Sunday, March 18, 2012

Garmin GPSMAP 541s review

Garmin GPSMAP 541s marine chartplotter review

Hands on with the Garmin GPSMAP 541s

The Garmin GPSMAP 541s Chartplotter is an incremental upgrade to the discontinued GPSMAP 540s.  The GPSMAP 541s has a 5″ diagonal color screen and the same Garmin appearance is maintained with the silver bars at the top and bottom of the case.  The major upgrade is the ability to interface with NMEA 2000 networks for engine diagnostics, weather instruments and additional uses.  The GPSMAP 541s comes pre-loaded with United States Coastal Charts and also has a SD card slot for additional charts.  The SD card can also be used for transferring waypoints, routes and tracks.  The GPSMAP 541s includes a built in sounder module, that allows direct connection to a transducer for depth and fish finder functions.

The user interface is very similar to the Garmin high end touch screen displays that are available for much larger vessels.  While I believe the interface was designed for a touch screen, it also works very well with the hardware buttons on the GPSMAP 541s without the touch screen.

Related Models

  • Drop down to the GPSMAP 441s for a smaller 4″ diagonal screen with nearly the same pixel count
  • Drop down to the nearly identical GPSMAP 531s for preloaded Inland Lakes Charts or drop all the way down to the nearly identical GPSMAP 521s for only the worldwide basemap
  • Drop down to the GPSMAP 541 to get the same feature set as the 541s, minus the sounder module
  • Move up to the GPSMAP 546s for the same size 5″ diagonal screen, but with many more pixels packed into the screen for crisper display of charts and data
  • Move all the way up to the 740s to get a touch screen interface, a larger 7″ diagonal landscape display with even higher resolution, and double the waypoint storage to 20,000; the 740s relies on it’s touch screen alone and drops hardware buttons

Garmin GPSMAP 541s Display

The display is a 5″ diagonal, with 234 x 320 pixel resolution.  The display was extremely bright and easy to read in direct sunlight and while shaded.  At night, the brightness needs to be reduced as it can be quite blinding to your night vision.  At first I was slightly disappointed at the 234 x 320 resolution, as I am used to viewing displays with much greater pixel density.  However, there is plenty of resolution to read the display and I had no problems reading any of the information that was presented.  Once the boat gets underway and you are bouncing around on the waves, everything blurs together.  From a practical standpoint, the low resolution is not as big of an issue that I had anticipated that it might be.

Garmin GPSMAP 541s Interface

GPSMAP 541s main menu

GPSMAP 541s main menu

The interface borrows heavily from Garmin’s higher end marine line.  While it seems that the interface was designed for a touch screen, it is also very simple to navigate with the arrow keys.  All the screens and information are very well laid out and the menu structure is intuitive.  Garmin is still using the Page button in it’s newer handhelds, and it was surprising to find that button missing from the GPSMAP 541s.  I will admit that I don’t know very many boaters that set up custom pages to make that Page button the efficient navigation tool that it can be.  Without the Page button it’s a few extra button presses to navigate the various screens, but the new menu structure is much more intuitive and more simple to learn.

Pressing the Home button takes you to the main screen where you can choose the major functions of the GPSMAP 541s.  From here you can choose Chart, Sonar or a combination.  Other options may show up on the home screen if you have accessories attached such as XM weather or NMEA 2000 engine diagnostics.  From the home screen you can drill down to the specific function that you require.  After you choose Chart for example, then you can choose a conventional top down chart or a 3D chart view.

NMEA 2000 Connectivity

The industry standard NMEA 2000 connection will allow the GPSMAP 541s to interface with a variety of other devices aboard a boat.  This includes both Garmin and non-Garmin devices.  Engine diagnostics, weather instruments, sail instruments, VHF/DSC, and AIS is a small list of available interfaces.  There are many more NMEA 2000 devices yet to be released or even yet to be envisioned!  Hopefully more NMEA 2000 VHF/DSC radios will soon make it to the market.  The industry standard NMEA 2000 interface will make it simple for boaters to connect up the GPSMAP 541s to obtain the full functionality of DSC.  Most VHF/DSC installations never get interfaced to GPS using the older and much more difficult NMEA 0183 network.  The industry has developed standard connectors among all manufacturers that build certified devices.  This means that you can connect the GPSMAP 541s with other certified NMEA 2000 devices without splicing wires or doing any soldering.

Pre-loaded charts of US coastal waters

Pre-loaded charts of US coastal waters

Preloaded Charts

The GPSMAP 541s includes preloaded charts of the U.S. Coastal waters.  These charts also allow a 3D view of the chart.  The same features including bottom soundings and land masses are displayed on the 3D view of the chart.  This 3D view is not to be confused with the Marinersview and Fishview modes that are available with the optional Bluechart G2 Vision card.  Additional charts can be purchased and loaded using the SD card slot on the front side.  If you load an SD card with Garmin’s Bluechart G2 Vision charts, then the 3D MarinersView and 3D Fishview of the bottom contours become available.  These views attempt to draw a 3d representation of the bottom contours similar to a bathymetric chart.  The perspective can either be set as the Marinersview, which is above the waterline, or as the Fishview, which is below the waterline.

The pre-loaded charts are very easy to read and have great detail of the entire U.S. Coastal area, including the Great Lakes.  Keep in mind these charts are U.S. waters only.  They do not include charts of our nearest neighbors such as Canada or the Bahamas.

The spot soundings are easy to read and very clear.  The shoreline detail and land masses are clearly marked and labeled.  All Navaids are simple to identify.  The only small complaint that I had was with chart clutter.  It is very difficult to decide how much information should be displayed on a chart.  Too much data, and everything is jumbled together in a big mess.  Too little information, and you may miss important features.  The GPSMAP 541s allows you to increase or decrease the chart clutter under the chart setup menu.  For all screen captures, I had Chart Detail set to Normal.  I had a situation where I was navigating across Lake Erie in a very familiar area.  There was a shoal ahead that I knew was there.  At the particular zoom level that I had chosen, the shoal was not indicated on the chart.  Note the two screen captures below:

GPSMAP 541s chart detail issues

GPSMAP 541s chart detail issues

These screen captures are only one zoom level apart.  At the 1.2nm chart scale, there nothing but empty white space where the shoal is located just to the north of my position.  Bump the zoom one level to the 0.8nm scale and the shoal becomes apparent on the chart along with a navaid that helps indicate the shoal position.  I wish the navaid would have showed up on the 1.2nm scale chart in the empty space.  That would at least get your attention that something might be there, and would prompt you to zoom in to investigate.  At the 1.2nm scale, the chart is definitely not too cluttered to indicate the shoal.  Notice at the 1.2nm scale, there are no depth contours on the island just to the East of my position. On the 0.8nm scale, the depth contours and bottom shading become evident.  That is a visual cue that important data is missing.  Increasing the Chart Detail in the chart setup did make the shoal appear at the 1.2nm chart scale.  It might just take a little practice in a familiar area, to familiarize yourself with the level of detail you would like to display.


Once a recreational boater gets their GPS programed with waypoints and routes, many boaters are most comfortable with the highway screen as a graphical means to following those waypoints and routes.  Garmin seems to have dropped that highway screen nomenclature from the menus structure, even though the concept is alive and well.  The screen that is the most similar to the highway screen is now under the Chart menu and it is called Perspective 3D.  This screen now includes the chart data.  The 3D screen is a place where the lower resolution really reared its ugly head.  The spot soundings on the chart became most difficult to read on this screen.  I am not sure if it was the font choice, or the lack of pixels, but the GPSMAP541s seemed to struggle to draw the spot soundings on the chart as legibly as it draws them on the conventional top view chart.  This Perspective 3D View is probably the most popular chart screen for most people, as it’s the most intuitive to use.

Garmin GPSMAP 541s navigation

Garmin GPSMAP 541s navigation

Waypoints and Routes are easily found using the Where To? menu item from the Home Screen.  The Waypoints menu shows a list of all waypoints starting with the nearest, ending with the furthest.  You can scroll through a large list of the waypoints faster using the +/- buttons to page your way through the list.  In addition to Waypoints, Routes and Tracks, the Where To? menu also includes Offshore Services.  This is POI data that allows you to search for various service that you may require on the water, services such as Fuel, Repairs, Grocery, Restrooms, Boat Ramps, Marinas, etc.  The data is pulled from the pre-loaded Bluecharts or from data that is contained on a optional chart card.  The last menu item on the Where To? menu is search by name.  This allows you to search for any waypoints or POI data by entering a name.

Keep in mind that if you navigate to any of the POI or waypoints, that the GPSMAP 541s will take you on a straight line to that point.  That straight line may take you over dangerous water or even over land.  If you choose a point from the POI database, the GPSMAP 541s will show you the chart screen with the position of the POI that you selected.  It will then ask you to enter additional Turns to get to that point.  It’s very simple to add waypoints to plot out a safe route through safe water using the pre-loaded charts.  However, this is not something that the GPSMAP 541s calculates automatically.

Garmin GPSMAP 541s sounder screenshot

Garmin GPSMAP 541s sounder screenshot


The Sounder module performed flawlessly.  One version of the GPSMAP 541s includes a transom mount transducer (Garmin SKU#010-00762-01), while the other version does not include a transducer (Garmin SKU#010-00762-02).  For these tests, I used an Airmar in-hull transducer.  The sounder was able to hold a bottom lock at many various speeds.  The sounder can be configured for 50khz, 200khz or both.  The sounder was able to see the fish and also determine the approximate bottom composition.  The sounder is also able to be customized to show other information.  In the screen capture shown at right, I added the compass tape which includes a CDI when the GPSMAP 541s is navigating to a waypoint or route.


Dashboards are found from the Home Screen > Information > Dashboards.  There is a wealth of information that is displayed on these screens.  The basic screens are: Compass, Numbers and Trip.  The Compass will show Course Deviation and other fields can be customized to display around the Compass.  The Numbers screen can be customized to show more or less fields.

Garmin GPSMAP 541s dashboards

Garmin GPSMAP 541s dashboards

Fuel, Engine and Wind will also show up on the Dashboard menu, if the GPSMAP 541s is receiving data for these screens.  The data can be sent via the NMEA bus.  With Fuel flow sending units, the GPSMAP 541s will display gallons per hour along with your real time fuel economy in miles per gallon.  Once you configure how much fuel capacity your vessel can hold, it will also estimate your current range.  Don’t forget to tell the GPSMAP 541s how much fuel you pumped after you fill up!  You can either indicate that you filled up the tanks, or you can enter how many gallons were added.  The Engine dashboard will show RPM, fuel level, engine trim, engine temp, volts, oil pressure, fuel pressure, boost pressure, and oil temp.  There are also icons to indicate an engine fault.  Your engine must be capable of feeding that data into the GPSMAP 541s.  The Wind Dashboard will show you both the actual and apparent wind.  It will indicate both wind speed and direction, along with the boat speed and current GPS track.  You must have wind instruments that can feed this data into the GPSMAP 541s to use this dashboard.


The GPSMAP 541s offers a few different options for mounting to your boat.  Included with the unit is a mounting bracket that can be affixed just about anywhere.  The mounting bracket allows for full articulation left right up and down, and it is very secure.  The bracket has a disc shaped base that attaches with three screws.  This base is very similar to many other Garmin devices and is interchangeable across their line including handhelds.  Another alternative is surface mounting the GPSMAP 541s.  The faceplate is removed with four screws on the back.  Included in the box is a cutting diagram to cut out your helm for a surface mount application.

Garmin GPSMAP 541s

Garmin GPSMAP 541s pros

  • Ease of use, simple menu navigation
  • Bright screen
  • Pre-loaded U.S. coastal charts
  • Built-in sounder module
  • NMEA 0183 & NMEA 2000 connectivity

Garmin GPSMAP 541s cons

  • Low resolution screen

Garmin GPSMAP 541s conclusion and recommendation

This is a very nice fixed mount chart plotter for recreational boaters.  A few of the issues that I pointed out are being nit picky.  I can recommend this unit to any recreation boater.

More Garmin GPSMAP 541s reviews

I’ll be posting more hands on GPS reviews as they appear, but in the meantime, here are some…

Other Garmin GPSMAP 541s resources

Compare prices on the Garmin GPSMAP 541s at these merchants:

About Bob Mueller

P/C Bob Mueller, JN is an active member of the United States Power Squadrons. He is an ABC3 instructor, a Vessel Safety Examiner and a Squadron Emergency Response Assistance Team Leader. Learn more about P/C Bob Mueller, JN at


  1. Rick Howard says:

    Nice review. Giving Panbo a run for his money.

  2. Well done, it’s nice to get an unbiased opinion of how it works in real world use.

  3. Glad folks are liking it. Many thanks to Bob for bringing solid marine GPS coverage to GPS Tracklog!

  4. Great unit. Perfect size for my smaller boat. Nothing larger would fit. The resolution is fine. Page to page is a bit tedious on a bouncing boat. But workable. My 541 is my Plotter only. I use a separate Lowrance fish finder.

    Happy after several years of use.

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