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April 28, 2009

Downsized Tech

A new breed of electronics brings the latest and best to the rest of us.
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Marine electronics for the coming season seem to be showing a common theme: All the fancy technology that was introduced in the past couple of years - at the top-end, for top dollar - is now filtering down in downsized, more affordable versions. There have been some pretty significant advances recently, both in hardware and the processing of information. But you had to have enough boat and enough room on the credit card to take advantage of it, until now.

Specifically this means that a raft of new tools has been sized to provide small-boat anglers with the power of that innovative technology, for more effective navigating and fishing.

There's no particular size of boat that benefits from this trickle-down tech - there are 23-foot boats with T-tops and plenty of space on oversized consoles to hold a full complement of full-sized electronics, but we're not talking about those. There are plenty more that are not so generous with outfitting room, and adding any electronic equipment requires careful planning. This new crop of gear answers those requirements, and even flats boats - with their minimalist demands for clutter-free, lightweight outfitting - get a lot more effective and versatile with a state-of-the-art plotter/sounder perched on the console.

I can only dream wistfully about what life would have been like if I'd had a chart plotter on the console of my skiff when I was learning the Florida Keys backcountry. We found our destinations by running from a channel marker, for instance, at 3,500 rpm for 90 seconds on a 330-degree heading. Or we lined up the edge of Johnson Key with Cluett Key to find a nearly invisible channel through the flats to a basin where we knew tarpon would collect on an incoming tide. At risk of sounding old and curmudgeonly, I'd say y'all have it too easy these days. Sure wish I'd had some of this gear.

Headlining the list of great stuff that fits anywhere is a new breed of chart plotters, and the evolutionary benchmarks here are compact, self-contained configurations housing a stable of thoroughbred  performance  features. The slick thing about these pint-sized iterations is the built-in GPS antenna. On a smaller boat with limited space, or on a specialized bay boat or skiff, this is a big deal. While mounting a GPS antenna on an open boat has been pretty common, it's an imposition, at best, finding a place where the thing is not in the way. The heart of gearing up-to high-tech fishing is a chart plotter than answers some specific demands. Raymarine, Lowrance, Standard Horizon and Humminbird have redesigned lines that bear close consideration. Some of these we looked at last month, but a couple of them snuck in at the last minute, and all have powerful capabilities when transplanted from the blue water into green, with features that recommend them for small-craft installation. And all are available with integrated fish-finder options.

Lowrance's  HDS series has been upgraded with bright, high-resolution screens to boost the daylight visibility so essential for open-boat installations. The little HDS-5 with its 5-inch screen is well-sized for skiffs, while the 7-inch HDS-7 provides more viewing space in split-screen mode and is still sized to tuck onto center consoles. Lowrance incorporates its Broadband Sounder sonar into the dual-function model's, sonar processor, which was available last year as a black-box add-on. Now it's a standard built-in.

Raymarine's A-series  scoops up the flagship G-Series technology and packs it into a stand-alone  with 5- to 6 12-inch screens. All feature a quick-release mount so they can be removed from the console once you are off the water. It's a great feature for trailer boats that may not enjoy the luxury of living in a garage. The fish-finding option incorporates the benchmark Raymarine HD Digital sonar processing.

If you really want to add another dimension to redfishing, scouting schools of stripers off the beach or searching for inshore wrecks and rock piles, Humminbird's 798c SI ($999.99) adds the power of side-scanning to a 5-inch integrated GPS plotter in a waterproof  head with a quick-disconnect mount. Programmable presets put the display of choice up at the touch of the button.

Standard Horizon has added the 5-inch CPF 180i ($479.95) and 7-inch CPF300i ($879.95) plotters to their lineup, both with integrated GPS antennas and compatibility with C-MAP Max and NT+. These plotters are capable of far more than you'll likely use on a small boat, such as video input so you can watch DVDs, and AIS tracking. For another $150, both are available as combos with fish-finding sonar. Especially appealing for open-boat installation: They are waterproof, with a three-year warranty. These plotters also link up via NMEA 0183 with Standard Horizon's HX 850S handheld VHF, for position polling and DSC - and in a bonus of redundancy, the GPS in the radio will drive the chart plotter functions should the integrated GPS go on the fritz.

Pair one of Airmar's transom-mount transducers with these sounders for big-boat fish-finding power. Wide-beam 200 kHz models, like the TM270W ($1,095) or the elliptical beam TM258 ($695) expand the field of view of the bottom. The robust mounts survive the knocks that are unavoidable with an exposed transducer on the stern.