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Northstar 6000i Series GPS Chart Plotter

Integrated or not, this chart plotter/GPS receiver stands apart.

October 4, 2007
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I began my evaluation of Northstar’s new 6000i, an integrated navigation system, in my usual fashion-that is, without referring to the instruction manual. This allowed me to get a sense of how someone minimally familiar with this type of equipment would respond to it. I found that the 6000i’s user interface is as friendly as a puppy dog, but with none of a puppy’s unpredictability. In fact, the 6000i did precisely what I expected it to from the moment I pressed the power button.

The three models in the 6000i series differ only in the size of their LCD screens (6.4, 8.4 and 10.4 inches). With Northstar’s N2 high-speed networking technology, the 6000i is particularly good for yachts with more than one navigation center.

The 6000i presents on a single display panel virtually all the information you need to safely navigate a vessel. The basic system comprises a WAAS-capable GPS receiver and a very capable color chart plotter, which runs Navionics electronic cartography. External sensors, controlled from the 6000i, allow for the display of radar, depth/temperature/fishfinder and video data in flexible formats-this is a real plus. The system’s instantaneous screen redraw doesn’t hurt, either.

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A four-way cursor control and 31 buttons manage the system. Twelve buttons are clearly marked with their functions, and another 12 compose a familiar-looking alphanumeric keypad. The six unlabeled buttons are “soft keys, whose program-dependent functions appear on the display screen, just to their left. The unit’s single enigmatic button, marked with Northstar’s logo, provides access to a sequence of four data screens: “alarms, “tide track, “time of day and the extensive “options/service information screen, from which you can access eight additional screens. Backing out of any operating mode requires no more than a keystroke. A front-panel infrared sensor allows use of a handheld remote control.

I needed only a few minutes and a bit of duct tape to make a temporary installation of the 6000i on our boat (the duct tape held the GPS antenna/receiver in place). Pressing Pwr/Brt illuminated the screen and summoned not the unspecific beeps produced by most of today’s electronics, but beeps I recognized as Morse code. As I used the system, I found the coded beeps useful, since they told me what to expect when they called my attention to the display screen. If the 6000i loses GPS data, for example, it produces Morse code for the letters G, P and S.

The system’s WAAS-enabled GPS receiver acquired sufficient satellite data for a three-dimensional fix in well under two minutes, even though it had been operated last near Boston, more than 1,000 nautical miles from my location in St. Petersburg, Florida. The system’s built-in global chart appeared, centered on the GPS position. I inserted the Navionics chart cartridge into the slot behind the keypad and pressed Chart. A list of charts stored in the cartridge appeared on the right side of the screen, adjacent to the soft keys. I pressed the key adjacent to the Eastern Gulf of Mexico legend, which initiated a chart-loading process that was completed in fewer than 15 seconds. The In and Out keys provided access to the chart’s 14 available levels of detail, as well as two stages of “overzoom, or zoom beyond the normal maximum magnification. The first overzoom screen displays the center of the chart magnified four times, making detail much easier to see from a distance. The other overzoom screen deletes the chart detail and shows only the icon of the vessel, user-defined waypoints and the lat/long grid.

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With the chart on screen at the desired level of area coverage, I began a point-and-shoot navigation exercise. When GPS data is available, the system initially operates in “vessel mode, with the screen centered on the vessel’s icon. Three soft keys allow you to rotate the chart (north up, course up and track up) and access the “chart setup and “more info modes. Pressing Chart Setup allows the operator to select, from an 11-item menu, the amount of chart detail displayed. Track Control, a selection within chart setup mode, turns track on and off, and sets the interval between the recording of up to 4,096 track points. Pressing More Info summons a sequence of data blocks at the bottom of the screen; these display speed and course over ground, distance and bearing to the waypoint, and your vessel’s position in lat/long.

Pressing the cursor control pad switches the screen to a “browse mode, which activates a Go To Waypoint soft key. Red reference marks on the four edges of the screen track the cursor’s position, making it easy to find the cursor if you lose it amid a mass of navigation-mark icons. Pressing Go To Waypoint presents course and distance information to the new waypoint and a steering-command output for the vessel’s autopilot.

The 6000i can store up to 1,000 waypoints and 500 routes. Pressing Waypoints/Routes presents five soft-key choices: Quick Waypoint, Waypoints, Routes, Distance and Bearing, and Import/Export. Waypoints can be named with up to six characters and any of 16 symbols. Waypoint position can be defined in terms of lat/long (to three decimals), time differences (TDs) on a Loran C chain or distance and bearing from a known position. You can also identify waypoints as destinations or areas to avoid (with specified radii). Stored waypoints constructed routes easily. The Distance and Bearing soft key allows you to use the cursor for planning, with automatic calculation of distance and bearing from the vessel’s position or from a succession of cursor positions. The Import/Export key allows you to transfer waypoint data to and from another 6000i on the vessel’s network.

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One small criticism: On the alphanumeric keypad, the 1 key is marked with the letters A, B and C. The telephone keypads I use every day, on the other hand, have A, B and C on the 2 key. Those accustomed to the latter might find this frustrating.

Since it is an integrated system, the 6000i is able to control and display data from other units: a marine radar and an echo sounder designed to work with the 6000i (both sold separately), and a video source.

The 6000i’s soft keys handle setup and control of radar functions. Display choices include radar data alone, radar data on a split screen or radar data overlaid on a chart at adjustable levels of opacity.

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Northstar’s 490 echo sounder module provides the 6000i’s sonar data. The unit works with a dual-frequency transducer, which contains a seawater-temperature sensor. Sounder images can be displayed in full-screen mode or split-screen mode beside other data. You can display sonar information from the 50kHz or 200kHz transducer individually, or you can opt to view both on a split screen.

Display of video information rounds out the capabilities of the 6000i. Video can be shown in full screen, split screen or in a window, whose size, format and position are adjustable. As the radar display does, the window offers adjustable opacity, allowing you to layer information. The uses for the video display, however, are far too numerous to explore in this overview.

The 6000i is a serious-looking piece of electronic hardware. The rear of the die-cast aluminum case has seven connectors, plus a waterproof fuse holder and heat-dissipating cooling fins. Designed for surface or trunion mounting, the 10.4-inch-screen version weighs 9.1 pounds; the units with smaller screens weigh only slightly less.

In sunlight, I found that the brightness of the 10.4-inch display was somewhat more satisfactory than that of the smaller displays. The angle of the polarizing screen used in the LCD on the two units I evaluated was not optimum for use with polarized sunglasses. Tilting one’s head about 30 degrees to the left improved the image’s brightness and contrast. I think it likely that the factory will have taken note of this before this article is published.

Any owner intending to install the system himself should have on hand an Amphenol TNC connector and crimp tools, or he should have a marine-electronics shop prepare the antenna cable. Other than that, installation should present little difficulty.

My overall reaction to the 6000i is highly positive. With its easy-to-use interface and lightning-fast screen response time, it sets a new standard for this category.

Price of the 6.4-inch unit: $3,295; price of the 8.4-inch unit: $3,995; price of the 10.4-inch unit: $4995. Radar prices: from $3,195 to $15,595 (4kW radome to 25kW open array). Price of the echo sounder module: $995.

Contact: Northstar Technologies, (800) 628-4487; www.northstarcmc.com

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