The latest rendition of Garmin’s ECHOMAP series of chartplotters has arrived, and this, the Ultra 126, is the biggest and baddest the line has ever had to offer. There’s a lot of good things to be said about the Ultra 126 - it’s got a marvelous WXGA display, an incredibly intuitive user interface, great connectivity, and some of the best software on the market. Most of the improvements over the “Plus” line come from better hardware, while the things we liked about it’s older cousins remain. Unfortunately, one of the things that really turned us off of the Plus line is still present in the Ultra line. We’re going to delve into all the details about what’s good and bad about the 126 in this review - this is a product for enthusiast anglers, and for those who it’s designed for, it can be well worth the cost.
|Frequency||CHIRP High Wide (150-240 kHz); UHD ClearVü CHIRP 800 kHz (760-880 kHz); UHD SideVü 1,200 kHz (1060-1170 kHz); CHIRP SideVü 455 kHz (425-485 kHz)|
|Resolution||1280 x 800 pixels|
|Imaging||Down: 200 ft.*; Side: 500 ft. Side (UHD Side 125 ft.)|
|Max Waypoints||5,000 (100 routes, 50 tracks/50,000 points)|
|Memory Card Slots||2 Micro SD|
Let’s start with the display. You’re getting 12” diagonally - that’s a one foot display, which means your Ultra isn’t going to fit into every setup. Folks who can fit it into their setup will be really pleased, though - a display that big makes it easy for everyone in the boat to see exactly what’s happening on the fish finder from a wide variety of different viewing angles. The screen itself is 1280 x 800 pixels, which is a very good resolution, similar to 720p - everything displays cleanly, with excellent target separation and enough space and clarity to easily read all the information on screen. You can adjust settings like contrast, sharpness, zoom, and brightness on the fly, so it’s easy to customize the display to suit your needs as conditions change.
The screen is backlit, which makes it usable in all kinds of conditions - you can go night fishing, fishing when it’s cloudy, when it’s raining, when it’s foggy, whenever! Obviously you want to be careful in these conditions for a whole host of reasons, but you can trust that your Ultra will be able to keep up even if you decide to hit the water during a storm at midnight (we don’t recommend doing that). The display has also been crafted to reduce glare, so you can use it in the sun with very few problems - in other words, you can go fishing with this device whenever you want.
One of the biggest advantages to getting a screen this size is that a lot of information can be displayed simultaneously, with enough separation between the information that it’s all easily read. A feature we absolutely love that you can find on most modern chartplotters can be found on the Ultra 126 - we’re talking about combination views. Combination views are basically split screens, and they’re one of the must-have features for a device this size - by displaying your sonar, your SideVü, your overhead map and your contour map at the same time, you’ll have an incredible sense of what exactly is going on in the water. These combination views are customizable, which we’ll talk about next, and you can split the screen horizontally, vertically, in windows, and in a number of other ways.
Now let’s talk about the interface, starting with the elephant in the room: the touchscreen. Yes, the Ultra 126, like its predecessors, has a combination touchscreen/keypad interface. We love this, and we’re hoping it becomes somewhat of a standard - whether or not you agree with us depends largely on how much you like touchscreens. Here’s the joy of the combo interface - if the touchscreen gets wet (which it inevitably does), you can still navigate with the keypad. People who don’t like touchscreens for other reasons can still navigate with the keypad. Those who do like touchscreens will be rewarded with much faster navigation through the menus - one touch and you’re where you need to be.
The user experience on this device was really well thought out, with the main menu giving you access to all of your sonar, charts, combinations views, ActiveCaptain, and a main menu customization option. At the bottom of the screen there’s always a little navbar that lets you go back to the home screen, adjust your settings, go back to the last screen, and do a couple of other things. The icons for navigating through the menus are well designed, so you can tell at a glance what you want to touch to reach your desired view. You can zoom in and out exactly as you would on a smartphone, simply by drawing your fingers closer together or further apart. All in all, we’re really impressed with how easy it is to navigate the menus; we think even someone with little to no experience using high-end fish finders could figure it out in a jiff.
Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse (CHIRP) sonar is the latest and greatest sonar technology available to consumers. For years, the technology was something of a military secret, in much the same way that traditional sonar was - you don’t want your enemies figuring out you’ve got a more accurate version of sonar on your hands. In order to understand all the advantages CHIRP brings to consumer fish finders, you need to understand a little bit about traditional sonar.
You probably already know this, but here’s a refresher: traditional sonar sends out a frequency; that frequency bounces off objects and returns to your transducer. The transducer and fish finder then interpret the returned signal and display what objects the signal bounced off of, using principles like the Doppler effect. The key here is that traditional sonar only sends out one frequency, say, 455 kHz. CHIRP sonar, on the other hand, sends out a sweep of multiple frequencies, say, 425-285 kHz. That provides you with a lot of advantages. The different frequencies give a clearer picture of what’s actually happening underwater, for one - you’re getting more varied information back, and those variables can be used to calculate what and where objects are more accurately.
Another one of the advantages of CHIRP is that multiple frequencies mean you’re getting the best of both worlds in terms of depth penetration, range, and accuracy. As you may very well know, the higher a frequency is, the more accurate the imaging you’re going to get is - conversely, the lower the frequency is, the further it can travel. CHIRP gives you a range of frequencies simultaneously, so you’re getting both range and accuracy, without sacrificing much of either.
Chartplotters, fish finder/GPS combos, whatever you want to call them - they’re useful because they fill the role of two devices, the fish finder and the GPS. When you’re looking for an enthusiast grade product like this one, you need to make sure there’s a high-precision internal GPS - of course, in a series called ECHOMAP, it’s no surprise that the Ultra has just that. That’s entry level for a chartplotter - you need a GPS in order to know where you are on the water, after all. You can use the map software in order to create routes and waypoints; check the specs section for the exact numbers, we’ve found that there’s more than enough capacity for our needs.
What’s more exciting about these fish finder/GPS combos is that you can use the transducer in tandem with your GPS in order to create some incredibly sophisticated underwater maps. In Garmin’s case, this is done through Garmin Quickdraw, one of the better contour tracing softwares we’ve seen on a fish finder. Basically, your transducer will find 1’ contours, then the software traces those contours over top of the lake in tandem with your GPS. That means you’re creating a full underwater map. What we particularly like about Quickdraw is that you can place points of interest like docks, harbours, and brush piles on the maps you’ve drawn, so you always know exactly where to go.
When you first start fishing, you won’t have any Quickdraw maps available - after all, you have to make those on your own (or get them from a friend - more on that in the next section). Fortunately, Garmin starts you off with a selection of maps. The basic bundle comes with Garmin’s Worldwide Marine Basemap; for an extra couple hundred, you can instead start with their Bluechart and LakeVü maps. Those maps come with Auto Guidance, which lets you plug in parameters that the chartplotter will use in order to find the optimal route to your destination.
These maps are incredibly useful for pre fishing lakes before tournaments, because you can mark down points of interest and create your own custom contour maps - that gives you access to information other anglers in the tournament might not have. There’s a few other mapping features you should know about, and we’re going to talk about them in the next section.
We’re so thankful that more and more fish finders are coming with wireless networking capabilities standard. Honestly, it makes so much sense - we need to connect our devices together, and that includes other fish finders, other NMEA 2000 devices, our cellphones - whatever we can get our hands on, basically. The Ultra’s wireless is fantastic - it’s easy to connect your cell phone, laptop or other chartplotters with the device. That’s big game, because Garmin has what might be the best fish finder app on the market: ActiveCaptain.
ActiveCaptain, in brief, allows you to store all of your charts on the cloud. That means charts like LakeVü, charts you’ve created with QuickDraw, or other map packs you’ve purchased from Garmin. You can access them from any device, then transfer them to other devices - that means you can, for example, pre-chart a route on your phone and then transfer that route to your Ultra so you’re ready to go as soon as you hit the water. It also means if you’ve pre fished a lake, you can transfer that information to friends - you can create a veritable scouting party before a tournament or a big day of fishing.
Better still, Quickdraw has an active online community, where you can upload maps you’ve created, and download maps from others. Those of you who are reluctant to pay for maps will be well served by this feature, because it’s free to use! We really love the mapping communities we’ve seen pop up - they really appeal to our collective sense of adventure, and we love helping (and being helped) by other anglers in our journeys.
You can also use ActiveCaptain to download new maps, or to update old ones - no longer do you have to carry around a micro SD card loaded with a specific set of maps, because you can transfer it all wirelessly. ActiveCaptain is incredibly convenient, and to us, it’s one of the biggest selling points for any Garmin device.
Let’s talk about imaging. When you’re looking at high end fish finders, imaging is kind of the hot new thing - people aren’t as enthused about using traditional sonar anymore, because you don’t get as clear a view of structure and bottom. Those of you who haven’t used imaging - we’re pretty sure you’re going to be blown away by how useful it is the first time you use it. That all said, let’s take a look at the imaging offered by the Ultra 126.
The SideVü on this thing, which gives you imaging of the sides of your boat, is fantastic, one of the best we’ve ever used. When you’re using the UHD SideVü, you get 125 feet per side of incredibly crisp, clear detail of all kinds of things, structure, schools of fish, even where fish are hiding under structure. You can also opt to use lower frequency sonar (the UHD is using mHz) in order to get readings from farther away, up to 500 feet per side - you’ll get a tad less clarity, but you can always adjust when you find the right spot. Without a doubt one of the best side imaging models we’ve seen, we’re really pleased with it.
On the other hand, we’ve got ClearVü. We might run a whole blog post about ClearVü, because it’s one of the things we’re most disappointed about in fish finding history, and it just keeps coming back. ClearVü does not actually give you a view from the bottom of your boat; that’s because down imaging sonar is patented by rival company Lowrance, and for whatever reason Garmin can’t or won’t get the patent. ClearVü, then, is a composite of the information the CHIRP and SideVü transducer components are receiving - you might find it helpful, but we didn’t.
Lots of cool other features on this thing. You can connect it with autopilots, audio systems, MotorGuide motors, and Garmin’s ultra-sophisticated Panoptix transducer, which we’re sure to do a blog post about in the future.
Hooking the device up to your smartphone allows you to get smartphone notifications on the device, which can be nice, though it might lead to your whole fishing crew learning that you’re late for dinner and your spouse is upset - not necessarily something we’re angling for, but we can see the utility.
We also found the Ultra to be very easy to disconnect, which is handy if you’re worried about vandalism or theft.
This is definitely the best fish finder in the ECHOMAP series, though technically it’s not an upgrade over the 102, except for its larger screen. We’re thrilled with the user interface, we love the screen, the SideVü is really incredible, and ActiveCaptain remains the best fish finder app we’ve used.
Where this really falls short is, of course, ClearVü - we truly hope Garmin finds some other way of doing imaging below the boat, because we know this is a feature a lot of people looking for fish finders in this price range are looking for.
You should get this device if you’re an enthusiast fisher who has other Garmin products, loves ActiveCaptain, or is looking for fantastic side imaging. Avoid it if you want down imaging, because it’s not going to provide what you’re looking for.