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Preface

In 2002 Lowrance introduced a new breed of handheld, GPS receivers - the iFinder. Two years is a long time in the world of electronics however, the iFinder did not get old at all! In 2004, we find the iFinder as innovative as it was the day of the release. Some of iFinder's features are unique, many are common and a few could use refinement. The iFinder is sold in four configurations, which feature the same receiver but differ in the accessories included. Factory specifications and details of each package can be found on Lowrance's website.  Note that the iFinder Pro and iFinder H2O offered by Lowrance are different receivers from the iFinder reviewed here. They offer a faster processor, larger and higher resolution screen, and may offer some other features that the original iFinder does not.

General description

At 5.588 x 2.549x0.955 inches (14.2 x 6.5x2.4 cm), the iFinder is about the maximum size that can be carried in a shirt pocket and easily fits into a typical fishing vest or hunting jacket pocket. The case is made of hard plastic and proved to stand up well to impact. Some rubberized coating would improve the handling, especially when wearing gloves. The unit is easy to hold and operate with one (bare) hand. iFinder's appearance can be easily changed by using various colour faceplates. Black, blue, red, yellow, camo and wood grain faceplates are available. At  first glance, it appears to be a feature of little importance to most users. That was our reaction, until we realized that the faceplates come with the display protective window in place. After months of use, it's hard to avoid marking the case, or worse yet scratching the display screen. Repair of such scratches by manufacturer can be costly, and polishing the scratches by the user is hard and often impossible. Replacing iFinder's faceplate is a 10 second job, which at low cost, restores the factory new look of the device!

160 Vertical x 120 Horizontal pixels resolution of the iFinder is not particularly large but it is easily readable in just about any light conditions. At the factory default contrast setting, the 4 levels of the grey scale are easy to distinguish between each other. The screen has a light greenish appearance, which turns to light blue with the backlight on. At the brightest setting, the backlight is sufficient for night use but there is no candlepower to spare.

The unit is equipped with a beeper and alarms can be set to trigger beeps or even play melodies, however, the sound level is low.

Power is supplied by 2 AA batteries. Under normal use, with the unit continuously recording track, occasional use of backlight, and no power saving, we got just over 8 hrs of operation from Duracell, alkaline batteries.  In similar conditions, a set of fully charged NiMH, 1800 mAh Powerex batteries lasted for just over 10 hrs.

 

Interface 

Lowrance is known for offering so many customization options in their receivers, that the numerous menus and submenus available intimidated many, especially new to GPS, users. Finding the right balance between ease of use for a beginner and offering complex functions for an advanced user is no easy task, but it appears that Lowrance has found a solution. 

Easy mode

Out of the box, the iFinder comes factory pre-set to "Easy mode" with pop up help enabled.

 

In that mode, the unit offers very basic GPS functions, displays, and settings. If a menu item is highlighted for a couple of seconds, a pop up screen with a short description of the function appears. This can be very useful when learning to operate the receiver. Units of measure can be set to standard or metric, and one waypoint can be saved. Power saving can be adjusted to prolong battery life at the cost of sensitivity and frequency of position updates. The screenshot below shows the limited but clear menu options in that mode.

Easy mode gives the user a choice of 3 navigation screens to display satellite status, compass rose with some basic info, and a map page. A single track is automatically recorded and displayed on the map. The map screen displays the map and co-ordinates of the cursor location. As limited as this is, it makes it incredibly easy for the uninitiated to start using the receiver almost right out of the box. There is no need to go through a lengthy set-up or receiver initialization process. All one really needs to do is to put batteries in, turn the receiver on and wait for about a minute. Yes, the iFinder is capable of resolving the position within a minute of a cold start and that makes it the fastest receiver that we have ever tested. Once the receiver acquires the position, a "home position" waypoint can be saved and the user can start going. The receiver automatically records the track (trail). The track record can be used to navigate back to the starting point by following the initial path / trail. A single press of the "Find" button brings a choice of navigating to the home waypoint or finding features and addresses from the map. The important thing is that it's all very simple and straight forward and works as advertised! It's truly an "easy mode". 

Advanced mode

The second mode the iFinder can operate in is the "Advanced mode". That mode offers numerous customization functions and additional display pages. Information displayed on the individual pages can be selected from a wide array of choices. Datums and co-ordinate formats can be changed. 1000 waypoints and 1000 event markers, 99 routes with up to 99 legs each as well as numerous track records can be saved and displayed. Each track record can be up to 9999 points long. The user can choose which data fields to display on the navigational display pages. Several alarms, information about average and maximum speeds, time of travel, and estimated times of arrival can be accessed and displayed as well. The following are just a couple of screenshots taken from the emulator in the advanced mode.

There are a number of other features that we did not list here. Using all of these functions requires navigating more menus, but it doesn't take long to get used to it. Well, it takes a long time to explore all of the options and possibilities offered by the receiver. We are not going to rewrite the manual, so don't look here for a complete list of all the options. You can download and read the manual for yourself.  Better yet, download and try the iFinder emulator. Links are at the end of the review.  Please note that the emulator is based on firmware 1.4. The current iFinder firmware (1.6) has some important enhancements. In particular, the ability to customize the track display can not be duplicated in the emulator. What is truly important is that we found that iFinder works as advertised or better. Most of it's functions can be found in other receivers but some can't and that’s what makes it a cutting edge product.

Unique features of the iFinder

 

Combining the Easy (mode) and Advanced receivers in one case is innovative but of importance only to somebody new to GPS and navigation. Giving the receiver the functions of an alarm clock and timers (iFinder has both) is not common but not much to brag about, so lets have a look at the features that we found to truly set iFinder apart from other receivers. The iFinder was the first handheld GPS receiver to use the common SD / MMC memory cards for map and user data storage. It supports the cards up to 256MB. In practical terms it means that large maps can be stored on the cards and that the storage of user data is virtually unlimited. User data (waypoints, event markers, track record and routes) can be filed on the card and retrieved at will. Each data set can be named differently and stored in separate files on the same card, just like the files are stored on a computer. In fact, all of the user data between the receiver and the computer are transferred via the memory card. It makes for very fast transfer of large user files and is a great option to have, however, we would also like to be able to transfer data via an old fashioned serial port. As it is, the only use for iFinder's serial port is to output data in NMEA or SiRF format.

iFinder can store and display numerous track records from its memory and at the same time record the current progress to yet another track. Without any problems, we have displayed (at the same time) over 20 tracks with multiple sections. The combined number of points in the displayed tracks was well in excess of 30.000 points and the receiver was still recording fresh track data without any hesitation. According to the manual, even more tracks and points can be stored! What the outdated manual does not tell is that the display for each track can be highly customized. The photograph below shows a sample of 11 tracks where each one is set to display in different fashion.

With grey, black, solid, dashed, or doted lines, the user can create the pattern he wants. Also, each of the trails can be given a unique name. That name is displayed when the cursor points to the track, making the identification of the tracks very easy. It is a great feature to have. It can be used to show roads, trails, rivers or other map features not depicted on the maps offered by Lowrance. To our knowledge, no other consumer grade receiver currently offers similar functionality.

Receiver sensitivity is another feature that makes iFinder stand out. Even in deep woods, under heavy canopy that makes most other receivers loose their lock on satellites, iFinder is usually capable of finding the signal and resolving the position. In places where most other receivers had to be held in hand to get the lock, iFinder was recording a usable track from the pocket. When used side by side, other receivers would, on occasion, record the track as well as the iFinder, but seldom, if ever, better. The iFinder is so sensitive, that it's the only unit we found to be capable of acquiring a WAAS signal inside of Andrew's house. Sensitivity can be often increased at the cost of accuracy, but it does not appear to be the case here. When tested by walking exactly the same route, over a course of several days under moderate tree cover, the subsequent track records were well within 10 meters, even though the iFinder was recording from inside of a breast pocket. When used to hunt down known survey points in the open, the unit was very reliably locating them "on the fly" to better than 5 meters. Under heavy cover, the repeatability of dynamically recorded tracks occasionally drops to as little as 20 or so meters, however, it usually stays within 10 and often better. 

Without any user intervention, the receiver resolves the position in less than a minute from a "cold start". In normal use, the receiver was usually locking in and resolving the position in less than 30 seconds, even after several days had passed and the unit had moved hundreds of kilometers from where it was last used. If the unit is turned off for a few minutes, it locks back on within about 10 seconds. If it's turned off or looses lock just for a moment, it locks back on virtually instantly.

The receiver very quickly responds to any change in speed and / or direction of movement. Despite the fact that the iFinder does not have a magnetic compass, it indicates a usable heading, even at moderate walking speeds. In stop and go or slow walking conditions, an old fashioned magnetic compass is a must, so make sure to pack one up!

Maps

 iFinder comes factory loaded with a basemap. On the basemap, the USA is covered in fair detail, but Canadian coverage is poor. Detailed maps can be loaded from the Lowrance MapCreate6 CD, but again, there is little Canadian detail in there. Since we used the iFinder mostly in Canada, we could not use MapCreate 6 to its full potential and it is hard for us to comment on the actual detail and accuracy of the coverage. Saying that, on a couple of trips South of the border with the iFinder loaded with MapCreate6 maps, the unit was very helpful in locating hotels and services and finding our way through the back roads of New York and Maine. Even the smallest dirt tracks and creeks appeared to be where the map showed them. Beside the MapCreate6 maps, iFinder can also use FreedomMaps™ , which offer good coverage of Canada and Europe. New,  MAPCREATE™ 6.3 CANADA is now also available. 

A brief encounter with the Canadian road and topo maps proved to us that the the coverage is good and the maps are an excellent choice for the Canadian users of the iFinder series receivers.

3rd party software compatibility

The iFinder outputs a standard NMEA data stream, so it can communicate the real time position data to most mapping programs. Transfer of user data can be accomplished only by the software that can read and write .usr files. Luckily, Lowrance gives the necessary protocol information for the asking and several mapping programs can now read and write the .usr files. We have successfully tested data transfer (both NMEA and user data) between the iFinder and OziExplorer and TOURATECH QV (TTQV).  iFinder can't be loaded with maps from these or any other 3rd party programs but they can be used to create new data or to edit data transferred from the receiver. When it comes to creating and editing tracks, MapCreate 6 has limited functionality, so the above-mentioned software may be of special interest to the users who want to use iFinder's tracks to add to the receiver's map features. 

We have no knowledge of software that could accept iFinder's SiRF binary output so we have not tested it.

Nothing is ever perfect

All of the above could lead to a conclusion that the iFinder is as good or better than any other receiver, however, there are two shortcomings that may be show stoppers to some and of no importance to others. 

1. The iFinder is not waterproof. According to the specs from Lowrance, it is water-resistant to IPX2. In real life, it means that the unit is not afraid to be exposed to a little bit of rain but better don't get it drenched! In any seriously wet environment, the unit should be used inside a waterproof pouch (supplied with the iFinder). This may not create a problem to most hunters and hikers, but it is not the ideal solution for water sports. If you need a waterproof receiver,  you may consider the iFinder H2O or iFINDER® Hunt

2. iFinder's track records do not include time nor elevation information. This limits the usability of the records. For example; tracks with time stamp can be used to automatically match digital photos to locations or to analyze speed and duration of travel. For some users, it may not be significant, but for us it is important and we would gladly trade half of the iFinder's track  memory just for the timestamp! 

Summary

All in all,  it is not a receiver best suited for car or boat navigation, but in the wild, it can hold it's own and then some!  The iFinder should be a very satisfying receiver for most outdoorsmen and we recommend that it be seriously considered when making a GPS receiver purchase decision. 

GPS Nuts 

Mar. 2004  

Update regarding Canadian maps options: Sep. 2004

 

Related links

Lowrance Electronics (USA) http://www.lowrance.com

Lowrance Canada  http://www.lowrancecanada.com 

Specifications:   http://www.lowrance.com/outdoor/default.asp

Manual: http://www.lowrance.com/Manuals/default.asp

Emulator:  http://www.lowrance.com/Software/PCSoftware/demos.asp 

iFinder users discussion group on Yahoo with good tips, advice, and information  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ifinder_gps

iFinder's  connector pin-out

Home Learn thebasics Hardware reviews Software reviews Ship's Locker LEI Tips and tricks Technical issues Adventures with GPS Favorites Canadian Digest