Choosing a handheld GPS for your boat, whether as a primary or back up navigation device, amounts to determining how you intend to use this tool and how much you are able and willing to spend to acquire hardware and software.
Today’s handheld GPS units range from roughly $100 to $500. The more expensive units have larger, high resolution color screens, built in cartography or mapping and the ability to add memory. Less expensive models come equipped with monochrome display screens and limited or no cartography. Again, how you use the GPS will likely dictate how much you spend. So let’s talk about uses.
If you’re going to be taking the unit on and off the boat multiple times during the boating season, and you’re a bit clumsy to boot, consider a handheld that floats. Any unit you choose to buy for the boat should be waterproof.
Using a Handheld GPS for Primary Navigation
Are you going to use your handheld GPS as your primary navigation tool or a backup to a permanently installed marine GPS chartplotter? If the handheld will be your main navigational guide, you will want to mount it in a helm location so you can see, operate it easily, and most importantly—connect it to ships power so you dont have to rely on the unit’s internal batteries.
Beware Signal Reception
If your boat has a hardtop, signal reception could be an issue, so to preempt any possible issues test your handheld for good satellite reception at its planned location aboard. As a last resort you may be able to buy an optional external antenna to improve satellite signal reception.
Using a Handheld GPS for Backup
Battery life is major consideration for the boater who intends to use the unit as a backup to a fixed-mount primary GPS navigation system. Even when used as a backup it is still a good idea to power the unit via a 12-volt receptacle supplied by ships power. Make sure that receptacle is clean and corrosion free.
Choosing a Handheld GPS—Boat Electronics or Multi-Use
Are you going to use the GPS handheld in your car as well as your boat? Most handhelds are tailored more toward land use than marine use so finding a multi-use unit will be fairly easy. If you hike or hunt, those are factors, too. Land-use features should be included in the model you choose.
Will size play a role in your purchase decision? Some units are pocket size, or no larger than some cell phones with screens are only about 1.5 inches by 2 inches. Larger handheld GPS units, which could measure as much as 6-inches tall and 3-inches wide, will have easier-to-read display screens that range in the neighborhood of 3-inches on the diagonal. Still no handheld will have a really large screen and reading these units under tough marine conditions can be trying at times.
Buttons and controls are important, too. Some newer more sophisticated handhelds even feature touch screen operation. Most units have front-mounted buttons for functional control, while some carry additional buttons on the side.
Choosing a Handheld GPS—Chart or Not?
Do you need cartography or mapping capabilities? Boaters who will use the handheld as a backup may consider buying a less expensive, basic model without cartography. Even if it is your primary GPS, you may not need mapping capabilities. You can create your own maps by setting waypoints along a track, sort of leaving a bread crumb trail. Some units have a track-back feature that allows you to reverse the course you have just run and follow it back.
Preloaded or downloadable charts are impressive and add significant value for the mariner. Not all handheld GPS units sold today have marine charts available, so before you buy make sure this is an option. One big downside users may face when using a handheld GPS with charts onboard is the difficulty one can encounter trying to read details. Another is the lack of perspective available when viewing the chart at a large range, you just cant see that much detail when you range out for the big picture view.
Choosing a Handheld GPS—Position Accuracy
Accuracy of today’s GPS machines is better than ever. Most are WAAS-capable, meaning they’re accurate to within about 10 feet. Choose a unit that has WAAS capability to get maximum position accuracy for navigation.
Color or Monochrome Screen?
Will a model with a monochrome screen do the job or do you find a color screen easier to read? If you are looking at a unit without charting or mapping capabilityes there is simply no real need for color. If you are considering using your unit with onboard marine charts you will find that the chart is easier to read and supplies more information on a good quality color display screen.
Choosing a Handheld GPS—Connectivity
Can the unit be hooked up to a computer via a USB port to transfer data? This capability could be very important for users with lots of waypoints electronically stored. No one wants to enter any quantity of data into a handheld by any means other than download. Things are just too tedious and slow because of the lack of keyboard.
Choosing a Handheld GPS—How Much Memory?
GPS manufacturers pack their handheld GPS units with features such as the capability to store 1,000 or more waypoints. Ask yourself: Based on my use, do I really need 1,000 waypoints? A weekend boater who does little cruising but a lot of water sports would be less concerned with waypoints and more concerned about how easily he or she can read the MPH display. In contrast, anglers who want to mark their fishing spots would welcome the ability to store large number of waypoints but may care less about tracking speed.
Most handhelds have some pretty nifty features, including electronic compasses, barometric altimeters and fishing charts. Some manufacturers also offer handhelds with Family band radio capabilities for communication from the boat to the shore or between boats. A GPS and VHF radio combo handheld is on the market, too.