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Mike's
Boat
Indexes
 
 
by Gary and Helen Blankenship – Tallahassee, Florida - USA

It seems axiomatic with modern digital devices - cameras, iPods, toothbrushes - that they become more complex as they get smaller. And that the instruction manual (if it’s printed; now they’re typically online) is bigger than the device.

It’s not an evil trend, but not necessarily a happy one for a guy who as he ages is looking more and more for simple tools and solutions and wants technology that eases his way instead of befuddling his brain.          

That thought was at the back of my mind a bit over a year ago when I decided to get a backup GPS for my venerable Garmin color handheld model, with its added electronic charts. The purpose was twofold; one was to have a backup for events like the Everglades Challenge and the second was to have something cheap and handy to use when daysailing on my Piccup Pram when I wanted to know nothing more than boat speed and maybe tacking angles. Even though the Garmin floats, it bothered me to be risking several hundred dollars of hardware and electronic charts for a causal sail in well-known waters on a dinghy.

With that impetus, I began surfing eBay. My goal was to spend no more than 50 bucks, which meant I was looking at used units. Charting capability was not required. There was a bewildering array available. Garmin has several models that look similar but have an incredible range of abilities and prices; some have maps and some don’t. But sorting all that out was part of the fun. One of the Garmin 12 models (a pre-mapping GPS) was a temptation. I’d had one before and liked it, even though it used four AA batteries instead of two and only had about half the battery life of newer models. But used Garmin 12s seemed to be a cult item and seldom went for less than double my planned budget. Eventually, I wound up with a Lowrance iFinder Go model which came out in 2005. Much to my amazement, the unit was new in an unopened package. And it came with built-in basic coastal charts. There’s a Dr. Pepper logo emblazoned across the top, so I assume this was left over from a batch produced for a special event.

The iFinder GO is a nice little unit that's intuitive to use and has all the basic features without being overwhelming. And it has a cool Dr. Pepper logo!

The iFinder GO is a nice little unit that's intuitive to use and has all the basic features without being overwhelming. And it has a cool Dr. Pepper logo!

When I got my hands on the iFinder, I was pleasantly surprised, so much so that if something happened to the fancy Garmin I wouldn’t be in a rush to replace it.

Of course, there are things it won’t do that the Garmin will:

  • Like many inexpensive GPS units of the time, it did not come with a cord that will allow it to communicate back and forth with a computer, although it has that capability. Given the era of this unit, it’s unlikely that I’ll find one and since at the moment it is a backup unit, it’s probably not worth the money or effort. That means that waypoints have to be input directly on the GPS instead of more conveniently with a computer. It also means that trip tracks cannot be downloaded and displayed on a computer. After a big trip, I like being able to look at a track, see where I was at what time and how fast the boat was going. It’s particularly handy if you’re writing an article (for Duckworks, of course!) about the trip.
  • The screen is noticeably smaller, the main drawback of which is displayed numbers such as speed, course, and maximum speed are smaller and sometimes a bit of squinting is necessary.
  • The iFinder comes with a very good built in basic coastal chart (more about this later) but updated or more detailed charts cannot be added. The main difference with the Garmin is a lack of depth information. Of course, the land map and marine chart data are several years out of date and recent changes won’t be there. (I’ve found this more of a factor on road maps than the marine charts.)
  • It has a black and white display instead of the Garmin’s color screen. Actually, while that may bother some people it makes no difference to me.

It doesn’t have built in games, like the Garmin. Yeah that one doesn’t matter for me, either.

That’s quite a list. But here are some of the plus things:

  • The iFinder is smaller and better fits into a pocket.
  • The tradeoff for a black and white instead of color display is truly impressive battery life. Two AA alkaline batteries will run it up to 61 hours and half that long with the night light set at half power (which is plenty bright). That’s about double or better the endurance of the Garmin. I haven’t figured out how long it’ll go with lithium batteries.
  • The basic chart built into the iFinder is better than the basic chart built into the Garmin, which is intended to work best with purchased electronic charts. The basic iFinder has coastal contours equal to the Garmin charts. It also shows all Coast Guard (or virtually all from what I’ve seen) maintained channel markers. The basic Garmin has no markers while the purchased charts have the Coast Guard markers plus many private markers. I was surprised to discover the extent of the iFinder’s channel marker inclusion. A GPS from that era that I used once advertised built-in charts (without depths) with markers. However it only had the main markers to inlets, maybe one or two percent of the total.
The map page at a moderate scale. The shore contours are very accurate, but note the lack of depth information. The B&W screen doesn't bother me and has the advantage of delivering really impressive battery life.

The map page at a moderate scale. The shore contours are very accurate, but note the lack of depth information. The B&W screen doesn't bother me and has the advantage of delivering really impressive battery life.

Now, without a doubt, the Garmin has more functions and some features are easier to use. But because the iFinder is simpler, I find it more intuitive to use. I do have a manual, downloaded from the manufacturer’s website but I need to refer to it less. And the iFinder will do all the basic features, figuring out courses and distances, setting routes, etc. It’s at no disadvantage in number of waypoints and routes, being capable of holding 1,000 waypoints and 100 routes.

The iFinder has the two most common “pages” that I like on a small GPS. (The Garmin has seven or eight different “pages” of data; the iFinder in its advance mode has four.) One is the map page which shows a zoomable chart of where you are. Both the Garmin and iFinder map pages can be customized to also show data like speed and course. The second page is a data page, which shows the latitude and longitude and a variety of info chosen by the user. I like Speed, Max Speed, Average Speed, Course, Distance and Battery Life.

The data page gives a lot of information at a glance and can be customized to the user's preferences.

The data page gives a lot of information at a glance and can be customized to the user's preferences.

It should be noted that Garmin has changed its sales of electronic charts in the years since I bought mine. They used to sell charts by region and it would cost a pretty penny to cover the entire coastal U.S. and Great Lakes. Garmin now sells one package - for about the price it used to charge for one region - that has the entire coastal U.S. That’s nice! But the price of a Garmin and the charts is still several times the cost of the older iFinder, albeit you’ll get depth contours with the Garmin. (Some Duckworkers could build and outfit a PuddleDuck Racer for the cost difference.) With either you’ll have a basic chart for anywhere you might be visiting for a day or two, which is a nice feature.

The point is for us advocates of alternative and simpler boats, it isn’t necessary to go crazy with a fancy and expensive GPS. Case in point, Dylan Winter, of Keep Turning Left fame, is, as far as I can tell, using a simple, non-mapper Garmin GPS. And I’m sure there are other alternatives out there to the iFinder Go that will serve as well. If you do go looking for the iFinder Go, please note there were two models. The Go, which I have, has a built-in 32 megabyte memory for its charts and maps. The GO II has double that memory, which I assume means a bit more detail on those charts and maps.

It could be argued that a GPS is extraneous on a small boat. But I think it’s worthwhile. The iFinder costs less than the traditional knot log and provides a lot more information than just speed and which can help make you a better sailor. I like that the information can be had at a reasonable price and without causing a technological overload in my biological circuit boards.

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