Sunday, March 18, 2012

Getting over SiRFstar III

SiRFstar IIIThe most common handheld GPS question I get these days is about chipsets. People agonize about buying a unit without the SiRFstar III chip, partly because GPS enthusiasts like me have long sung its praises. So it’s time to set the record straight, or at the very least give you my opinion on the newer chipsets being used in current GPS receivers.

First some background — up until couple of years ago, the SiRFstar III chipset was the gold standard for GPS receivers. Before this chip, reception in mountainous terrain and in other challenging conditions was often hit or miss. Manufacturers had to use the SiRFstar III or risk being ignored by the market. Then a patent dispute with Broadcom was settled, and not in SiRF’s favor either. Manufacturers began looking for high-sensitivity chipset alternatives, usually turning to MediaTek or STMicroelectronics.

But are these new chips as good as the SiRF III? My take is basically yes. All high-sensitivity chipsets can pull in weaker satellite signals, which means shorter time to first fix and an improved ability to hold the satellite lock in difficult environments, but this can also result in more multipath reception errors. The firmware for these new chipsets was far from mature when first introduced; it is much more difficult to fine tune firmware for high-sensitivity chipsets. IMHO, with succeeding generations of firmware, units with the new chipsets are now nearly as good as SiRFstar III models, with some of the remaining minor differences coming from the lack of a quad-helix antenna on most new models.

I still use my 60CSx for comparison testing, but lately the differences have been quite small and often difficult to discern. YMMV, but I’ll take the new interfaces and capabilities over earlier-generation models any day.

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.


  1. I answer variations of that question probably ten times a week in much the same way. Well said.

    Magellan’s in-house receiver was king of the hill in the first part of the decade. SirfStar III measurably topped it and the buzz around it made it the market darling by the middle of the decade. There was so much hype around it that the ‘everything else is crap’ mindset stuck around even after MT3318 (MTK v1), MT3328//MT3329 (MTK v2), STA5620/Cartesio reached parity with SS III.

    An interesting artifact of this is that in ’05 and ’06, companies loudly boasted of their use of of the SS III product while many are more quiet now. When Sirf had their legal problem and were facing court orders to stop importing their product into the U.S., companies often silently replaced the SS III with these competing parts. Garmin is probably the highest profile example of this, with a number of Nuvi and the 60Cx and 76Cx getting midlife slipstream replacements. So we have a couple of years worth of product collateral, web sites, and salesman training saying these products are SS III while the ones rolling off the lines since ’08 or so have different chips. ( and both show the 60csx as having Sirf parts this morning, for example.) Garmin is now much more quiet about what’s actually used in the products, presumably to help them roll with future vendor changes.

  2. Thanks Robert. Always good to hear from you. I halfway expected to get a lot of grief over this post, so I appreciate the validation! Getting variations of the question ten times a week is what prompted the post. Now I can just give folks the link. 🙂

  3. Gsnorgathon says:

    I came to the party too late to comment on SiRFstar, but I can say that the track logs on my Garmin Oregon have dramatically improved over the 9 months I’ve owned (and upgraded the firmware on) it.

    There’s still an occasional disappointing hiccup, but in every case I’ve been right next to great vertical masses of rock where one would expect multipath errors.

  4. I have a Garmin Street Pilot c580 that I purchased approx. 3 years ago and a Garmin Nuvi 760 that I purchased for my wife one year ago. My c580 has the SIRF III chipset and the satellite acquisition time is noticeably faster than the 760 unit. I am looking to replace the 760 due to this as well as due to the lack of responsiveness of the touch screen is awful. My c580 is fantastic.

    What Garmin units would you recommend for me to consider and how can I tell what type of chipset is in the new unit I buy?


  5. How much do you want to spend and what features do you want? More recent nuvis have hot fix technology that will speed satellite lock. Here’s a good reference on chipsets:

  6. David Whitehead says:

    Hi, Ive just purchased the Garmin 60 csx but it takes ages tracking satellites. Ive read that the first fix takes time but today it took 35 mins to get 4 satellites. Is this normal? also how can you tell which chipset is installed

  7. If that was the first acquisition, it’s not unusual. Make sure you leave it on awhile after that, so that it can download ephemeris data.

    To see which chipset you have, go to Main Menu > Setup > System > Menu > Software Version. If the GPS software version is 3.00s its SiRFstar III. If its 2.00m, its MTK.

  8. I find all this information very interesting. I looked at my 60CSx information and it shows Software Version 3.90 and the GPS Software Version 2.90s I am assuming that the “s” in indicative of the SiRFstar III. I have had the unit, for a few years now and found it to perform quite well here in the eastern US where tree canopy can really reduce good tracking.

  9. John Hawkins says:

    I cannot determine the chipset for my Garmin 60CSx. The directive above did not work (Main Menu > Setup > System > Menu > Software Version. Please help me determine the software version (4.0 is current, I think per Garmin) and the chip set version. Thank you.

  10. When you go to that screen, you don’t see Software verison, GPS SW version and Unit ID?

  11. Cabela’s has a 2008 Garmin 60csx in a combo package that is $140 less than a 2010 model 60csx? Is there a significant difference between the two?

  12. Rich,

    My gpsmap 60csx reads:
    Software version: 4.00
    GPS SW version: 2.90s

    That would mean I have a Sirfstart III chipset, correct?

  13. Chance Wolf says:

    Very, very interesting thread. I bought my 60csx early this year (2010) based on all the recommendations out there on the strength of the SirfStarIII chipset and tests of the unit alongside newer Garmin Colorado and Oregon units. I was aware of the legal problems Sirf was having and wondered, along with many, how the current production 60csx units were still coming out with the SIRF chipset where Oregon and Colorado apparently were forced to use what were *seemingly* inferior chipsets. When I got my 60csx it did not disappoint and I joined the choir preaching the virtues of the SirfStarIII chipset.

    Well, I just read my software revision as suggested in an earlier response and found my software revision to be “2.30m”, which presumably means an MTK chipset and not the SirfSTAR. The performance is nevertheless outstanding, and tends to lend a lot of credence to the statement that the Quad-Helix antenna etc. have more to do with the better performance over the other models than the chipset alone.

  14. Felipe Valencia Rendón says:

    Greetings From Colombia,

    WOw !!! your site is amazing. It is full of practical information, and I can see that you have a high compromise with your readers.
    [I hope you can understand me, my English writing is very basic :)]

    I had never owned a GPS unit and right now I´m very interested, because the reviews out there, in a Garmin GPSmap 60csx but in a completely different context that is mentioned here (geocaching, hiking, etc..). I´m experimenting with permacultural design, very related with landscaping design. For this, I need to make a contour map using “cheap but efficient equipment” like a rotary laser level and a GPS unit. I need to record waypoints to build every contour line in the best possible accuracy way.
    Reading some of your reviews about 60cxs I found that this unit have problems wandering when stooped (SiRFstar III chipset); but also I find that this unit is the best in its range (price/features).

    I ask you if the 60cxs can serve well to my purposes (a barometric altimeter and electronic compass are very useful for for me too). Some of the members of eTrex family (like eTrex Vista HCx) could work better for my job than the 60cxs?. Which others equipments do you recommend me (deLorme, Magellan) for this labor? I need the best accuracy in every waypoint.

    Thanks for your patient and your help.

    • I don’t believe you will get the horizontal or vertical accuracy necessary for what you are trying to do with any consumer grade GPS. Horizontally, under good conditions, you can expect 10-15′ accuracy. Vertically, even with daily altimeter calibration, you may see variation of 10′ or more.

      • Thanks for quick reply!!

        I understand 🙁 …
        But even under this conditions do you have any suggestions of equipment?. How much improve the accuracy using an external antenna for the 60cxs?
        For this Job it’s better the MTK Chipset or the SiRFstarIII Chipset ?
        What steps should I practice for improve the accuracy with this kind of equipment?

        I guess, I should make some data corrections using a software (Mapinfo).
        Actually some of the greatest permaculture designers are using this technique for surveying. But right now, I don’t have a proper equipment suggestion.
        Again thanks for you patient. I know that those are many questions.

        • An external antenna should improve accuracy if reception is poor (for example, if you are working in steep mountainous terrain). I’d go with an MTK chipset. You won’t have as much wandering when standing still. If you’re gathering waypoints, you might also want to do waypoint averaging.

  15. We are extensively using TELTONIKA GH1202 & GH3000 in INDIA after trying few personal tracking devices. Teltonika is BEST but unfortunately the after sales service and support availability of repair is poor.Also the device is not WATERPROOF.Can you suggest us better alternate? As per my knowledge GARMIN is also not having such device.

  16. I have been using the Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx since 2006. Recently I was forced to replace it and chose the Oregon 450. This device is shockingly bad in comparison. Accuracy is far worse, distances covered are reported hugely out on occasion. This can be due to huge spikes (several miles) in the track log when it struggles to get a fix. It does acquire the satellites much quicker, but I’d take the SirfStar III any day.

    • thanks Pete..My search for replacement of TELTONIKA GH1202/GH3000 is still answered by any expert.I need the equivalent hardware,whether it will work in INDIA or not can be tried later..any assistance?


  1. […] Getting over SiRFstar III – GPS Tracklog – Feb 17, 2010  · The most common handheld GPS question I get these days is about chipsets. People agonize about buying a unit without the SiRFstar III chip, partly … […]

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