Fast For­ward

Mod­ern GPS plot­ters like the Garmin GPSMAP 742xs have speed­ily evolved over the past two decades. And they’re not stop­ping any time soon.

Power & Motor Yacht - - ELECTRONICS - By Capt. Bill Pike

Thanks to the new Garmin GPSMAP 742xs plot­ter I re­cently added to the Betty Jane II’s lower helm sta­tion, I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced an epiphany of sorts. Not only did the nifty lit­tle project boost my ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of to­day’s nav­i­ga­tional elec­tron­ics, it did some­thing else: It re­vealed to me like never be­fore the im­mense gulf that ex­ists be­tween to­day’s GPS tech­nol­ogy and the GPS tech­nol­ogy of yore. I mean, let’s face it, folks—to­day’s new stuff makes yes­ter­year’s old stuff seem like cave paint­ings from the freakin’ Pa­le­olithic Era.

Con­sider the in­stall it­self. The 742, with its in­ter­nal an­tenna, was a breeze to set up: All I had to do was se­cure the bail-mount bracket on the teak panel above the lower helm’s dash­board, run a flex­i­ble power/NMEA 0183 ca­ble through a gland in the dash to an elec­tron­ics-ded­i­cated Blue Sea Sys­tems fuse block un­der the helm, con­nect the red power wire and the black ground wire to the fuse block and presto! I was in business. Plug and play? Yup. Time com­mit­ment? Maybe two hours, tops.

Com­pare this to GPS plot­ters of, say, the mid ’90s. Back then, in or­der to coax a po­si­tion from a rel­a­tively thread­bare con­stel­la­tion of GPS satel­lites whirling over­head, you had to care­fully po­si­tion and in­stall an ex­ter­nal an­tenna, usu­ally on a pole mount after in­stalling the mount it­self. And then, once the an­tenna was sat­is­fac­to­rily (and per­haps aes­thet­i­cally) po­si­tioned, there were ca­bles to run be­hind pan­els, un­der head­lin­ers and through bulk­heads, an of­ten com­pli­cated and dif­fi­cult process that oc­ca­sion­ally went smoothly but of­ten did not.

Which is not to say, of course, that my new 742 can’t be out­fit­ted with an ex­ter­nal an­tenna in ad­di­tion to the one it’s al­ready got in­side—it can. But given the ef­fi­ciency and speed with which the unit locks onto GPS and GLONASS satel­lites with­out ex­ter­nal sup­port, you gotta won­der—why bother with it?

A Rad­i­cal New Or­der

The sys­temic ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the new 742—ver­sus the com­par­a­tively lim­ited ca­pa­bil­i­ties of older units I’ve owned over the years—proved en­light­en­ing as well. Think back 20 years or so— about the most you could get out of a GPS chart­plot­ter were a few nav­i­ga­tional func­tions en­tirely de­pen­dent upon the in­ser­tion (and pur­chase) of a sep­a­rate chip im­printed with one form of marine car­tog­ra­phy or another. Cer­tainly, you could key-punch in way­points and routes (with lev­els of dif­fi­culty that var­ied from man­u­fac­turer to man­u­fac­turer) and use them to get from hither to yon, but that was ba­si­cally it.

More­over, po­si­tion­ing speeds were tar-in-Jan­uary slow and po­si­tion­ing ac­cu­racy iffy, es­pe­cially with sin­gle-chan­nel re­ceivers that “se­quenced” through the four satel­lite-rang­ing mea­sure­ments (three to get a fix and a fourth to val­i­date it) that are nec­es­sary to ac­cu­rately pro­duce lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude. Add to such draw­backs the prob­lems associated with Se­lec­tive Avail­abil­ity (a gov­ern­ment pro­gram, dis­con­tin­ued in early 2000, de­signed to de­grade pub­lic GPS sig­nals for na­tional se­cu­rity rea­sons) and it’s easy to see why older GPS chart­plot­ters were com­par­a­tively pricey and needed to be teamed up with SatNav and/or LORAN to guar­an­tee cov­er­age and ca­pa­bil­ity.

The 742 I just in­stalled on Betty, how­ever, be­longs to a rad­i­cally (and I do mean, rad­i­cally) dif­fer­ent or­der. In­deed, if you stack it up against a top-shelf GPS chart­plot­ter from just 10 years ago, it’s

like ap­ples and aerospace. For starters, the 742 has a 10-Hz mul­ti­chan­nel re­ceiver with a quad-core pro­ces­sor (like the one in your lap­top or tablet) that’s com­pat­i­ble with rafts of satel­lites. Screen re­draw times are split-sec­ond fast; fixes and head­ings are re­freshed 10 times per sec­ond; po­si­tion­ing is con­sis­tently ac­cu­rate to within 1 to 3 me­ters; and LakeVu HD (in­land waters) and BlueChart g2 (coastal) car­tog­ra­phy comes pre-loaded, although an up­grade—BlueChart g2 Vi­sion HD—is avail­able.

Then there are all the ex­tras. The 742 of­fers a com­plete net­work­ing sys­tem that sup­ports col­li­sion-avoid­ance sonar, radar, mul­ti­ple cam­eras and NMEA 2000 con­nec­tiv­ity for an au­topi­lot, AIS, VHF and other sen­sors. And it also has its own built-in WiFi sys­tem, which means, of course, that a skipper can un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances en­hance his sit­u­a­tional aware­ness by mov­ing around his boat while view­ing and con­trol­ling the plot­ter with a com­pat­i­ble smart­phone or tablet.

Then there’s con­nec­tiv­ity. The 742’s ac­cess to Garmin’s Quick­draw Com­mu­nity al­lows a skipper to cre­ate his own con­tour-type maps and share as well as crowdsource them. The unit’s Ac­tiveCap­tain app pro­vides oo­dles of up-to-date feed­back on mari­nas and im­por­tant car­to­graphic and soft­ware up­dates. And Sir­iusXM Weather, a pay-to-play ser­vice I also added to Betty’s reper­toire, puts real-time weather data, both lo­cal and re­gional, lit­er­ally at fin­ger­tip dis­posal.

And fi­nally, there’s Auto Guid­ance. Load the car­to­graphic up­grade I just men­tioned (BlueChart g2 Vi­sion HD) and AG will pro­duce en­tire routes with the push of a touch­screen but­ton. Sure, you may have to go back af­ter­wards and tweak a turn or two and make sure the straight­aways are nav­i­ga­tion­ally safe, but talk about a time-saver! And get this—via AG’s timed-ar­rival fea­ture, the 742 will tell you what speed to run in or­der to make bridge open­ings right on time. Cool, eh?

What’s Next?

I gotta say—I was pleas­antly sur­prised when I opened the card­board

box that con­tained my new 742. In­stead of a mas­sive, old-fash­ioned in­stal­la­tion/user’s man­ual in­side, I found lit­tle more than a cou­ple pam­phlets, one en­ti­tled “Quick Start Man­ual.” A cur­sory glance at this baby told me it prob­a­bly cov­ered the ba­sics only, like how to plug in way­points and routes. So, be­cause I’ve owned sev­eral Garmin plot­ters over the years—and be­cause op­er­a­tion is sim­i­lar if not iden­ti­cal, unit to unit—I tossed the pam­phlet aside and sim­ply hit the 742’s power switch once my in­stall was com­plete, bear­ing in mind that, as is typ­i­cal, a cur­rency-guar­an­tee­ing soft­ware up­date would be nec­es­sary.

Sub­se­quent op­er­a­tion went smoothly and so did the up­date, thanks to my Dell PC and a mini-SD card. But the fact that I could have oth­er­wise ad­dressed the up­date by sim­ply down­load­ing the new data to my iPhone and then pair­ing the phone with the 742 via its WiFi sys­tem got me to think­ing.

Given the level of com­pat­i­bil­ity that the 742 so ob­vi­ously shares with lap­tops, SD cards and smart­phones, is it pos­si­ble that, some day, per­haps in the not-so-dis­tant fu­ture, the whole mélange might be syn­er­gized into one small, por­ta­ble su­per-com­puter—a sort of plot­ter for all sea­sons—that nav­i­gates upon the high seas but also does a whole slew of other, lub­berly things while ashore? I di­aled up Garmin Marine’s Di­rec­tor of Sales and Mar­ket­ing Dave Dunn to see what he thought of the idea.

“What you de­scribe is quite fea­si­ble,” said Dunn. “In fact, when you look around, we ac­tu­ally seem to be mov­ing to­wards some­thing like this right now.”

Em­bold­ened by this rather en­ter­tain­ing re­sponse, I hit Dunn with another ques­tion that had been bug­ging me since I’d un­packed the 742 and suc­cumbed to a long-stand­ing ten­dency to spec­u­late about worlds to come. Right now, Garmin mar­kets an au­to­mo­tive-type prod­uct called Garmin Speak, a lit­tle dash­mounted GPS nav­i­ga­tor with Ama­zon’s Alexa built in. Might Garmin, in the fu­ture, of­fer a GPS plot­ter for boats that a nav­i­ga­tor does not ac­tu­ally touch but sim­ply talks to? You know, like, “Home, James,” and off you go?

“Again,” Dunn replied, “what you de­scribe is in some sense fea­si­ble. Of course, the unit would have to learn to dis­tin­guish be­tween the hu­man voice and the back­ground noises that are par­tic­u­lar to the marine en­vi­ron­ment, like en­gines, wa­ter noises and other things. But yeah, although there are safety con­cerns you’d need to deal with, such a thing is far from im­pos­si­ble. In fact, I’d say it’s quite likely.”

Years ago, the Garmin GPS 120 got mod­est ac­cu­racy with an ex­ter­nal an­tenna. To­day’s su­per-sharp 742? No ex­ter­nals needed.

A legacy touch­screen.

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