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3D Fishfinders – Fish-Finding Nirvana, Or Mere Hype?

Though few will remember, the first fishfinder to claim 3D visual abilities was introduced to the market in the early 90s. We all know that marine electronics evolve at a break-neck pace, but in this case of relatively old tech the capabilities were very limited, the utility was low, and in truth it seemed more like a marketing gimmick than a useful tool. Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and the market is literally being flooded by new-tech 3D fishfinding units.

Are these things for real, or are they just newer, fancier-looking gimmicks?

Will they help you find and catch more fish? And perhaps most importantly, does the benefit of modern 3D warrant upgrading your system?

3D Fishfinders – Choices, Choices, Choices

First off, let’s take a look at the options that are currently out there (in alphabetical order).

3D fishfinders
The Furuno DFF-3D system will work with NavNet TZtouch and TZtouch2 MFD systems.

Furuno DFF-3D

As is often the case with Furuno, this manufacturer took its time developing their system and introduced it rather late in the game as compared to some other manufacturers, but as a result offers a well-refined system that differs from the others in several ways. Rather than using higher frequency beams which tend to offer better detail but also fade quickly with distance, Furuno optimized their 3D system for maximum range and depth penetration by utilizing 165 kHz pings. This gives the system a claimed range of about 1,000-feet down and 650-feet off to the sides. It also employs a flat-faced transducer, projecting beams that are digitally “steered” to sweep through a 120-degree swath of water. MSRP: $2,095. Visit Furuno.

3D fishfinders
Garmin’s 3D vision pairs with its Panoptix system.

Garmin

Garmin’s 3D RealVu 3D is quite different from the competitive systems, since has a forward-looking component as well as down-looking 3D views. The Panoptix transducer is not at all like the others, with three distinct sections arranged in a fan-like shape. These project three different beams simultaneously via a series of pings in differing frequencies, which the system “blasts” in multiple frequencies all at once. Then the system’s brain takes what all three of the beams see, and stitches them together to create the on-screen image. RealVu 3D is compatible with a long list of Garmin’s GPSMAP and ECHOMAP units, and claims a 300 foot range. MSRP: $1,499 for the PS30 down-looking or PS31 forward-looking transducer; note that the PS31 needs to be mounted on a trolling motor or on a portion of the boat that is out of the water at speeds in excess of 20 mph. Visit Garmin.

3D fishfinders
Lowrance and Simrad, both owned by parent company Navico, share the same tech in their StructureScan 3D system.

Lowrance and Simrad StructureScan 3D

StructureScan 3D, first rolled out by Lowrance and quickly migrated to Simrad systems as well, beams out at 455 kHz to gather its highly-detailed views of the world beneath the water. Multiple beams are broadcast from the transducer, and the readings are stitched together by the unit’s big brain. Essentially, the system is taking the down-scan and side-scan imagery we’re seen in previous StructureScan units and combining them into one view, which can then be manipulated. Claimed range is 600 feet to the sides and 300 feet straight down. MSRP: $999 for black-box and transducer. Visit Lowrance and Simrad.

Raymarine RealVision 3D

3D fishfinders
Raymarine’s Axiom and Axiom Pro MFD units have 3D capabilities built-in.

Raymarine incorporates RealVision 3D in its new Axiom systems, which are bundled with a transducer capable of creating the 3D views. Like the Lowrance and Simrad systems it stitches the data gathered by different transducer elements together to get to 3D. Unlike the other systems, however, Raymarine broadcasts in the range of a 350 kHz frequency and incorporates a CHIRP-like sweep through a 60 kHz band. That gets it a range of 300 feet along with excellent detail. An interesting perk the RealVision offers is the ability to color-code fish returns according to depth as opposed to intensity, so no matter what angle you use to view in 3D mode you can always see how deep the fish are at a glance. Raymarine also puts an AHRS (attitude heading reference system) in the transducer, which mitigates the effect of the boat’s motion on the fishfinder view. MSRP: Included in Axiom units (which start at $649)

Common Vision

There are a few common advantages among these systems which, in our on-the-water testing, we’ve found incredibly useful. The first is the ability to touch the screen and drag the viewpoint. After running over a wreck, for example, you can swipe and drag to see that wreck from different angles and sides. This can give you a much better idea of how it’s situated, and even more importantly, just what specific piece of the wreck fish may be hugging or hiding behind.

A second rather awesome ability is being able to touch a spot on-screen, then let the unit translate that into a waypoint. Pass over a series of humps or drops, manipulate the view to pick your favorite, and you can ID it with a waypoint. Then bring it up on a chartplotter screen as a waypoint, hit “go to,” and put your boat right over the X.

3D fishfinders
This screenshot shows one of the down-sides to utilizing 3D views: data overflow.

These systems also share a common weakness that all potential users need to be aware of: they can create a severe shortage of screen space. Between side views, down-looking views, 3D, and of course the need to always have a chartplotter screen in front of your eyes for orientation and navigational purposes, it takes some serious LCD territory to effectively utilize these functions all at the same time. And being able to see them all at once is when you can harness the real power of multiple viewpoints.

What this boils down to is that a single nine or 11-inch screen is barely useable, and in all likelihood, you’ll find yourself splitting between a chartplotter and fishfinder, then jumping back and forth in the menu to get glimpses of the different fishfinder views. With a 16-inch unit you can triple- or quad-split, but the views will be disappointingly small. These multiple screen splits just don’t allow sufficient LCD space to get a decent view. So if you really want to enjoy the benefits these systems have to offer, dual MFDs are in order. Even then, the larger the screen sizes are, the happier you’ll be.

Back to the core question

Will having a 3D fishfinder help you catch more fish?

If you have enough LCD space at your helm to utilize it properly, the answer is almost certainly yes. But if you’re working with a limited screen size it becomes debatable. And if you’re working with a very small screen you may find it more frustration than its worth (which was our experience with a single seven-inch unit, and to a lesser degree, a nine-incher as well).

Which leads us to the follow-up question: Is it worth upgrading to get 3D? That’s a question only you – and your bank account – can answer.

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Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chief at Rudow's FishTalk Magazine, is Electronics and Fishing Editor for BoatUS Magazine, and is a contributing editor to several other publications. His writing has resulted in 45 BWI writing contest and two OWAA Excellence in Craft awards. Volunteer positions have included NMMA Innovations Award judging, serving as president of Boating Writers International, and serving as the president of the Maryland Freshwater Foundation. Rudow is an alumnus of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, and The Sea School. He boats and fishes as often as possible on the Chesapeake Bay and in the Atlantic Ocean.