Selecting a Fishfinder – How To Pick The Best One For You

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One of the most important pieces of any angler’s arsenal is a fishfinder/gps unit.  Many would argue that a fish finder is the most important tool to consistently catching more and larger gamefish and we tend to agree.  These units range from simple models that give basic depth and temperature information to models can read 3D lake maps and integrate with other systems such as downriggers and autopilot.  The information that a sonar gives an angler is invaluable and is usually the deciding factor when picking a location to fish.  Any information that you get from your sonar provides you with the edge that can be the difference between spending the entire day fishing instead of catching.

The three big players in the marine electronics industry are Humminbird, Lowrance, and Garmin.  These brands have built up the largest customer bases for a reason.  They all provide exceptional performing products at the best prices.  While there are certainly many other brands to choose from, we feel that these brands provide the best value to a majority of all anglers and applications.  When looking for a new model for your application, please take the time to look at all the different units these companies have available and compare them against each other.  Our goal is to help you find the fishfinder or gps combo unit which best fits your application for the best price possible.

Looking For a Standalone Fishfinder, GPS Combo Unit, or a Networked System?

With so many models available it can be difficult to make the right choice.  In order to find the best value for your needs, you need to establish the type of fishfinder you want.  This will help you decide what you are looking for and provides a nice starting point to start comparing the different models.  All of these units have advantages and disadvantages, so it’s really about finding a model that will provide all the features that you’re looking for at the best price.

Standalone Sonar - Standalone SonarThis type of finder is pretty self explanatory.  While it may not have GPS, it does boast the best value for pure sonar performance with a much larger viewing area.  You can usually get an upgraded model compared to the more expensive combo units.   Standalone units give you the most bang for your buck, but many users find themselves upgrading to a different model just a few years down the line.    I would recommend this to anglers who routinely fish smaller inland lakes or are on a limited budget.  On the other hand, if you have a larger boat that has room for multiple displays, this is hands down the way to go.  Another tip is that many of these models offer expandability down the line if you wish.   For example, if you decide to get purely the best standalone sonar with all of your budget, you could add a GPS receiver and make it into a combo unit if you choose to do so.


Combo UnitFishfinder/GPS Combo - This is the most popular option for most anglers as it gives the most features and options for the best value.  A combo fishfinder is much more affordable than purchasing 2 separate units and it provides the same technology and features of both.  The addition of a GPS is a major upgrade and these units can help you locate fishing spots, buoys, wrecks, and most importantly get you home safely.  Most models allow you view both GPS and sonar at the same time or just view the sonar in full screen.  We will be reviewing alot of combo units as they seem to be the most popular and overall the best solution for a majority of anglers.


Networked-SonarNetworked Solution – If you’re serious about your marine electronics, this is what you want!  Essentially, this type of system “ties” together all of your electronic systems so they can all talk together.  You can simply plug in or wire in a data source and all your other devices are capable of reading and displaying the data from the entire network.  Cool Huh?  This network can include sonar, gps, radar, video, XM radio, digital fuel flow gauges, etc.  With many of the newer models you can download on app on your phone and control the whole system wirelessly.  The best part about this type of solution is the ability to expand.  Multiple-display or data systems are geared to larger fishing vessels or anglers who want the best.



What To Look For in a Fishfinder Display….Color? How Many Pixels? What About Size?

Should I Get Color? When looking at fishfinders, the display is one of the most important and prominent features.  The most obvious decision is selecting a unit that is gray-scale or color.  In my opinion, this option is purely based on budget.  There is no doubt in my mind that color units provide a superior image in all different light conditions.  That being said, color units are much more expensive and gray-scales provide similar performance at a fraction of the cost

How Many Pixels Should I Look For? Just like your television, the newer LCD screens are made up of pixels or small dots that form to make one high resolution image.  You should always look closely to make sure the unit that you are considering has a high pixel count and thus more detail of the viewing images.  Another factor when making this decision is if you will be using the same screen for multiple displays.  If the unit has 640 horizontal pixels, you must remember that this will be cut in half when running a split-screen display.  Anything over 480v X 480h will provide adequate resolution for a standalone fishfinder, but more pixels are needed when you move into the combo units and larger 7″+ units.  Anything over 720p is considered High Definition (HD) and they provide an even bigger advantage to anglers simply because you can see in much more detail including thermoclines, baitballs, and fish sitting on the bottom.

What Size Screen Should I Buy?  Screen Size is another major aspect which should be considered.  I always recommend a 5″ screen at the minimum for permanent installations and then move up from there based on your needs and experience level.  Most manufacturers measure the size of the screen diagonally.  A trending feature is also the use of a widescreen display allowing you to see more and it also increases the picture quality of split screens displays.   The quality of the larger screens can be significant even if the increase in size is only 2-3″.

How Much Transmit Power Should It Have?  What Frequency Sonar is Best?

Power – Signal power or transmit power is one of the first and most important features I look at it when reviewing a fishfinder.  Most brands have very similar features, but there is no replacement for raw sonar power.  The signal power indicates the signal strength that the sonar is sending from the transducer.  When looking for a transducer make sure to look at the Max Wattage in RMS and also the Peak to Peak (PTP) measurement.  The RMS measures how much power it can consistently output while peak to peak measure total output.  I always recommend to purchase the fishfinder with the largest power output that you can afford, but there are obviously some limitations.  Look for at least 250W of RMS power and 3000W (Peak-to-Peak) for deeper water applications.  If you only fish shallow water (<50ft), then most models provide sufficient power output.  Remember that the more power output or signal power that your transducer has, the better the image and clarity on your sonar screen.

Sonar Frequency -There are many types of transducers, especially with new products like side and down imaging.  With so many options available, its extremely important that you match the transducer to your application.  The basic signal is either a 50 or 83 kHz beam with a 200 kHz shallow signal.  Make sure to note whether your transducer is 50/200khz or just a single 200khz.  If you are fishing deeper water you will need to have the 50khz for better viewing.  Down and Side Imaging utilize a different type of sonar and therefore use different frequencies.  While the major brands will clearly mark the transducer you are selecting, you should always double check.  Some down imaging models don’t come with the standard frequencies and require you to purchase another transducer.  Make sure you know what you’re buying!!

Down Imaging Sonar

Down Imaging

The compromise between side imaging and the usual 60/83/200 kHz transducer is the down imaging feature. By using high frequency sonar and directing the beam underneath the boat shows a high resolution view of what is underneath the boat. The Difference between the side and down imaging features is the beam direction. Side imaging allows for views to either side of the boat, down imaging gives a view directly under the boat.
Color or Gray-Scale?

Color vs Gray-Scale

One of the biggest decisions when buying a fishfinder is whether to get a color or black and white screen. Each has advantages, color provides more detail and helps interpret sonar images more accurately. Black and white is less expensive, which means that you can pickup features like down imaging and side imaging at a cheaper price. The recent tech improvements now allow for higher quality color screens at more affordable prices. So color displays are within the reach of the budget conscious fisherman.
Side Imaging Sonar

Side Imaging

Side imaging now allows for ultra high resolution view of what is underneath your boat. By using high frequency transducers, they are able to beam sonar at high rates which gives a much more detailed sonar image. The image is presented with views of the sonar and port sides of the boat. These images show the contour and structure that is under the boat. Each brand offers a version, all of which are very high quality.
What Sonar Frequency?

What Frequency Sonar?

There are three different situations in which sonar frequencies have been developed. The first are the regular frequencies which operate in 50, 60, 83, and 200 kHz. These are the most popular, and are available on almost all fishfinder models. Side and down imaging sonar frequencies use a higher frequency. The usual frequencies here are 455, 600, and 800 kHz. Down imaging usually uses only the first two and side imaging requires the highest frequencies. On the other side deep sea anglers need the 50kHz, so that the sonar beam will go deep enough for fishing big game species.


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