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Marine GPS Units. Which One Will Work The Best For You?

Updated on October 7, 2014

Sailing—it’s one of the most exciting, yet relaxing activities one can be fortunate enough to take part in. Sailing is an invigorating way to spend quality time with friends and family whether you are enjoying a light lunch while taking in the vastness of the water that surrounds you or simply passing the time away, solo, on a lazy afternoon where the rest of the world seems to fade into obscurity.

If you’ re new to the whole sport of sailing, there are two gadgets you should never be without—a marine GPS and a marine VHF radio, both of which should be waterproof. It’s important to know, as far as the radio is concerned, VHF channel 16 is the channel that the Coast Guard and other authorities monitor. This channel will, also, provide important weather conditions and forecasts.

If you are in the market to purchase a marine GPS device, there are a number of different models available, but breaking them down should help clarify which type of GPS will work the best for you.

Marine GPS—Which Unit Is Best For You?

There are three categories of marine GPS devices: 1) handheld varieties—shaped much like a cell phone 2) portable varieties—usually rectangular, in shape, that look like a miniature TV and 3) fixed-mounted varieties. Knowing a bit about each type will help you narrow your search.

1: Handheld GPS Units:

Light-weight, handheld marine GPS devices are extremely handy since they are not dependent on the ship’s battery power in order to operate. Almost all handheld versions will allow you, however, to connect to a 12-volt power cord if you so desire. These smaller devices offer undersized display screens which, with most styles, offer daylight color read-outs that are very legible, internal antenna and an impressive amount of features and functions. You can plot routes, look up tides, insert map cartridges for different areas of the world and much more. Versatility is the name of the game! You even have the option to connect a cable to a handheld version to enable your auto pilot go directly to a waypoint.

If one were to bring up any disadvantages of a handheld version, the small size of the screen might be annoying for some skippers. If a GPS were to be used frequently, a larger screen would, certainly, be a better choice. Portability, however, is a big plus with a handheld device since it goes wherever you go, can slip easily into a pocket and will work perfectly if you were to board someone else’s boat.

2: Portable GPS Units:

Even though the ‘handheld’ version that was previously discussed is, indeed, a portable unit, “portables”, per se, aren’t designed to be held continually like a handheld version which is designed to fit perfectly into the palm of one’s hand. Portable GPS devices come with brackets that you may or may not choose to use to mount the device. Accompanying cords are available to plug into 12-volt power or you can use the internal batteries that are good for hours of dependable operation.

The screens of ‘portables’ are significantly larger than the screens of the handheld versions; and the 6-inch screens, as an example, are much easier to read than the smaller screens found on handheld varieties. Touch-screen operations are another amenity of ‘portables’ where you can pan and zoom and enter information with the simple use of one’s fingertip.

Portable versions are large enough to be used as a permanent GPS device on a vessel. Some models even have the capability of quickly transforming into a land GPS, making those select models even more versatile!

3: Fixed-Mount GPS Units:

The screen-size in smaller fixed mount GPS devices are about 4 inches. Typically, with fixed-mount GPS units, there are no chart cartridges you need to purchase since that needed information is built-in. One nice option with fixed mount versions includes detailed water contours with various visual perspectives. A full-function sonar is another nicety where water depths of up to 1,000 feet can be determined dependent on water temperature, water turbulence etc.

Larger fixed-mount units come with at least 6 to 7-inch screens that provide finger-touch ease of use and optimal, visual clarity. Not only are larger models ‘chart plotters’ that will display maps of the world, but larger versions provide built-in sounders which means you can use the device as a high-quality sonar (even up to a 1,000 feet deep) in addition to a GPS. To the surprise of many, some larger units are even radar capable!

Global Positioning Devices are invaluable tools for any skipper after pulling out of the marina—whether novice or seasoned. And when the fog comes in and you can’t see what’s in front of you, your GPS device will make sure you get to your destination safe and sound!


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