Magellan Meridian Color GPS Chart Plotter

This handheld GPS receiver/chart plotter teams up nicely with a PC.

The first GPS receiver in my collection was a Magellan 5200, introduced back in the 1980s. It was simple, tough and reliable. Still, every GPS receiver I've gotten since has been better than the last, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I tried Magellan's new Meridian Color. I found that it is packed with features and easy to use, making it a great companion for your yacht's primary chart plotter. In fact, it stole my heart.

The Meridian Color passed the dummy test-I had it up and running without having to consult the owner's manual. The process of entering waypoints wasn't immediately clear (I had to press GoTo to begin), but once I figured it out, I had no problem.

The Meridian Color's menu-driven logic includes a map setup page that allows you to select north up, course up or track up. You can also customize map details and track options. A "land/marine option toggles chart colors. Curiously, I found the land setting easier to work with in the Bahamas. For example, it differentiated between landmasses and deep water better than the marine setting did. Nav brings you to compass- and highway-style graphics, with customizable data boxes that display information ranging from bearing to rate of turn. The unit's 12-channel WAAS receiver acquired satellite data and provided the boat's position-without me leaving the saloon.

The Meridian Color comes with a map of North America, which includes nav aids and reasonable detail regarding towns and major roadways. MapSend BlueNav charts providing greater detail for areas such as the United States, the Bahamas and Europe are available on CDs. The disks allow you to transfer data to the Meridian Color as many times as you wish. You can access, however, only one area at a time, and only one memory card can be used per CD. This is not unreasonable, though, since the charts cover a lot of water.

I went with the CD ($169, in this case). While Magellan offers blank memory cards up to 64MB, the 32MB card ($55) is probably your best bet for use with CDs, since the largest marine chart on the one I worked with was about 24MB. I downloaded the chart for the northern-Bahamas area, covering Walker's Cay to the Berry Islands, and later, the chart for the Florida Keys area, covering Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas. Transferring each to the Meridian Color took about 20 minutes. Chart detail, which includes soundings, nav aids and information regarding marinas, fuel facilities and food stops, is impressive. While I worked with the greatest level of map detail, the busy Florida Bay chart took an average of eight seconds to refresh. A heads up: If you're using a memory card, you may find that detail of the internal map of North America is minimized.

Loading the information onto your PC allows you to work with charts, waypoints and routes using either the Meridian Color or the PC, as well as transfer files in either direction. While entering waypoints on the PC is convenient, the Meridian Color's keyboard is so easy to use that it's a toss-up. I found it easier to plot my course on the PC's larger screen first.

The internal memory handles up to 500 waypoints and 20 routes with 30 legs each, which you may also store on a memory card or your PC. For transferring data, the Meridian Color comes with a data cable and nine-pin serial connector. If your computer does not have a serial port, Magellan also offers a USB adapter.

The 8-ounce Meridian Color is crash resistant, waterproof and coated with a rubber armor that makes for comfortable singlehanded operation. It floats, according to Magellan, but I did not launch it. It uses two AA alkaline batteries that should last about five hours when the unit's backlighting is on and up to 13 hours without backlighting. An external power cable is available. The 16-color LCD display measures 2.2 by 13/4 inches and has a resolution of 120 by 160 pixels. Though small, it presents data and charts brilliantly in low and moderate light. In direct sunlight, colors were a bit washed out, but performance was otherwise good.

Like many of today's handhelds, the Meridian Color is designed for not only those wandering the water, but those exploring the woods and roadways. This results in some compromise. I would trade the vertical profile, data about phases of the sun and moon and the fishing/hunting page for tide tables or an electronic compass.

These gripes did not dull my passion for the Meridian Color. I spent this past summer aboard in the Bahamas and Florida Keys, and the unit performed flawlessly. I've been in love before, but this time it's going to last. Price: $500.

Contact: Thales Navigation, (909) 394-5000; www.magellangps.com.

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