Marine GPS Intro and Background

Overall, our lake is great, but there are some shallow areas here and there, and unfortunately, not always in obvious places. There are markers for some of the problem areas, but considering we’re in a larger boat than I’ve piloted before, and I don’t know the full lake by heart - I really wanted something to give us a heads up before seeing the depthfinder gauge plunge to shallow #s while we’re cruising along.

I have some history with ‘specialty’ GPSes in aviation as well as previously owning a motorcycle-specific GPS, a Garmin Zumo  which cost over $1K at purchase. My impression between then and now has not changed all that much - while I do think some progress has been made along the lines of on-boat comm networks for sensors, engine integration and such certainly being cool - some basic annoyances remain, including pricing….but no one said boats or hobbies are cheap, right? 

The consumer GPS industry at large remains holding onto business models (and sometimes technology) of the past in many cases...

Phone based mapping services (Waze, Google, even Apple Maps) have long-ago surpassed what the GPS ‘experts’ had so the automotive GPS battle is long over - Garmin and the others lost badly, being the ‘experts’ they are. 

This wasn’t just about pricing, which was certainly bad enough, but basic functionality and poor user interfaces that only ever slowly changed, and not always for the better. If the GPS ‘experts’ were beaten by non-experts who made it simpler to find and navigate to where you wanted, and couldn’t figure out even when losing that ‘battle’ how to actually update customer’s devices - e.g. restaurant and POI information on a daily basis versus complicated monolithic software upgrades or worse, paid updates - what does that say about the ‘experts’?

Paying for yearly map updates - are you kidding me?  Don’t tell Google, Apple, and others…but yes, the GPS manufacturers, at least for ‘specialty’ GPS units - still play that game today, even after losing that battle badly in the automotive GPS market.  You don’t ‘have’ to update, but inevitably at some point - you’re going to want to.

The model of paying for updated maps is a relic of the past and one that will eventually be killed off - possibly surprising or bankrupting some of the GPS ‘expert’ companies….eventually

NOAA data is free, while the even now the beginning of crowd-sourced data is happening via Navionics, ActiveCaptain and others.

Eventually people will get over giving $ to GPS companies at all and simply use crowd-sourced data being processed by machine learning, and allowing user flagging for problematic or even unexplored areas.

Waze does this today and has been for years to an extent - why would you send an email with a screenshot you need to pull an SD card out of a GPS to get to, then comvert it from a BMP to something saner like PNG, to send an email - versus clicking on a touchscreen, entering type of issue and some details, and pressing send?

Of course - the GPS companies want a piece of that.  Perhaps they deserve it - if they add enough value.

To be fair, yes - it does cost money where GPS companies themselves are actually sending out boats with sonar and other instruments to do finer-grained mapping - however, the price of their hardware vs actual costs should more than cover this, while reliance on community data sharing eventually replaces this nearly altogether.

Specialty GPS hardware remains exceedingly overpriced vs actual hardware costs.  

While I have not yet disasembled my unit, and ‘of course’ will not until after the warrantee expires, it is quite unlikley IMO these units are potted and using coated components for true weatherproofing, while inexpensive mobile phones are nearly fully waterproof today at lower price points.

10” or larger touchscreen in full HD resolution (none of this 1990s IBM PC era 800x480 lame-ness, but 1920x1080) can be had for a bit over $100 retail cost , while a Raspberry PI board runs $50 or so  which includes an SD card slot, ethernet, video input and output, has a quad-core CPU, supports ethernet as well as modern wifi standards 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2GB of RAM, Bluetooth 5, etc. Add a 32GB SD Card for $10 (oh, right - GPS mfgrs don’t provide this, either), a power supply, GPS chip(~$25 retail) and a case and you now have all the underpinnings of the fastest, most full-featured GPS device for almost pennies on the dollar. Oh, and you would also get USB and USB-C ports, along with video inputs if desired.

Given the ‘hidden’ hardware specs of most GPS manufacturers (I do think I at least saw a Lowrance unit mentioning quad-core - any bets it’s a PI or similar reference board based?), and the fact that boards like the PI always have various GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output) and other busses to connect to other devices), the ubiquity of the use of Linux and Android for ’specialty’ devices from your TV to your router and home appliances, I’d say it’s a pretty fair assessment the $1000+ specialty ‘GPS units’ are built in entirety for somewhere around $200, and that’s being generous. Then add maps and add-on pieces of plastic, sun-shades and mounts on top of it.

If you doubt the above, take a look at PI and similar ARM reference and hobby boards as well as the relevent-sized displays, note the resolutions (e.g. you can find 7” IPS displays in low 800x480 resultion with touchscreen for well under $100), and you’ll start to see how little most ‘maufacturers’ are actually creating versus off-the-shelf inexpensive reference boards, adding buttons into a case wired into the GPIO pins on the board, adding a touchscreen, and then the transducer or other connectors, a small amount of onboard memory and flash storage for Linux with monior modifications for branding, user-interface layout, and possibly a small # of drivers (e.g. for converting transducer signals and displaying the output - often using open source software for much of it).

This isn’t unique to GPS maufacturers by any means

but they are holding out as ’special’ devices at premium costs in addition to gouging on accessory and map costs, so yes - it’s more than a bit excessive overall.

So what can we do?

Not a whole lot at the moment, unless you’re a hardware engineer, or - choose to use a phone or tablet.

Again, being fair - these things are possible using mobile apps, but it may not be the best experience, not due to the software, but power requirements or exposure to the elements, e.g. an iPad Pro or phone can heat up pretty quickly and go into limp-home/overheating mode until cooling down.  I’ve had phones go into cool-down mode in the convertible.  Yes, this is surmountable with a bit of effort.  Meanwhile, power consumption using GPS and maps on iPads and the like - tend to draw down in hard use, although this may be addressed with a more suitable power supply.

In the short-term at least, there are two choices - use a mobile device with an app - or suck it up and get a marine GPS (or MFD/Multi-function device), and pay the price.  If going with the latter, you can at least make sure you get what you need, over what the manufacturers will try to sell you.  

Which one to choose?

With my opinions of the GPS market at large out of the way, we’ll cover brands and options in the next section to try to get you - what you need.