Chartplotter vs GPS: Know the Difference (2024 Guide)

Boat with Chartplotter Device

When you get your first boat you are going to be looking to get some nautical navigation equipment to use onboard. The words chartplotter and GPS would have come up along the way without doubt, but that can be rather confusing. 

Often, chartplotter and GPS units are used to describe the same thing but in actual fact, they are very different, which can make buying the right device a tricky task. 

Not to worry, as we’ll be unraveling the mystery and working out the difference between a chartplotter vs GPS. 

What is a chartplotter?

A chartplotter is exactly like google maps on your phone. In essence, chart plotters are devices that have electric charts or maps built-in with GPS navigation

Chartplotter Device
Garmin Chartplotter Device

A chart plotter, just like Google maps, takes your GPS location and puts it onto a map so you can follow your location and navigate to wherever you want to get to, which is their main advantage.

What does a chartplotter do?

Help You Navigate 

Since chartplotters come with a chart along with a global positioning system, you can use them to navigate around the world if you want to. 

When you look at the display of a chartplotter you’ll see a map of the surrounding area and at the same time, a dot with your GPS position on it. Then, as you drive your boat around, you can see exactly what you’re driving over and towards. 

…great for working out what depth the fish are while you’re fishing and avoiding hazards…

This is great for working out what depth the fish are while you’re fishing and avoiding hazards like shallow shoals, or finding harbor entrances like channel markers. 

You can also set waypoints on the maps to mark a place with lots of fish, a water depth change, or a hazard like a shallow reef that needs avoiding. At any time you can pull up the coordinates of any of your waypoints and then share them with fellow fishermen and skippers. 

You Can Plan Routes

Unlike other devices like GPS or fish finders, with a chartplotter, you can plan routes to a destination on your boat that will guide you to take the quickest and safest direction. 

This means you can input a specific waypoint of a seamount into the chartplotter while you’re in the harbor, and the computer in the chartplotter will create a safe route or suggest an optimal route for you to follow to your destination. 

Lowrance C-Map Genesis
Lowrance C-Map Genesis

You can also save a route and follow the same route another day, see the distance of a route, and know how long it’ll take to complete your route depending on the speed of a boat.

While boats follow the route, the chartplotter consistently updates data like the current position of the boats, time to destination, speed, direction, and more. 

It Makes Tracks Of Where You Have Been 

While you’re driving around with a chartplotter it will record a track of all the water you have covered and show it as a dotted line on your maps. 

This makes both GPS navigation and returning to a good fishing site very easy. You are able to follow an old track through harbors knowing that the route is safe, and be able to get back to a fishing site as quickly as possible. 


I often use tracks to find an exact location where I have hooked a fish but forgotten to mark a waypoint. The track will look different from where you have been cruising, as the boat usually slows or changes direction when you hook up to fish, making it easy to find and then mark.

You Can Add Charts For Anywhere In The World 

When you have a chartplotter, you’ll need to add the charts you want to it and the great thing is, there is already excellent data about every boating location on the planet. 

Whether it’s a bass lake in the USA or the middle of the Pacific Ocean you will find a detailed chart that will give you a map of all the depths, reefs, hazards, buoys, harbors, and more for your chosen area which you can then use with the GPS technology, to safely drive around. 


You can also choose to add raster charts or vector charts to a chartplotter, both of which are electronic versions of paper charts. 

A raster chart is an electronic version and an exact copy of a paper chart with all the same info while a vector chart is dumbed down a bit from paper charts to make the file smaller and require less memory on the chartplotters. 

Click here for more info about raster and vector charts.

Do chartplotters show depth?

Yes, chartplotters show depths and bottom features just like a fish finder would except it doesn’t require CHIRP sonar signals or sonar technology to do it as the mapping has already been done. 

This means you can drive your boat along a certain depth line on the chartplotter and begin experimenting with depth and where you find fish. You can then mark areas on the maps where you find fish and return to them quickly another day. 

What is a GPS?

A GPS or global positioning system are handheld devices that literally provide your GPS coordinates and nothing else. The GPS data is then displayed on the device for you to see. 

GPS Device Placed on a Map
GPS Device Placed on a Map

GPS works as a device to give you your current position and usually comes with a very limited base map that has no details whatsoever, sometimes not even a road, but not all GPS-only devices come with a map at all.

How does GPS work?

Within a GPS device, you will find a GPS receiver that is linked to a GPS system. When you turn a GPS device on, the GPS receiver begins trying to connect to satellites orbiting the earth with the GPS systems it supports. 

Once it has connected to at least three satellites, the GPS triangulates your exact position using the satellites locations and stays connected so you can view your updated location as you move around. 


At any time while you’re moving around, you can see your GPS coordinates and then relay them to rescue services or look at them on a map. 

What does a GPS do?

Provides Your Location

Wherever you are in the world, a GPS helps you know your exact location given in a unit of latitude and longitude as coordinates, for example, the location of New York City in latitude and longitude is 40.7128° N, 74.0060° W. This is what your GPS will tell you about your location. 

Marking Waypoints 

GPS systems also allow you to save a waypoint for an area, thus “mark” it, so you can return to it later and know its location. It’s often used for underwater surveys as they will mark an area they are surveying, and it’s also useful for saving good fishing spots too. 


Like a chartplotter, a GPS will also save your tracks so you can see where you have been and then follow the tracks again or mark important places you want to save along them. It won’t be marked on a detailed map but you will have the longitude and latitude of the place you wanted to save. 

Types Of GPS

Handheld GPS 

Man holding a GPS device

A handheld GPS is a device that only has GPS on it, like a small Garmin GPS unit. It comes with a small display and only shows you GPS data like your location, where you have been, your heading, and gives you the ability to mark waypoints

Computer connected GPS

A computer-connected GPS is exactly like a smartphone or a Fitbit. The device has a GPS antenna that allows you to follow your location and for the device to record data like the distance you have run or the number of steps you have walked. 

Fish Finder GPS Unit 

You can also get a fish finder with GPS built into it. This allows you to have all the functions of a GPS along with sonar. The biggest advantage of this is that when you’re fishing, you can see a sonar image of what is on the bottom and then use the GPS to save good fishing spots. 

If you see a nice drop-off on the fish finder sonar, you can hit “mark” on the GPS and you will have saved it forever. Some of these units are capable of mapping the bottom contours onto your GPS to build a map of the areas you fish. 

Why Are Chartplotters and GPS Different?

As you have probably gathered by now, the main difference between a chartplotter and a GPS is that a GPS comes without a map and only shows you location data while a chartplotter has a GPS within it and shows all your location data on a detailed chart. 

…chartplotter has a larger screen than GPS…

Another difference between a chartplotter and a GPS is that a chartplotter has a larger screen than a GPS, usually around 8 inches in size whereas GPS screens are about 4 inches in size. This makes it easier to read the details on the charts and see what lies ahead. 

One further major difference is that you can also connect your chartplotter to lots of other marine electronics such as auto-pilot and radar, to create a marine navigation system, whereas, with a GPS, you only get GPS. 

What is a chartplotter used for? 

A chartplotter is used for navigation. As well as showing your GPS location on electronic charts, it can also be:

  • Connected to radar so you can see other boats in the area and avoid them
  • Used with an auto-pilot which will keep your boat heading in the direction you want it to
  • Connected to trolling motors so you can control them from the screen 
  • Connected to weather radar modules so you can see storms and rainfall nearby

With all of these add ons, you can create a very sophisticated marine navigation system that allows you to use your chartplotter to safely navigate around the world. 

Here’s a quick video showing you how to use a chartplotter and how it works…

How To Use A Chartplotter

What is manual chart plotting? 

Manual chart plotting is when you use a paper chart with a compass to work out where you are by knowing the distance you have traveled and triangulating your current location based on features you can see. 


It’s called dead reckoning and is quite complex to do and not as easy or as accurate as using an electronic chartplotter. 

What’s WAAS?

WAAS is a system that ensures better accuracy of GPS and it’s quite complicated to explain but I’ll simplify it. WASS tracks satellites and then works out any corrections from the GPS provided by the satellites and beams them across to the GPS device to ensure you don’t receive any location errors.

Do I Need a Chartplotter?

Technically no, no one needs a chartplotter as you can just drive a boat around with a compass. 

Would having a chartplotter be a good idea? Yes, absolutely. It makes a world of difference while you’re on a marine vessel. I always use them for fishing, and by seeing all the underwater features on a map along with my location, I can plan my trip very well. 

For example, if I can see a few seamounts, some nice canyons, and some great drop offs on the charts, I’ll make a plan to hit a few of them while I’m fishing and see what I catch. Without a chartplotter, I wouldn’t even know they were there or be able to find them.

What Do Chartplotters Cost?

Chartplotters cost around $200 for a handheld and then go all the way up to close to $5000 for a device that does it all from radar to auto-pilot and sonar. You can get a great one for under $1000 though that will do more than enough for a fisherman. 

What Do GPS’ Cost? 

A GPS costs anywhere between $50 and $500 depending on the type of device you get. The more affordable units only show you your location, heading, and coordinates whereas others will put them on a very un-detailed basemap for you. 

Routing Out 

Thanks for reading my chartplotter vs GPS article, I hope you enjoyed it and now know the difference between a chartplotter and GPS. Chartplotters with a built-in fishfinder are the way to go as then you’ll have all the fishing details you need from charts to sonar and GPS. 

Please share this chartplotter vs GPS post around with your friends and check out my articles on the best fishfinders to find the right chartplotter for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like