables or handhelds. One of the advantages of portables is that they're not reliant on the ship's battery power for operation. Although virtually all of them allow you to connect two 12-volt power cords should you want to run off of 12 volts. They offer a small display (for example a daylight readable color display which is really legible), internal antenna so there are no wires to connect to any other parts of the boat and an amazing amount of functionality. With a handheld GPS, you can plot routes, you can go to individual waypoints, you can look up the tides, you can slip in different map cartridges for different areas of the world. I mean it's extremely versatile. And in fact if you wanted to you could connect a cable to this small device and have it make your autopilot go directly to a waypoint. The disadvantage - it has a pretty small screen and if you're using it frequently having a larger screen that's mounted permanently is more it's easier to use. But one of the nice things is the portability if you want to go on a trip or go on somebody else's boat or if you want to sit upon the rail and make sure that your skipper is driving to the waypoint, you can put this in your pocket, it's very portable and gets a fix extremely fast. Models like this range anywhere from roughly a hundred dollars up to the five hundred dollar range depending on their features. for a hundred dollars you'll get a monochrome unit that doesn't have any maps built into it. As you go up into $200 you'll start getting a cartographic unit that shows your maps and maybe for $300 or so you'll start to get a color display. Whichever one you choose they're tremendous values. The second category of GPS is what I like to call portables. Now while this is a handheld unit, it's a little bit too big to be held comfortably for long periods of time. It comes with two different brackets - one that you can put on the dashboard of a car and one which you can bolt to a boat or put to some other fixed location. It also comes with a couple of different power cords so that you can plug it into 12-volt power or you can use the internal batteries in the back it has a lithium-ion battery pack which is good for many hours of operation. So what do you get when you go up to a more sophisticated portable unit you get a six-inch display so it's quite a bit easier to read and charts especially need lots of space to be easily interpreted it also has a touchscreen operation so you just use your finger as the user input device. That allows you to pan and to zoom and to choose waypoints and to enter information, all with your fingertip. So that's a really nice feature. Now there aren't a lot of different GPS models in this portable category but it's a nice combination of portability and also big enough that you might want to use it as your permanent GPS on a vessel. The models like this have one other feature which is that it has a full US database built-in, so when you snap this into the automotive bracket, it automatically turns into the equivalent of a six-inch Nuvi car navigation system. So it's equally at home on the water with the full coastal mapping of the United States or in your car with full land-based mapping for driving to destinations. So this GPS map is a really versatile device and it fills in the gap between the handheld devices and the fixed mount devices.

Small Fixed-Mount GPS

When you move up to a fixed mount unit the smallest size is generally around 4 inches diagonal measurement. But one of our most popular ones is a 5-inch fixed-mount device. I have a 546-S from Garmin. This is not a touchscreen display so we've got a series of buttons down the side. Garmin has really simplified the user interface here so there's a relatively few buttons and they're very consistent in their operation. And you get a combination of a cartographic display down here as well as useful digital information on top. Now this particular model is available as a chart plotter sonar or just a chart plotter and our recommendation - always including if you've got a sailboat or almost any boat is to get the sonar model because it doesn't cost that much more and it's really got some great features. So what do you get - a fully waterproof display, obviously daylight readable, color and various variations on it, have full cartographic coverage of the United States. So that means there's no chart cartridges that you have to buy, it comes built into the unit. So it's a really good value. Now if you want incremental performance Garmin offers something called the G2 vision card and the G2 vision card allows you to have better underwater contours and sort of different perspectives of the view that you're looking at. But that's an option you don't actually need to have it if you want it it's a couple of hundred dollars and you can plug it in and it fantastic. So as I mentioned in addition to having the normal functions it also has a full function sonar. I'm used to using the touchscreen so it's easy to want to do that and here we have a 200-kilohertz sonar showing us at sixteen points seven feet deep and this will go to someplace in the six hundred to a thousand-foot range depending on the type of water, the temperature of the water, the amount of turbulence. So the 546-S is a great example of a small fixed-mount GPS.

Larger Fixed-Mount GPS with Daylight Readable Display

Finally, our last category our larger fixed mount units, like the GPS map 740 from Garmin. In this case you get a seven-inch diagonal display, which is really easy to read, daylight readable of course, fully waterproof enclosure. It's also a touchscreen model so that you don't have any buttons you just use your finger to change. it but what's nice is that it's not only a GPS chart plotter, so that it can show you maps of the world and it can lie to navigate any number of ways. But it also has a built-in sounder. So if you put a transducer on the bottom of your boat, you can use it for a high-quality sonar, as well as a GPS. And on a boat where I have a limited amount of room in my helm area, I don't really have space for a second instrument, so this really works well in this rib. The display again is fully color, it's daylight readable, very easy to use, and as I want to change things I just changed the screen. I can go to different perspective views of the vessel this is what they call Mariners i3d, which is sort of a downward-looking view or I can pull up sonar and look at a full-screen picture. It has incredible features. I actually took this out to the Monterey Bay Canyon and was getting reliable readings at a thousand feet and that's using a transducer about that big. So it's an excellent sonar but more importantly, it's an excellent GPS, so if you're out the fog comes in and you're trying to find your way home. The GPS map 740s is a great choice. So as you can see GPS has come off long ways in the last 20 years from $3,000 handhelds with no maps and no graphics to these modern handhelds, portables, and fixed-mount units. I forgot to mention one thing about the 740s. The 740s in addition to having the sonar also has the ability to plug in a radar so you have all three functions in a single touchscreen seven-inch display. But that brings up the next topic - there's a whole raft of products from Raymarine and Lawrence and Garmin and other manufacturers that are network displays. These allow you to have one or more displays in various places of the boats in a variety of sensors - radar, GPS, sonar, weather, video inputs, and all host of other functions. That's really the ultimate that it's for a larger boat.

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