Navionics ECharts™, a review by GPS Nuts.
Lowrance has a long-standing tradition of catering to the boating community. Some of their mapping GPS receivers are capable of using C-Map and IMS cartridges. In 1998 Lowrance released a completely new family of mapping receivers. The new receivers could be uploaded with maps from CD-Rom. The CD-Roms released by Lowrance included all of the mapping information from the IMS cartridges and some new data and maps. The nautical coverage included fairly good shoreline detail for the USA as well as the NavAids and Wrecks and Obstructions. On the downside, there was no compatibility with the C-Map charts, so the international users had virtually no marine specific maps or charts. The "World Maps" avaliable for uploading to the receivers did not have the detail or resolution required by boaters. Even the US users could not display charts with bottom info. The only way to display any additional detail was to create / edit maps using OziMC software. Even that was a partial solution only. Ozi does not allow editing or creation of NavAids or Wrecks and Obstructions entries. Creating shorelines and bottom contours is a time consuming process. One could think that Lowrance abandoned international boaters. All that started to change in the beginning of 1999, when Lowrance announced that their mapping GPS receivers would be compatible with the Navionics charts.
For a long time, along with C-Map, Navionics has been recognized by the boating community as a leading supplier of vector based, electronic charts. Navionics' consumer base included names like Brookes & Gatehouse, Furuno, Garmin, ICOM, Koden, Navico, Nexus, Northstar Technologies, Si-Tex and Trimble. The cream of the crop. Unfortunately that also means expensive...
Cooperation with Lowrance meant that for the first time, Navionics charts could be used in the low cost receivers; receivers that most of the boaters could afford. TheLowrance receivers currently compatible with the Navionics charts (Lowrance format) are: LMS-l60Map™, GlobalMap® l600, GlobalMap® l00, and AirMap®. Each Navionics chart in the Lowrance Format costs US$99,- It's not cheap when compared to US$54.95 CD-Rom from Lowrance, but it is competitive when compared to (approximately) US$130,- cost of a C-Map cartridge.
The big questions are: 1) Are the Navionics ECharts worth the money they cost and 2) Are they what you want and need? With this review we attempt to give you some information that may help you to decide for yourself. The review is based on the charts loaded to the GlobalMap 100 receivers. LMS-l60Map and GlobalMap l600 have virtually the same mapping / GPS capabilities as the GM100 does, however they have much larger display screens - a very important factor when viewing any maps or charts.
Ordering and uploading charts into the receiver.
The charts can be selected from the on-line catalogue. Both Lowrance and Navionics' websites list the charts available in the Lowrance format. Since the charts are added frequently and the websites are not updated at the same time, it may be a good idea to check them both when looking for a particular area coverage. The charts can be ordered directly from Navionics by phone or e-mail, or through one of the authorized dealers. The charts are provided on 3.5" diskettes and can also be delivered by e-mail, which may be a preferred method for the Web surfers.
Before ordering the charts, one needs to obtain an internal serial number from the receiver the chart is intended for. Each chart is customized with the serial number (as an anti piracy measure) and can be uploaded only to the receiver with the matching number. Obtaining the serial number and chart uploading is done with the NavTrans software. The NavTrans can be downloaded (free) from the Lowrance website.
Depending on the size of the area covered, Navionics charts are normally referred to as 8, 16 and 32 meg. The charts in the Lowrance format are equivalents of the 8 meg charts. Current Lowrance receivers that are compatible with Navionics have 2, 1 meg each memory partitions... Confused? Well, the "8 meg" West Lake Ontario chart (US289S08) has a file size of 1,025 KB and it is just "a tad" too large to fit into a single partition. Not all the charts have the same file size. Some of them can be loaded into a single partition and some are too large to fit in both. In such cases, the NavTrans software allows the user to select a section of the chart to be uploaded.
NavTrans is a program with a very basic interface.
Installation of NavTrans on the computer is as uneventful as any installation can be. Attempts to use that program, however, can be full of surprises. There are no provisions to preview the chart being uploaded. All the program allows you to do is to obtain the serial number from the receiver, select the chart file for upload and select the target memory partition(s) in the receiver. Since the charts delivered by Navionics are in self-extracting format, there is no real use for the "Install Chart" function of NavTrans.
NavTrans itself is slow. Every time it is used, it searches the com-ports for the receiver and retrieves the serial number from the unit. We did not consider this to be a serious problem. The serial number matching process is an understandable precaution. What we do not understand is why EVERY time the program is used, it scans all the baud rates, from the slowest to the fastest in order to connect to the receiver. It does not attempt to use the last baud rate the connection was made at, even though this info is stored in the program's .ini file. On the bright site, after making the connection, the program automatically changes the receiver's baud rate to the highest value set in the .ini file.
On all the computers we tried, the program connected to and retrieved the serial number from the receiver without any problems.
When Ron tried to transfer the chart for the first time, nothing happened. The very next day, without doing any changes, the transfer worked without a flaw and has worked perfectly every time since then!
Andrew tried the transfer on six or seven various computers ranging from a 486 to P3, W95 and W98. In the case of one P200 with W98, the system hangs-up every time the transfer is selected. Numerous attempts could not convince the computer to work properly with NavTrans. It is possible that the problem is caused by (since discovered) an unresolved hardware conflict in the computer configuration, yet that conflict does not affect any other programs. On all other computers tested, the transfer was conducted without a single problem.
Areas covered by the chart.
West Lake Ontario, Navionics chart# US289S08 is shown in the Navionics interactive catalogue as:
As expected from the chart name, it covers the western part of the lake Ontario.
Upon loading the chart into the receiver, there is an indication of a much larger area ofcoverage.
In fact, the base chart extends from the SE corner of Georgian Bay, through the Eastern part of Lake Erie, to as far as Massena on the St. Lawrence river.
The main portion of the chart consists of two overlapping rectangles.
As shown in the screenshot above, the main chart covers not more than half of Lake Ontario (from Hamilton Harbour to Smoky Point, USA) as well as the northern edge of Lake Erie. Major waterways like the Niagara River or Welland Canal are also included in the coverage.
The small rectangles visible in the screenshot show various harbor charts imbedded within the main chart. Going clockwise, detailed charts of the following 26 detailed harbour charts can be found: Hamilton Harbour, Bronte Harbour, Oakville Harbour, Clarkson, Port Credit, Toronto Harbour, Frenchman's Bay, Whitby Harbour, Oshawa Harbour, Port Hope, Cobourg Harbour, Trenton, Belleville, Rochester, Pt. Breeze Harbor, Olcott, Wilson Harbor, Niagara (Youngstown), Port Weller, Port Dalhousie, Niagara R. (Navy Island), Niagara R. (N. Tonawanda?), Fort Erie, Buffalo (Outer Harbor), Port Colborne, Port Maitland.
Chart detail - the base chart.
In order to view the charts, the "NAVIONICS ON" setting has to be selected in the "EARTH MAP" options of the receiver. If the map display detail level is set to Normal and the map is zoomed within the loaded chart coverage area, at a zoom level of 200 kilometers (100 nautical miles) the original, built-in, base map disappears and the Navionics base chart starts to be displayed. With the detail level set on High, the Navionics maps kick in at 400 kilometers (200 nautical miles).
The detail of the coverage of the base chart is not consistent for all the areas. For some waters it includes some NavAids and limited bottom contour lines that are seldom marked with the actual depth indicated. The shoreline detail is improved as compared to the LEI base map .
Navionics base charts vs. LEI base maps
Chart detail - the main and harbour charts.
At a 5 km zoom level, the map display disappears unless the unit is zoomed in within the main chart area. When the unit is zoomed in within the main chart area, it switches the display from the background to the main chart at 40 km (map detail set to "High") or 20 km (map detail set to "Normal").
Base chart vs. the main chart.
As illustrated above, the main chart has further enhanced shoreline detail. Some of the (deep water) bottom contour lines present on the base chart disappear and some others (especially shallow water) contours are depicted much more accurately.
As the chart is zoomed in, some additional chart features start to appear.
Normal (upper row) vs. High setting at various zoom levels for the same area.
The difference between the shorelines, number of NavAids displayed and text labels as viewed at a zoom level of 2 km is caused by the chart display switching to the next detail level sooner when the map detail is set to "High". Almost all of the detail from the official charts is present, so showing it in a readable fashion on a small (as compared to a paper chart) screen of the receiver is a formidable task. Lowrance recommends using the "normal" level of the detail setting, however in some situations, setting the unit to the "high" level may be more advantageous. Each of the GM 100's map screens can have different display options preset. It allows for very easy switching between various levels of detail and features displayed without going through the menus and gives user a fair amount of control over the screen clutter.
Some of the major features depicted on the charts are given below. Some of these features (where indicated) are also present on the LEI maps.
- more detailed shorelines
- 2, 5, 10, 20, 40, 60, 80, 100, 150, 200 meters contour lines
- dredged channels
- Spot soundings
more NavAids than LEI
- anchorages, marinas, ports
- pipelines, cables, protected areas
- bottom types
- various obstructions and hazards to navigation
- most other features present on the official charts, too many to list
Only the NavAids are shown with the use of the icons. When the cursor is placed over an icon, information particular to the given NavAid is displayed.
Abbreviations used are easy to decipher once compared to the official charts. Unfortunately, they are always displayed in a single line, therefore sometimes they do not fit on the GM100's screen (as shown below) - possibly the charts were optimized for the larger screen of the GM1600.
In such cases viewing the whole description requires moving the cursor to the side and pressing "Zoom".
Still, it shouldn't really affect the use, since most of the mariners do carry the official, printed charts on board.
All the other features are shown with various combinations of dotted, dashed and solid lines as well as with the text. Even the obstructions are shown using lines and text, not symbols.
(Extract from chart 2086 reproduced with the permission of the Canadian Hydrographic Service)
There are also some features that are depicted on the official charts, yet they are not shown on the Navionics charts.
(Extract from chart 2086 reproduced with the permission of the Canadian Hydrographic Service)
At the same time, there are some features that are not shown on the official charts, yet are shown by the Navionics charts. Text is extensively used to show various features related to the area. Marinas and marine-oriented businesses are indicated by name. For example in the Port Credit area there is a place called The Store. It deserves a special note here; the friendly staff at The Store allowed Andrew to spend lots of time in the store and browse through the printed charts and guides in order to compare them with the Navionics charts.
In other places the official chart has to be consulted for some information. In other cases, there might be a warning or other note displayed.
The harbour charts contain the highest available detail of all charts.
(Extract from chart 2070 reproduced with the permission of the Canadian Hydrographic Service)
The example above also illustrates very well that the Navionics charts are simply digitized official charts with some features removed and some added. Even the soundings are shown in the same places on both... and so are the docks.
Some of the current official charts that were used as the source for the Navionics charts, show depths shown in meters and some show the depth in feet. In effect, Navionics can show the same area with soundings in feet and bottom contour marked in meters.
It is odd, but it mirrors the format used in the large and small scale, current, official charts.
Charting errors and inaccuracies.
Navionics charts are "seamless". They consist of a number of charts that are nested one within the other. When the display is zoomed in close to the boundary of a less detailed chart, the section of the screen with less detail is grayed out at some zoom levels. If the zoom in / out is used well inside a detail chart, the unit switches between different charts without any obvious indications of doing so. It appears that the possible problem with it was eliminated with the use of over zoom indicator. At zoom levels that are making the chart display at a higher resolution than the accuracy of the depicted features, an OVR will be displayed above the scale indicator.
When loaded into the receiver, the chart does not require the datum to be set. It eliminates the possibility of the most common error. All the features checked against the official charts were positioned properly and there were no errors spotted. The only inaccuracies noted were related to the areas that recently changed. For example, some new public docks were added in the Port Credit area. Just like the official chart, the Navionics show in this place an abandoned Yacht Club and pillars.
In recent times Canadian Coast Guard decommissioned and / or changed a number of NavAids. The changes are announced in the Notices to Mariners. Official charts are amended. Surely, Navionics updates its database as well. Yet, there is no clear indication of the latest issue of the Notices that the Navionics charts incorporate. Even though the charts are not intended to be a replacement for the official charts, this is information critical for safe navigation and should be included.
It's worth noting that the chart updates are sold by Navionics with a 75% discount. We hope that Navionics informs their customers as the updated charts became available.
There are also some possible spelling errors. They have no real impact on the chart usability and can be amusing.
There are some occasional spelling errors. We have not found any that could have an impact on the chart usability. For example, the screenshot below (Base Chart section of the US289S08) shows an error in the Georgian Bay's name.
Ron's Comments & Opinions
The Navionics ECharts for Lowrance receivers represent an outstanding source of detailed electronic nautical data that can be uploaded to even a small handheld GPS receiver such as the GM100. They are also nearly equal to the paper charts in the detail they offer. As good as they are, however, they may not be for everyone. Below I will give what I consider to be some questions that should be evaluated before purchasing an EChart floppy.
Comments: If you live in the United States, the answer to this may be NO. The existing LEI maps (for US waters) are quite good and display most of the NavAids (with info such as buoy type, color, light characteristics, number) and many of the Wrecks and Obstructions that are shown on the Navionics maps. (See comparison screenshots below) When used in conjunction with a good paper chart, this may be all you want or need. On the other hand, LEI maps do not display depth contour lines and do not have many of the hazard information statements such as bridge and powerline height clearances, pipeline locations, submerged pilings warnings, etc. If you live outside of the US, however, then there's not much of a choice; the EChart maps and/or user created waypoints or maps will be the only sources of nautical data.
Below are screen shots of Solomon's Island Harbor area (Chesapeake Bay):
Navionics EChart LEI Map Navionics Zoomed
Comments: Notice the LEI map has road details, but the ECharts have more NavAids in the harbor. Also note in the zoomed EChart shot the Submerged Piling Messages that begin to appear. Interestingly, notice that the spelling of Solomons changes on the two Navionics charts. Also observe in the zoomed shot that some of the names are getting "stepped on". This can be eliminated by zooming in further, changing the map detail to "NORMAL", or by using a unit with a larger screen such as the GM1600
Below are views of the entrance to Tangier Island:
Navionics EChart LEI Map
Comments: Notice the increased shoreline resolution in the EChart map and also the greater number of NavAids present in the restricted channel. In open waters, however, the LEI maps had almost all of the NavAids displayed.
Will the ECharts save me money by eliminating the need for paper charts.
Comments: Our answer to this is NO! We feel that you should never be out without a paper chart as a reference copy or for backup in case the GPS fails. You might not use the paper charts as often, but they are handy when you need to get the "big picture" in a glance.
Can I afford the ECharts?
Comments: The ECharts are US $99 each. In some parts of the world, they may cover a large area, but in others they are not as generous. For example, it takes a minimum of 6 ECharts to cover the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay, which is about 200 miles long and an average of less than 20 miles wide. At about 33 miles per chart, it wouldn't take long to get out of one particular EChart's area of coverage. On the other hand, the LEI MapCreate CD that comes with these receivers, contains maps for all of the coastal waters of the United States. It is possible to create and upload a LEI map that covers the entire Chesapeake Bay in less than 2 megabytes.
Are they easy to use and convenient?
Comments: The EChart system is easy to learn and chart loading goes fairly quickly. Convenience, however, is a relative term. EChart floppies were designed as an alternative to the plug in cartridges that some other GPS units accept. Actually, the plug in cartridges are much quicker to load and don't require a computer to be present. Running out of an area covered by an EChart floppy would require a computer upload right in the middle of the stream (pun intended).
Will the EChart displays be easy to read on my GPS receiver?
Comments: This depends on your receiver. If you are using a GM100, then the display tends to be cluttered at times on the small screen, especially when the map detail is set to "HIGH" (See screen shots above). If you're using one of the larger units, such as the GM1600, which is actually intended for boat use, then the charts will look much better. I prefer the water to be gray, but Andrew is just the opposite. This series of Lowrance receivers that accept ECharts allow the user to choose either option.
Will I be giving up anything by using the ECharts?
Comments: For me, the answer to this was Yes. One of my favorite activities while cruising around the Chesapeake, is to anchor out and row in to tour the many towns that dot the shoreline. The Navionics EChart maps show no roads or streets, while the LEI maps show and name every road/street that you will likely encounter. For some this may not matter in the least, but it is a consideration for me.
Whether or not you want or need Navionics ECharts, there is no doubt that they offer outstanding nautical maps for the intended Lowrance GPS units. If you own one of these units and like boats, then you should strongly consider this offering from Navionics.
Andrew's Comments & Opinions
There are two software enhancements I’d like to see in the current Lowrance / Navionics set-up: 1) Searchable database of NavAids and place names, or at least marinas. 2) Option of splitting every chart so it could be loaded into one memory partition only, leaving the other one for uploading Lowrance or Ozi SmartMaps. Maybe it could be achieved by separating the Base Chart from others.
Still, the combination of a Navionics chart and a Lowrance GPS receiver, especially when supplemented by a DGPS receiver, is a powerful, navigational tool. For some, gimbal mounted receivers like the GM 160 may be desirable. For others whose budget is tighter and who require one GPS receiver to cover a variety of applications, the GM100 may be the perfect solution. After all, with ONE GPS receiver (my GM100), I am able to go into the Ontario woods and display my position on detailed maps created in OziMC. I can sail or fish my favourite areas and have my position displayed on a nautical chart. I can drive through all the detours in Buffalo, NY and still find my way home with the assistance of street level maps. I can recommend this receiver and Navionics charts to everybody whose needs are similar to mine.
Dec. 18, 1999
The screenshots on this page were taken from a Lowrance GlobalMap 100 using G7ToWin . To find out more about the GM100, check the review on this website, as well as the review on Joe Mehaffey and Jack Yeazel website.
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