Chart Plotters

Chart Plotters Buying Guide And 3 Top Recommendations

While many people are familiar with Global Positioning System (GPS) units, quite a significant number are unaware that there is a stark difference between GPS units designed for marine use and those designed for outdoor or automotive use.

Drivers use automotive GPS units to guide them while driving and particularly in unfamiliar places. In most cases, these units are fixed on the vehicle’s windshield or dashboard. They also include features such as preloaded maps and more advanced features such as the capability to obtain vital traffic data.

Outdoor GPS units, on the other hand, are designed specifically for use in outdoor situations. They are therefore ideal for hikers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. These units are normally light and portable to make it easier for outdoor enthusiasts to carry them effortlessly. The greatest feature of outdoor GPS units is their strong satellite reception. They may also include safety-related features such as allowing the user to contact emergency services easily.

GPS units designed for marine use are better known as chart plotters. These units are often larger and more complex than units designed for automotive and outdoor use. As such, they combine the positional accuracy of automotive units and the strong reception of outdoor GPS units.

Some chart plotters may also include special features such as the ability to provide information on the weather as well as accommodating and enhancing maritime communication. With the help of chart plotters, ships can learn their exact locations and positions whenever on the move. Many marine experts agree that chart plotters are indispensable and critical for navigation in large bodies of water.

Buying Guide for Chart Plotters

Buying Guide for Chart Plotters

When selecting GPS units for marine use, one must consider some key factors. These include;

1. Size, Display and User Interface

This is one of the most under-looked and at the same time, one of the most important considerations anyone hoping to purchase a chart plotter has to consider. The size of the screen is an especially important factor as it determines the amount of information displayed as well as the ease of reading the information even from a distance. It is essential to note that while compact chart plotters come in handy when used in tight spaces, many have the disadvantage of a small screen. Experts recommend buying units with screens that are at least 5 inches.

Apart from paying attention to the size of the screen, it is also important to factor in the pixel count of the units in question. According to experts units with higher pixel counts have greater resolutions. However, in most cases, units with high resolutions are also more expensive. Buyers of chart plotters should also consider any features that may help improve display, e.g. backlighting.

Experts recommend getting a device that is easy to use and easy to understand while using. Buyers should avoid devices that are too confusing or too difficult to use.

2. Construction

An equally important factor to consider is the build of the chart plotter. These gadgets are designed for use in marine applications which means that the gadget may come into contact with water at any time. Ultimately, it is of paramount importance for anyone buying a chart plotter unit to ensure that the unit is constructed durably.

To determine the water resistance capabilities of a unit, one should look out for the International Protection Code (IPX) or Japanese Industry Standard (JIS) ratings. A rating of 4 is considered resistant to a few drops of water while a rating of between 5 and six is seen as resistant to splashes and sprays of water. However, such units cannot survive submersion.

Many experts recommend getting a unit with a rating of at least 5 or 6. Anyone looking for higher ratings of between 7 and eight may have to spend a little bit extra to get these units. Units with a rating of 7 can withstand as long as half an hour of submersion. GPS units with a rating of 8 are considered the most water resistant. The construction of the chart plotter is critical as it determines the durability and longevity of the gadget.

3. Budget

This is perhaps one of the most critical factors to consider when looking for chart plotters. As noted in the above sections, the prices of marine GPS units often have significant differences based on the size of the unit and even the features included in the unit. The more complex the chart plotter is, the more expensive it is.

4. Power and Transducer

Chart plotter shoppers must also factor in the power of the gadgets in question as well as the size of the transducer. Power is stated in watts, and it plays a huge role in determining the depth capacity as well as the accuracy of the GPS unit. For example, chart plotters of between 100 watts and 300 watts are ideal for anglers fishing in waters that are at most 200 feet deep.

Transducers are electronic devices whose core function is to convert energy from one form to another. In chart plotters, larger transducer crystals are considered to have more focused beams. Subsequently, this allows the beam to penetrate deeper into the waters.

5. Electrical Connector

Most people tend to overlook connectors, yet they are extremely important. A connector that is made from plastic or even thin metal prongs is likely to break or bend quite fast. Further, replacing these connectors is in most cases, a costly affair.  It is important to ensure that it is tough and durable, considering the constant plugging in and out of the connector.

6. Additional Features

Thanks to technological advancements, modern chart plotters often come with a wide array of extra features. For example, while many units have inbuilt antennas, there are those who have external antennas or antenna ports. These are highly preferred since they have stronger receptions as well as enhanced mapping and weather forecasting capabilities.

One must also consider the safety features included in the unit. Some of the safety-related features, to look out for, include;

  • An arrival alarm to signal that the boater has reached the desired destination
  • A collision alarm to warn against impending collisions with obstacles in the water
  • A low battery alarm/indicator
  • Track navigation

A 12 channel receiver to ensure that the chart plotter still receives signals even when boaters are far from the shores. This also means one can make a distress or warning call at any time.

In addition to safety features, some chart plotters may also come with extra features such as;

  • Audio-books
  • Fishing locators (also known as fish finders)
  • MP3 Music players
  • Radio

Best Marine Chart Plotters 2017

1. Garmin GPSMAP 78sc

(Source: West Marine)

Garmin has built a name for itself as one of the finest manufacturers of chart plotters. This handheld gadget is designed to offer value for money. The device comes preloaded with U.S Coastal charts and also includes a 3-axis compass system. ($349.99 on manufacturers website)

Aside from that, it comes packed with other additional features such as;

A worldwide basemap with imagery. The maps include intricate details such as shorelines, harbors, marinas, navaids and depth contours for locations in the U.S. and Bahamas.

High water resistance with an IPX rating of 7 and ability to float on water.

An ability to share waypoints, routes, tracks, and geocaches wirelessly with users who have compatible devices. Further, sharing is impressively easy.


GPS receiver and HotFix™ satellite prediction both of which enhance the ability of the device to locate the user’s position conveniently and accurately even in rough conditions such as heavy cover.

Garmin Connect ™ allows users to not only store but also review their activities and even share their experiences on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Support for geocaching GPX files which allows for easier downloading of geocaches and other details right onto the device.

The device also allows users to add maps either using preloaded microSD cards or through BirdsEye ™ satellite imagery. However, for the latter, the subscription is required.

Battery life of up to 20 hours

A memory of 1.7 GB

Hunting/Fishing calendar

A picture viewer

Can save up to 2000 waypoints and 200 routes

Despite the lightweight and extra features, this gadget has the disadvantage of a relatively small display size of just 2.6 inches. Additionally, the display resolution is just 160 x 240 pixels.

2. Humminbird HELIX 5 CHIRP SI GPS G2

This is one of the most affordable side imaging sonar charts plotters in the market and is ideal for both serious and hobbyist marine use. Further, it also doubles up as a fish finder. ($459.89 on Amazon)

The CHIRP SI G2 has three different types of sonar;

CHIRP DualBeam Plus with SwitchFire. This allows one to make use of both 83/200 kHz beams at the same time and compare the two on a split screen. The SwitchFire feature lets users view sonar that is clutter free, i.e., noise free.

CHIRP Down Imaging

CHIRP Side Imaging

Some of the more technical features of this chart plotter include:

A 5inch screen with a display pixel of 800 x 480. Also, includes color TFT and 16-bit color with an LED backlight.

Live mapping with AutoChart Live including the ability to record bottom hardness and vegetation.

A depth capability of up to 150 feet for side and down imaging and as deep as 1500 feet for the DualBeam Plus sonar.

A power output of 500 Watts

Internal GPS with fast and accurate locks. Also compatible with WAAS, EGNOS or MSAS.

Can save up to 47 routes, 2,750 waypoints, and 50 tracks.

Built in Humminbird UniMap charts of the U.S. coastline, inland lakes and rivers all at 30m/pixel. While these do not offer super accuracy, they are ideal for those who just need a basic navigation tool.

Luckily, it is also possible to upgrade the charts.

An IPX rating of 7 means it is waterproof and can withstand submersion in fresh water as deep as 1 meter and for as long as 30 minutes.

MicroSD support.

A gimbal mount as well as an in-dash mount alternative.

Multiple sonar functions including Real Time Sonar (for a vertical flasher view). A Bottom Lock (which allows the user to focus on the bottom and the portions of water near the bottom), Selective Fish ID+ (which works in 2D mode to detect and identify fish) and even a Fish Alarm which helps to alert the angler when fish are detected.

3. Lowrance HDS-9 Gen 3 Touchscreen Fishfinder/Chartplotter


Lowrance HDS-9 Gen 3

Lowrance chart plotters have also built a firm reputation for their quality. The Lowrance High Definition System (HDS) is one such gadget; combining a bright multi-touch display with an enhanced processor and some of the latest navigation related technologies.  Despite the relatively high price, this gadget is, without doubt, one of the most affordable in its category. ($1, 249 on manufacturer’s website)

Its most notable features include;

A huge 9-inch display, with an LED backlight, multi-touch, and widescreen display. This makes it easier for navigators to see

the information on the screen. Display resolution is 800 x 480

The interface includes both a touch screen and a keypad option to ensure easy and fast access to all the features of the gadget.

Both CHIRP Sonar technology and StructureScan HD technology to make sure that users get a good view of the fish below and to the side of the boat as well as the structures below ane d to the side of the boat.

An internal GPS antenna with an update rate of 10Hz. In addition to that, it supports WWAS, EGNOS and MSAS corrections.

Built in Insight USA charts for both coastal and inland waters in the USA. Also included is a world background reference map. Moreover, the device is compatible with a wide range of cartography including Insight HD, Insight PRO, Insight Genesis, Navionics, C-MAP MAX-N+ and Insight TOPO among others.

Dual MicroSD card support with a maximum size of 32Gb

Support for both 2D and 3D views simultaneously

Incorporation of the Broadband Sounder. This is one of the features that set this device apart from other chart plotters in the market. The feature displays and marks structures, baitfish and gamefish at higher speeds and from greater depth as well.

StructureMap HD capabilities which allow users to have a 180-degree view of fish and structures below the boat. Additionally,

users can create underwater images of lakes, rivers and even the floor of the sea.

A trackback feature to ensure that users can review and save important hotspots. Also, allows users to review sonar and StructureScan HD imaging history.

Insight Genesis which lets users make their maps using the sonar loads and also to upload the data into an Insight Genesis account. Users can then share the maps with other members of the Insight Genesis Social Map Community.

Wireless connectivity with Lowrance GoFree app as well as other onboard devices such as supported tablets and smartphones. One may also purchase and download Insight maps and other third part maps from the home screen or even from GoFree partners.