Magellan FX324 Map Chart Plotter

This economical navigator/chart plotter is a good fit for small boats.

Magellan's new FX324 Map Color, which is also available with a monochromatic display, is a 12-channel, WAAS-enabled GPS navigator/chart plotter. To test its performance, I rigged the unit on the flying bridge of a Luhrs 32-footer and used it for several hours as I navigated the islands off Norwalk, Connecticut. It proved itself economical and easy to use.

I cradled the FX324 Map Color in a notch on the instrument panel and mounted the external mushroom antenna on a spare radio support. The unit is about 9.5 inches wide and 5.5 inches high. Its 5-inch, 16-color thin-film transistor (TFT) display is backlit and has a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels. The unit comes with two cables-one for attachment to a personal computer, the other for a boat hookup. It also comes with hardware for surface and yoke mounting and software that updates the FX324 Map's internal programming instructions.

A column of buttons is mounted to the right of the screen for quick access to commands. Next to it are a telephone-style keypad and four-way rocker button, which controls the cursor. Menu, Escape and Enter are dedicated keys, as is Mark/MOB, which is set apart from the others and colored red.

Magellan has done a nice job of generously spacing the keys, which are backlit as well, helping you avoid fat-fingered errors. In addition, solid tactile feedback lets you know for certain when you've pushed a button.

Jacks for the power/data cord and mushroom antenna are in the rear. The FX324 Map comes with another antenna: an internal quadrifilar helix antenna for open-boat use. I tried both and found them equally adept at catching and holding satellites.

The WAAS- and EGNOS-enabled 12-channel receiver samples position once per second and is accurate to within 3 feet, 2 inches. The chart display can be viewed head up or north up. The head-up orientation is nice for situation awareness, but the north-up orientation is more stable and does not require updating as often. Multifunction keys control zoom and cursor centering.

Size: 9.5" x 5.5" Weight: 1.54 lb. Channels: 12 parallel Compatibilities: WAAS, EGNOS, MSAS Accuracy: within 1 meter WAAS/EGNOS: +/- 1 knot Refresh frequency: 1 second Acquisition: 2 minutes (cold start); 45 seconds (hot start) Map System: Navionics Gold MapSend BlueNav Screen: 16-color backlit TFT Resolution: 320 x 240 pixels Illumination: 380 candella/m2 Memory: flash rom Waypoints: 1,000 Routes: 30 reversible Operating temp.: 14° to 140° Power: 10 to 36vDC Consumption: 12vDC/700 mA (max with light)

The FX324 Map stores up to 1,000 waypoints, 30 routes of up to 50 waypoints each and six tracks of 1,000 routes. Users can create their own waypoints and routes by using the cursor directly on the chart or by keying in latitudes and longitudes. Waypoints, routes and tracks can also be downloaded and uploaded from a personal computer.

My morning with the FX324 Map Color began with something I like to call the "no-manual logic test. That is, I attempted to power up the system, establish my location on the chart display, and create and navigate to a waypoint without consulting the manual or a reference card. The test was a success. The FX324 Map Color's menus and functions are fairly intuitive-more so than those of Magellan's earlier-generation units (and those of its competitors). The structure of the menus was especially refreshing-regardless of how deep I was in the system, the way out was always clear.

After my test without the manual, I read through it to see what features I had overlooked. The 110-page manual is rather comprehensive, and would probably benefit from an index. I found that the FX324 Map computes and displays position, speed over ground, course over ground, range and bearing, time to go, velocity to destination, estimated time of arrival, cross-track error and, of course, chart graphics. Light list and waypoint information is displayed on pop-up windows. Data pertaining to tides and currents also is available.

Cold startup of our test was just under two minutes, and hot startup was consistently less than 30 seconds.

On the morning of our test, sunlight was diffused by a high overcast, which created an ambient lighting condition photographers call "cloudy bright-just about the toughest lighting an unshaded solid-state screen can face. The alphanumeric displays were big, clear and readable. Readability of the chart displays, however, was disappointing; we had to rig the unit in a shade box. The best place to mount the FX324 Map Color is a T-top-mounted radio box, I think.

Optional for the FX324 Map are MapSend BlueNav navigation charts, which Magellan hopes will deliver "professional-grade navigation and electronic charting capabilities to those without big boats-or big budgets.

The charts come preloaded onto Secure Digital (SD) memory cards, which are available through Magellan's Web site or dealers equipped to create them. A watertight compartment for the memory cards is on the unit's right side. One local dealer did not have any SD memory cards in stock, and another said it did not have the machine needed to burn them (it was expecting delivery of the machine). With that, I went the online route.

The SD memory card I ordered from Magellan's Web site came with charts for western Long Island Sound, the southern Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean off the northeastern coast of New Jersey, as well as light list data and information about the area's tides and currents. The card was $149.99, plus overnight shipping charges. Charts are available for most of the world's coasts.

A nice feature of the FX324 Map Color is its man-overboard function. Once the function is triggered, a line is plotted between the boat's actual position and the position at which you pressed MOB, helping you keep the person overboard in sight.

Overall, I liked the FX324 Map Color. It should make a reasonable fit for a tender or other small boat, where display performance must be balanced by budgetary realities. Base price: $900.

Contact: Magellan, (800) 669-4477; www.magellangps.com.