Like an algae bloom, 6-inch GPS chart plotters suddenly are everywhere. They run high-end cartography (C-Map NT+ or Navionics in most), and many combine a sonar/fishfinder with the plotter. The current crop was sparked by marketplace demand and manufacturers' ability to produce high-quality hardware in a small size. Add the improvements in sunlight-readable LCDs, and you end up with some nifty products.
The new Simrad CE33, running C-Map NT+ software, is one member of the species. It has a brilliant display, an attractive and businesslike cast aluminum case finished in matte black, and a keypad arrangement similar to the ones on the CE33's larger siblings. Simrad's CR42 SunView ChartRadar (Field Test, November 2001) impressed me with its ease of use and high-quality graphics. I wondered how the downsized unit would compare with Simrad's larger equipment.
For me, the compromises dictated by the small size are few and only moderately annoying. How they will affect other users depends on expectations.
The overcrowded helm and the large number of smaller center-console fishing boats in use are the main reasons these 6-inch plotter/sounders exist. The angler gets a sophisticated chart plotter and sounder in a single package. We mounted our test CE33 to port of the wheel on a vintage 17-foot Boston Whaler. Perched on the helm console, it had to endure whatever weather and spray came its way and was almost always in direct sunlight.
Senior Editor Scott Shane and I exercised the CE33 among the Norwalk Islands off Connecticut. Scott, an avid fisherman, brought a couple of rods and reels in case the fishfinder found fish.
We learned the CE33 is a great navigational tool and fishfinder, but if you are used to a larger display, you may be disappointed. On the upside, the CE33's LCD has super resolution (like a miniature TV screen), so all of the images appear with sharp edge detail. This sharpness, plus the brilliant color rendering, seems better than those of larger displays, and picking out landmasses, shore lines and depth contours on the chart required only a glance.
In chart mode, the presentation of data along the right side of the display also was clear, the letters and numbers being large enough for me to see without my specs. This field displays speed, course, coordinates of the cursor's position on the screen, bearing and distance to the next waypoint.
As we headed out of the Norwalk River at displacement speed, we followed our progress on the screen. A lollipop, its stick pointing in the direction of travel, is the symbol for your boat. Although the display defaults to north-up, we selected head-up because this mode didn't confuse our senses. As long as the cursor is inactive in the head-up mode, the chart turns so your COG is always up. In nav-up mode, the chart automatically turns to keep your bearing to destination at the top of the display. True motion (the default) displays the boat moving across the display, and relative motion keeps the boat in the center and moves the chart. I prefer true motion because its seems more "normal. You may change the orientation in the chart setup menu. The CE33's auto-home function automatically moved the chart to keep the ship symbol in the display. Pressing the zero key centered the ship on the screen.
At this stage, we encountered our first disappointment. Each of us wore a white shirt, and at some viewing angles the reflection of our shirts on the screen washed out the display as seen through our polarized sunglasses. The reflection was less of a problem when we removed our glasses, but it still annoyed us. We also discovered that our polarized lenses differed in how they let us see the display. Scott's gave him the better view, angle notwithstanding.
The charting functions in large part depend on the software, and we have no gripes about the C-Map NT+. Simrad developed the CE33 to take full advantage of this software, and the symbiosis gives users a pleasant working environment. Planning a trip or navigating, for example, is one of the CE33's best functions. It lets you establish a course by placing the active cursor on a destination. You press Goto, select the nav mode window and select "cursor. The plotter draws a line from your present location to the destination. While you're on the course, you may move the cursor to the next destination, press Goto and select "restart to approaching point to get the next course line.
This was the only nav mode we felt comfortable performing while under way, assuming each of us was piloting solo. The other selections, though easy, require planning in the security of the slip before you use them. I tried to make a fresh course via the waypoint navigation mode while we motored around in Long Island Sound and turned myself into a basket case. This routine required too much attention for my tastes under way, even at displacement speed. No way I would attempt it at planing speeds.
After you've established a bunch of waypoints and stored them, navigating by waypoint is a pleasure. In the nav mode, simply select "waypoint from the menu, choose your waypoint and press enter to start navigating to that point.
Navigating by a route requires at least one route to be stored in the CE33's memory. In this mode, a graphical steering display (highway) appears on the screen, along with a data window that shows ETA and AVN (average velocity necessary to reach your destination on time). You may also call up set and drift, which I love. Track navigation requires a stored track, and it lets you use the highway window or the chart.
To Scott's delight, we found fish, though most of them frolicked near the surface. Every one of them ignored his lure. Nevertheless, the fishfinder mode of the CE33 performed well. The white background was less affected by the reflection of our shirts than was the mostly blue chart.
Pressing the Echo key calls up the sounder display, and holding that key for at least two seconds toggles between the 50kHz and 200kHz frequencies. The data field at the top of the screen is set to show the following: actual depth, which appears as a large number in the upper left side of the display; transmit power set to auto (A100W); transmission pulse length set to auto (A-Short); temperature in Celsius or Fahrenheit (your choice); and speed through the water or over the ground (your choice). In the echosounder menu, you may select your actual depth reading to be calculated from the keel, the surface or the transducer.
We toggled through the variety of settings-bottom expansion, variable range marker and A-scope-and have only one small complaint. The small screen makes the images harder to see and distinguish than would be possible on a display of 10 or 15 inches. On the other hand, the CE33's display, for its size, was excellent. The colors were bright, giving us a good idea of the density of each target. The bottom expansion mode indeed provided the better separation of echoes that Simrad suggests it should. Same for the VRM, whose expanded view of the area near the VRM gives a better separation of echoes.
At a retail price of $1,795 with WAAS or $2,395 with WAAS and differential, the Simrad CE33 represents the high level of quality in the hardware and its performance that manufacturers have reached in the past five years. If you can live with the small display-younger eyes than mine should be pleased with it-I can't see any reason to forgo its benefits to navigation and fishing.
Contact: Simrad USA, (800) 426-5565; www.simrad-yachting.us