Monday, April 14, 2008

The Garmin Colorado 400C: The Ultimate Hand-Held GPS?

The Garmin Colorado 400C with pre-loaded g2 Blue Charts may be the ultimate hand-held GPS receiver that I've been waiting for. The recent release of this unit makes me glad I held off on upgrading from my basic Garmin Etrex unit that I've navigated with for years. I've had my eye on several different units from Garmin, all with the on-screen chartplotter function, but I've been torn between a larger, fixed mount marine chartplotter and the handheld GPSMap 76Cx.

The old Etrex unit is a reliable GPS receiver that provides accurate position information, as well as waypoint routing, distance, speed and time to go, but there is no charting capability unless it is connected to a PC. Of course, I still carry and use paper charts, but I've been wanting the convenience of an on-deck chartplotter since using an older Garmin 182C during a Gulf crossing on my friend Artie Vaugn's boat. Seeing the vessel's position right on the chart and being able to quickly determine distance from that position to navigational hazards is especially handy - even more so on a small, often wet boat than on a larger cruiser.

While accurate coordinates are all you really need, and the ability to get these from a small electronic device the size of the Etrex is a modern marvel compared to pre-GPS days, you still have to plot your vessel's position on the paper chart to know where you are. On a small open boat, trying to wrestle with a full-sized paper chart in the cockpit when the wind is up or keeping it dry in a driving rain is daunting in comparison to using an all-in-one GPS/chartplotter combination.

More sophisticated hand-held units like the GPS Map 76cx and the Etrex Legend offer unlimited charting options, by means of a micro-SD card slot, but each region has to be purchased separately. Only Garmin's proprietary charting software, Blue Charts, will work in Garmin units, and until recently it has been quite expensive to purchase if you anticipated cruising over a wide area passing through several of the Blue Chart regions.

The larger, fixed mount chartplotter units like the 492C began to be offered with pre-loaded charts for all U.S. coastal waters, and though more expensive than hand-helds, the value of the charts more than made up for the price difference for those needing many regions. But a fixed mount unit requiring a connection to an on-board 12-volt electrical system is not feasible for many small boats and especially for such craft as sea kayaks. Even the 478C, designed to be portable and movable between a boat and a vehicle, requires a 12-volt connection and will not run on self-contained batteries.

I considered the 478C last year when I was still sailing Element, my Wharram Tiki 21 catamaran. But to use this I would have to install some kind of basic electrical system, which the boat did not have and I did not want on that size boat. I almost went ahead and bought a GPSMap 76Cx, along with one chart region, for my area of the Gulf of Mexico as the price kept falling. But it would cost $400 for the unit and another $150 or so for the one chart. I could use it on Element or in my kayak, but I knew I would eventually have my Tiki 26, Element II, that I'm building now, and would need to purchase multiple chart regions. This would make the cost much greater than the $700 478C, so I decided to do without and wait to see what was available when my new boat was finished.

Now, it appears that I have my answer in the new Garmin Colorado - a hand-held portable with pre-loaded charts of all U.S. waters and the Bahamas - enough coverage to keep me busy for awhile. This is the sort of GPS receiver I've been hoping Garmin would introduce - a true handheld chartplotter with the same built-in coverage of U.S. waters as the bigger units, but the ability to run off disposable AA batteries. Like the GPSMap 76Cx, it also has a micro-SD card slot so you can purchase additional charts if your cruising takes you beyond the coverage of the pre-loaded charts. Best of all you get all this for just $600 - a price that will probably start dropping after it's been in in production awhile.

A major change from the older handheld units is the user-interface. The Colorado 400C uses an Ipod-style "Rock 'n Roller" input wheel for easy one-handed operation. The wheel rotates clockwise and counter-clockwise to move through the lists on any of the screens and to zoom in and out on the charts. It can also be used to enter text using an on-screen list of alphanumeric characters. The wheel is at the top of the unit, designed to be in the natural position for the thumb, see below:

While the screen on all hand-helds is smaller than the larger, fixed-mount units, it is still quite usable as a chartplotter and the portability makes up for it. On a boat like my Tiki 26, I'll be able to use it from either side of the cockpit, depending on which tack I'm on, or take it down below if I'm working out a route or just want a break from bad weather.

The screen shot below from the Garmin website gives you a pretty good idea of how the g2 Blue Charts display on the Colorado 400C. Screen size is 3" diagonal, or 1.53" wide by 2.55" high.

Like the older Garmin handheld units, the Colorado 400C is waterproof. It uses 2 AA batteries with a projected run time of 15 hours, or it can be connected to a vessel or vehicle 12-volt system via an optional power cable. Built-in memory includes the capacity to store 1000 waypoints and 50 routes.

There is also a built-in electronic compass and barometric altimeter, as well as tide tables and sun and moon rise and set information. An alarm mode includes four alarms: anchor drag, off course, deep water, and shallow water.

All-in-all, the Colorado 400C seems to have everything I would want in a handheld GPS chartplotter. The small screen is the only disadvantage as opposed to larger, dedicated plotters, but you can't have everything with such portability. I'll be watching this unit in the coming months for user reviews and tests and when I get closer to launching Element II, I'm sure it will be on my outfitting list. The best place to get a good deal on electronics like this that I've found is Amazon, as they usually beat everyone else's price and you can get it with free shipping and no sales tax. It's in stock now at the link below if you can't wait, or you can watch and see if the price falls after the initial introduction.

Garmin Colorado 400c Handheld GPS


  1. Hi Scott, Good article, thanks. It's now July 2010 and I'm comparing the 400c ($250 from Garmin Factory Outlet and with Bluechart coastal) and the 76Cx ($200 sale at West Marine but only marine base map - no Bluechart). Any chance you've purchased the 400c or other marine handheld gps? Thanks, Steve (Freedom 25, Portland Maine)

  2. Hi Steve,

    My recommendations at this time would be either the 76CX or one of the newer 78 series. The 78sc comes with the U.S. coastal charts, but you can get the basic 78 and add the charts you need via Micro sd card.

  3. I have had a Garmin 12 on our 27' sailboat for 14 yrs which has taken us through lots of cruising & some fog. I did alot of research & bought the 400C in June & have spent 50+ hrs figuring out what it does & doesn't do (the manual has very basic info). I use it on our 27' sailboat & have taken it on daysails on bigger boats & gone thru every menu with other Garmin (chartplotter) owners figuring things out & practiced with it on the 1 hr high speed ferry to Salem, MA. The 2 things that it DOES NOT DISPLAY are 2 of the most important things for sailing: 1)accurate "Speed" (it changes every second or more & varies alot -- we all laugh as I read off 4.8, 5.6, 5.0, 6.0, ... in rapid succession) -and- 2) "Track"/"Course Over Ground"!!! These are 2 things I most want to know!!! You must hold the unit horizontal in a sailboat (too bad I bought the mount). "Heading" is roughly where you point the GPS so you can point it at a lighthouse, harbor, ...& easily get a quick sense of compass reading. "Bearing" is the compass reading for a waypoint you are navigating to. Even though it is laying down a Trackline you have no way of accessing the Track in the moment. The map page only displays 2 values and the compass page displays 4 (from a list of about 15-20) but toggling back & forth takes about 3 actions. If you pick a point to navigate to it is not easy to find the distance & heading unless you select it & drill down. When using a route I have not yet found a list of distance & bearing for each leg -- essential info. The charts although on a small screen are excellent and the ability to move the pointer forward of where you are pointing the GPS is great although it takes alot of getting used to because different amounts of detail shows depending on the zoom level (it helps to have paper charts). Waypoint Manager software which comes with it only works when the GPS is plugged in. Garmin advised me to buy Homeport for $30 which I did, download the charts from the GPS, & it is an easy & powerful way to create routes etc & upload them. If someone can correct or clarify what I've said here I'd be thrilled because I have scoured the internet for this kind of info all summer & gotten very little info from Garmin Techs (who say things like inaccurate speed is a feature of the WAAS...& know little about use on a sailboat). Luckily I only paid $350. I keep my Garmin 12 running (although it has alot of lines thru the LED display) but it gives me Track!! & Speed!! and if I move the cursor over a waypoint Distance!! & Bearing!! & much more just no beautiful charts. So simple -- lets hope it keeps running.
    Maddy Webster


"A boat is freedom, not just a way to reach a goal."
Bernard Moitessier - A Sea Vagabond's World


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