As every angler knows, the electronics on your boat are critical to your fishing success. But with many brands and models to choose from, it can be hard to determine which brand to select. In this article, we evaluate several top fish finder models based on our survey of 250 boat owners.
Most Popular Fish Finders
The Humminbird Helix series was the most popular among our boater participants in total. Approximately 1 in 5 (21%) had one installed on their boat. This was followed by three different Lowrance series (HDS, Elite and Hook) and a pair of Garmin series (EchoMap and GPSMap).
However, the brand of fish finder owned varies by the type of fishing that you do. Among saltwater anglers, two Garmin models – EchoMap (25%) and GPSMap (18%) were most popular. This was followed by the mid-priced Lowrance Elite series (14%). Only 4% of saltwater boaters in our survey owned a Humminbird Helix.
The popularity of Garmin in the saltwater realm is perhaps attributable to the brands reputation regarding navigation and the ability of certain models (such as GPSMap) to connect with other electronics or Multifunction Displays (MFDs) on the boat.
It is important to note that in our study, several varieties or generations of a given fish finder were aggregated into the same series. For example, the Garmin EchoMap series includes the EchoMap, EchoMap CHIRP, EchoMap Plus and EchoMap Ultra models.
Top Rated Fish Finders
Among popular Fish Finder series, the Garmin EchoMap and Humminbird Helix came out on top in terms of customer satisfaction. Both received an average rating of nearly 9 out of 10 on an overall basis and scored considerably above the other major models.
Note that only items that received at least 20 reviews are listed.
The EchoMap Series is a broad range of chartplotter (navigation) and fish finder combos that range in size from 4″ to 12″. The premium UHD and Ultra models in this series have key-assisted touch screens to make it easier to set waypoints or scroll through screens. Plus, they are compatible with the Panoptix real-time imaging sonar (with the purchase of a separate transducer) – an innovative technology that enables you to see fish movement near your boat.
They are also NMEA 2000 compatible and so you can connect your display to other boat, engine or environmental sensors for added convenience – something that is especially important to many saltwater boaters.
All models have the Quickdraw™ contour mapping feature that will enable you to create a custom map on the fly – a key feature for those who fish waterways with no quality contour maps available.
Another neat feature of all EchoMap models is that they have Quick Disconnect. The wiring is built-into the mounting bracket and so you don’t need to disconnect cables. This is especially handy if you prefer to remove your equipment after outings to guard against theft.
One thing to be aware of is that side imaging (what Garmin calls SideVü™) is not available on 6″ or smaller models and is available as an option on many larger units. If this is an important feature to you, be sure to get units with sv in the name (e.g., EchoMap UHD 73sv) which denotes that the unit has SideVü™ in addition to traditional sonar and down imaging (which Garmin calls ClearVü). Units denoted by cv have down imaging and traditional sonar only.
Another important thing to note is that Garmin has settled its lawsuit with Navico and is now licensing their down imaging technology. For a while, the company was prohibited from offering true down imaging and used a sub-optimal calculated value (from the side-imaging signals) instead.
In our survey, boaters especially loved the reliability and ease of use of the EchoMap unit.
“Ease of use, easy to read in bright sun, no problems in five years of use. Good price.” (Gary L., Saltwater boater)
- “Garmin are the most user friendly.” (Nicholas L., Saltwater boater)
- “Wonderful display. Great chart. Very good fish finder…ease of use. Big company support.” (John M., Saltwater boater)
- “User friendly, easy to customize, very easy to use/read, reliable.” (Harold M., Saltwater boater)
- “It is easy to use and is expandable.” (Jeff P., Freshwater boater)
- “Very nice unit with great maps and easy use.” (Charles A., Freshwater boater)
This is an extremely popular series with freshwater anglers and offers some very impressive features. Perhaps the most noteworthy is Mega imaging. Humminbird is the first manufacturer to take fish finders into the megahertz frequency range (1.2 MHz). Most other brands top out at around 800 kHz. These higher frequency bands have shorter wavelengths that produce greater clarity to help you detect fish and know exactly what is beneath or beside your boat. However, Mega imaging only works up to a depth of around 200′ and so this feature is not helpful for some offshore boaters.
Another cool feature is the i-Pilot Link. With this, your Helix fish finder can communicate with select Minn Kota trolling motors to enable you automatically navigate to waypoints or follow a path or bottom contour. For example, if you are fishing a ledge, you can tell your trolling motor to follow the 15′ contour to enable you to cast or troll into the desired zone.
Helix units are also Ethernet network capable enabling you to share data such as waypoints from one unit to another on your boat. They also have Bluetooth, which is handy for performing software updates or to display phone notifications on your unit while out on the water.
As with the Garmin EchoMap, Humminbird Helix has what they call “AutoChart Live” to enable you to create your own contour maps.
Boaters in our survey loved the accuracy and clarity of the display. However, the pre-installed maps were a bit underwhelming (though they can be upgraded for an additional charge) and some mentioned that it can be a little difficult to navigate pages or settings.
“MEGA imaging quality and clarity. Follow the contour feature with Minn Kota. Simple to use.” (Jim Z., Freshwater boater)
- “Very clear picture. Easy to navigate and plenty of different views.” (Richard B., Freshwater boater)
- “Good size, full featured, dependable, clear picture, reasonable price.” (John S., Freshwater boater)
- “Best side imaging of all manufacturers. It takes a lot to learn how to get the best results. Customer support is hit and miss.” (Bob A., Freshwater boater)
- “Outstanding unit. Lots of features, hard to remember how to get to each feature to be able to adjust the sensitivity of each one.” (Tracey W., Freshwater boater)
- “You cannot jump from one screen to a preferred screen without scrolling through multiple screens.” (Jim R., Freshwater boater)
- “Pages are hard to move through.” (William L., Freshwater boater)
- “Easy to use but would like more preset buttons (3 more).” (Kim N., Freshwater boater)
One major difference between the Helix and the Solix series is that the former uses a keypad whereas the latter has the “Cross Touch Interface”. This means you can use either a touchscreen or keypad to operate the unit. If having a touchscreen is important to you, then you will want to consider the more expensive Solix line.
Humminbird Helix is currently available in 5″ through 12″ sizes.
Elite is the mid-tier offering in the Lowrance lineup that packs some premium features. One unique feature is FishReveal™. Many anglers, like myself, like to use DownScan (high resolution) to view bottom structure. However, detecting fish can be more difficult than using traditional 2D CHIRP sonar. Lowrance solved that by overlaying the 2D sonar (fish images) onto the DownScan image with FishReveal™ which comes standard with new Elite Ti2 units and is available via a free software upgrade on Elite Ti, HDS Carbon and Gen 3 models.
Another premium feature is wireless networking. This enables you to easily connect multiple Elite Ti2 units without running cables. Plus, this Wi-Fi capability makes it easier to upgrade the software.
A similar feature is phone notifications. By pairing your Elite Ti2 unit with an Android or Apple phone via a Bluetooth connection, text messages will display on your screen and you can respond directly from your fish finder. Likewise, when someone dials your phone, the caller information will be displayed on your screen as well (but you would still need to answer via your phone if you choose to do so).
One nice advantage of the Elite Series over other mid-priced models such as the Humminbird Helix is that it has touchscreen controls. This makes it super easy to change settings or set waypoints. However, if you want pinch and zoom capabilities or additional keypad options, you will need to step up to the more expensive HDS Live model.
In our survey, Elite owners liked the accuracy and reliability of the unit. However, not everyone found it easy to use.
- “Good value for the prices spent.” (Kevin B., Freshwater boater)
- “Fairly new units that I am still learning to use. Hard to get to the exact screens you want to see simultaneously but once dialed in, the return quality is good.” (Patrick S., Freshwater boater)
- “Ease of use, no need to hard-wire multiple units, wireless connectivity is nice.” (Buck G., Freshwater boater)
- “Easy to use, good access to waypoints.” (Bill B., Saltwater boater)
- “Hard to set up and use. Not user friendly.” (David H., Saltwater boater)
- “Screen is great and easy to see. Takes time to learn to use.” (Jeremy F., Freshwater boater)
- “Screen is bright and vivid. Fish finder has great features. Default find waypoint function highlights “delete” on the found waypoint. Not happy with that.” (Greg N., Saltwater boater)
The Lowrance Elite Ti2 (the latest version in the series as of this article) is available in 7″, 9″ and 12″ models.
At the top of the Lowrance line is the HDS series. In comparison to the Elite Series, HDS offers a better, high definition, display, a multi-touch screen interface (allowing you to pinch and zoom) and a faster processor. Plus, it is equipped with LiveSight™ real-time sonar – Lowrance’s answer to the Garmin Panoptix LiveScope. With this, you can see fish moving about your boat in real-time, not a static image that scrolls across the screen.
HDS owners in our survey loved the accuracy of the unit and quality of the display but downgraded it because of the high price. Plus, a few experienced some minor product issues which likely impacted the reliability ratings.
- “Touch screen, can split screens and customize screens to what you want to see.” (Ernest P., Freshwater boater)
- “This is my second Lowrance fishfinder and have been extremely satisfied with its ease of use, performance and reliability over the years.” (Teresa R., Saltwater boater)
- “I just love the unit. It was easy to use and to learn the features.” (Rich G., Freshwater boater)
- “I have two on the bow and two on the helm. The hard bottom line is excellent to determine if fish are on the bottom and the depth of any cover over the bottom. The mapping is fair, so I use all mapping cards.” (Brad S., Freshwater boater)
- “This unit is an above average unit. They need to have more instructions with the unit.” (Jeff K., Saltwater boater)
- “High cost. Had to buy premium mapping.” (Mike B., Freshwater boater)
- “The unit has some small issues with dependability and the transducers.” (Mark W., Freshwater boater)
- “I’ve had some issues with my unit and after months of working with Lowrance they have decided my unit can’t be repaired.” (Gary C., Saltwater boater)
The Lowrance HDS Live, the most recent version in the series, is available in 7″, 9″, 12″ and 16″ sizes.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Hook series from Lowrance – a very capable fish finder that is offered at an extremely attractive price. Designed for recreational anglers, the Hook series does not have some premium features such as a touchscreen, networking capabilities, or the ability to create your own contour maps. And, you can’t customize the settings to the degree that you can with other brands/models.
But what you do get is an easy to use system with a lot of auto settings for those who don’t fish that often or are not too serious. If paired with the “TripleShot” transducer, you get high CHIRP wide-angle sonar, plus DownScan Imaging and SideScan. The “SplitShot” transducer has just the first two which is great for mounting on a trolling motor in the bow.
Not surprisingly, because of its more simplistic nature and lack of advanced features, the ratings for the Hook series were below that of other major fish finder models in our survey. However, a number of Hook owners commented on the ease of use and attractive price – exactly as the product was intended.
- “Easy to use, lots of features but not overwhelming.” (Elena G., Freshwater boater)
- “It’s a simple, yet functional, sonar…few bells and whistles, but it suits my needs off the front of the boat usually fishing relatively shallow.” (Steve B., Freshwater boater)
- “Easy to use and performs well.” (Joe L., Saltwater boater)
- “This finder was recommended to me by a gentleman at a marine supply store. It was easy to install and get up and running. It works well.” (William B., Saltwater boater)
- “Cannot read while on plain. Not enough features and adjustability.” (Tracey W., Freshwater boater)
- “The least expensive unit possible.” (Gail G., Freshwater boater)
- “Price was a big reason at the time but may upgrade to Elite series in the near future!” (Donny E., Freshwater boater)
Hook2, the latest version in the series, is available in 4″ through 12″ sizes.
Future Fish Finder Preference
In addition to rating the fish finder(s) they currently own, we asked boaters which brand and model they would likely purchase if shopping for a new unit.
Interestingly, there seems to be a shift in brand preference. Currently, nearly half (49%) of respondents own a Lowrance, followed by 43% for Humminbird and 19% for Garmin (note, percentages add to over 100% since some own multiple brands). But, going forward more would prefer a Humminbird. Either opinions have changed or Lowrance has been more aggressive in getting their units packaged with new boats (i.e., boat buyers didn’t always get their favored fish finder brand initially).
Looking at model preference by water type, the highly rated Humminbird Helix comes out on top among freshwater boaters, whereas a couple of models in the Garmin EchoMap series are the most desired within the saltwater segment.
The screen sizes owned by our boater participants varied greatly. For bow installations, 5″ and 7″ screens were the most popular. For consoles installations, 5″, 7″ and 9″ units were also commonly used. However, when we asked what size they would most likely purchase next, we got a very different response. Over 50% anticipate getting a 10″ or larger screen. Of course, budget realities will likely deter some from actually doing this.
I suspect the reasons for the desire for larger units are twofold. For one, being able to pick out fish in a smaller screen – especially if looking at side imaging, is difficult. Secondly, I believe most anglers, like myself, prefer to have split panels when scouting for fish. For example, I often like to run side imaging, the GPS contour map, and either down scan or sonar simultaneously. When you divide your display three ways, your screen gets very small very fast unless you have a separate unit dedicated to each (which few do).
Real-Time Imaging Sonar
Finally, towards the end of our survey, we asked boaters about real-time imaging sonar – a new technology that lets you see fish moving near your boat (vs. standard sonar that shows a static image that scrolls across your screen). Garmin was the first to offer this with the launch of Panoptix LiveScope (compatible with several Garmin displays). Lowrance later followed with their own version called LiveSight (compatible with HDS Live),
Just over half (60%) of our boater respondents were aware of this technology, although freshwater boaters were much more likely to have heard of it than saltwater boaters (69% vs. 32%). And, in terms of interest, most consider it as something nice to have but not essential. So, while real-time imaging is often described as a “game-changer”, most anglers are not quite there yet.
Many who expressed interest in real-time imaging mentioned that it would help them be more productive on the water.
- “Saw this unit in action and it’s really impressive.” (Jim R., “Must have”, Freshwater boater)
- “It works and saves time eliminating water.” (James B., “Must have”, Freshwater boater)
- “I think it gives the angler an edge in locating fish.” (Chris T., “Must have”, Freshwater boater)
- “I like to keep up with the newest technology to get the most satisfaction out my limited amount of fishing time.” (Danny N., “Must have”, Freshwater boater)
- “I like to bass fish in deeper water. Real time imaging would be a big benefit.” (Glenn G., “Must have”, Freshwater boater)
- “Fishing tournaments is all about time spent putting fish on deck. Being able to get over the fish faster is always an advantage.” (Shawn P., “Must have”, Saltwater boater)
- “Anything that helps put more fish in the cooler is worth having.” (Frank C., “Must have”, Saltwater boater)
However, those who are less committed to this technology often cited cost concerns or the need to see it more to determine whether it would truly be beneficial. Others also mentioned that it might not be that helpful for the type of fishing they do.
- “While it would be nice to have, the price would be a determining factor.” (Bill S., “Nice to have”, Freshwater boater)
- “The price is too high for me to justify owning one at this time.” (Jeffrey J., “Nice to have”, Freshwater boater)
- “Price is really high; I would have to save a long time to be able to get one!” (Tracey W., “Nice to have”, Freshwater boater)
- “I would like to have it. Price would determine if it was feasible.” (William K., “Nice to have”, Saltwater boater)
- “Need to have it further tested and evaluate the price.” (Den P., “Nice to have”, Freshwater boater)
- “It sounds intriguing, but what’s the price? So I am not sure if it would be worth the money. It’s not like I am some competition fisherman! Also, what’s involved in installing the sensor? Part of what stops me from getting a new fish finder is snaking the wire from the console to the boat stern.” (George V., “Nice to have”, Freshwater boater)
- “I do not know much about this technology yet but I am always interested in new ways to be on top of the fish.” (Teresa R., “Nice to have”, Saltwater boater)
- “Fishing style is shallow water drifting and not sure of relevance or accuracy in these conditions.” (Larry T., “Nice to have”, Saltwater boater)
- “Typically fishing away from boat beyond sonar range.” (Jerry S., “Nice to have”, Freshwater boater)
- “Offshore fishing in the Gulf Stream is by sight searching for birds, weed lines, etc. We don’t do much bottom fishing.” (Greg N., “Not sure”, Saltwater boater)
Of the two current alternatives (Garmin Panoptix LiveScope and Lowrance LiveSight), some initial reviews suggest that the Garmin version, though more expensive, is perhaps superior because it delivers a clearer image.
As with many things in life, the right fish finder to get depends a lot on your situation and there is no “one size fits all”. If you are a freshwater angler, the Humminbird Helix is tough to beat. However, those who want the convenience of a touch screen should consider a Humminbird Solix instead or the more affordable Lowrance Elite series which also offers this capability.
In saltwater, the Garmin EchoMap series gets very high marks and should definitely be on your short list – especially now that they are again offering true down imaging (instead of showing a calculated image).
If you fish small, remote bodies of water where quality maps don’t exist, be sure to get one of the many models that create their own contour maps (Feature names: Humminbird AutoChart Live, Garmin Quickdraw or Lowrance Genesis Live).
Also, if you plan to have multiple units on your boat, it is very handy to connect them in order to share waypoints. Look for units that are network capable (and an Ethernet connection is more robust than Wi-Fi if you don’t mind the extra installation). However, pay attention to which other units they can talk to since this varies considerably by model.
If you have a limited budget or are not too serious about fishing and want something easy to use, then the Lowrance Hook series is an excellent choice. You get a lot of functionality for an attractive price and you don’t have to mess around with a bunch of settings to get it to operate properly. Just turn it on and start fishing.
Regardless of which model you get, purchase the largest screen size you can afford – even if that means installing a separate Ram Mount or something similar to accommodate it. And, if demoing a unit in-store, be sure to view it in split panel mode to better replicate a real-world usage scenario.
Finally, adding real-time imaging is a fairly expensive proposition and makes sense if you are a serious angler or have ample financial resources. But you also must consider the type of fishing that you do. For example, if you do a lot of vertical fishing such as jigging for crappies over a brush pile, then real-time imaging could be very helpful to locate and stay on top of the fish. However, if you are a bass guy and prefer to pound shallow water cover, then it will likely be much less valuable to you.
Real-time imaging is a fairly new technology and will likely continue to improve in the years ahead. However, at this point in time, the Garmin solution appears to be a step or two ahead of Lowrance and may be the better choice.
Let me know your opinions and experiences with fish finders in the comments section below.
Note: in the above article, there are links to the various products listed. This is done for your convenience. BoaterInput also receives a small commission for products purchased after clicking on a link (even if it is not the exact model). This helps to defray a very small portion of the cost to produce these research reports. However, it is important to note that the items featured in this and other BoaterInput articles were not known in advance but rather are determined by the outcome of the research findings.
Jerry Mona, BoaterInput, survey of 250 boat owners in the U.S., November 2019. (This is where every number in the above report originated).
The Garmin, Humminbird and Lowrance (and other brand) websites and product catalogs. (This was used to confirm available features and model offerings).
“2019 Guide: Best Fish Finder for the Money“, Sonarwars.com. (The results of their editorial review were surprisingly similar to our survey findings. And they do a good job explaining the various models and features).
“Fishfinder Technology Explained“, Tom Burden, August 5, 2019. (This article does a good job explaining the advantages and limitations of high frequency transducers).
“LiveScope VS LiveSight – Technology Behind on the Water Tests”, Lawren Wetzel, June 22, 2019. (This YouTube video provides a great overview of the history of real-time imaging sonar and the differences between the Garmin and Lowrance versions).
Plus many other articles that are too numerous to mention.