I f you’ve been keeping tabs on marine electronics in the past five or six years, you might have noticed that the pace of technological advancement is now so rapid, what was brand-spanking-new today is completely obsolete tomorrow.
Products may have a useful lifespan that’s as short as a couple of years. Anyone who’s bought those products will either have to pony-up—again—and buy a whole new system, or spend years living with an electronics system that’s way behind the times.
Well, I have some excellent news for you. This problem is quickly coming to an end thanks to that very same rapid pace of advancement that caused it, in the first place.
Software updates are the reason, because they allow the manufacturer to bring a pre-existing Multi-function display (MFD) up to date. But most boaters update their units sporadically, if ever. (Pop quiz: when’s the last time you updated yours? Uh-huh, that’s what we thought).
This is, however, becoming a whole lot easier because of WiFi. Yes, I said WiFi. More and more Multi-function display fishfinder/chartplotters are coming with WiFi built in, and this gives them the ability to perform automatic, OTA (over the air) software updates. You don’t have to lift a finger, but a manufacturer can give your unit new capabilities from afar.
An example: Let’s say you have a nine-inch chartplotter/fishfinder unit at the helm of your 21-foot bay boat. You hear about a new ability, where you can interface your electric trolling motor with that unit, to essentially control it with autopilot and give it “sky-hook”-like features that use GPS and the motor to hold your boat in position regardless of wind and current.
More than 10 years ago, getting this new capability would have meant buying a new unit altogether. Five years ago, it would have meant going through a potentially painful and lengthily software upgrade procedure, where you plugged a chip reader into your computer, downloaded an update onto it, then used the chip to upload that update onto your MFD.
Sometimes the process worked well, and sometimes… not so much. With the latest and greatest units pulling down their updates from WiFi, however, you may not even realize a change has taken place—yet your unit has more capability than it did yesterday.
When new types of fishfinders come out, all you’ll need to do is get the right type of transducer and that new software will have you running it in no time. If you decide to add functionality ranging from stereo control to engine monitoring to weather data, the WiFi-equipped brain on your boat can learn how to get the job done.
The bottom line? Purchase a well-built MFD that incorporates WiFi and you don’t really need to worry about it becoming dated, at least not for many years to come.
The one potential limiting factor? —processing power. All of those cool functions and features can, eventually, put quite a strain on a unit’s brain.
Take the Lowrance HDS system, as an example. Last year’s generation, HDS Gen 3, can be updated to perform virtually all of the functions available to HDS Carbon, the newest generation (announced just this past March) in the line. It will, however, do them slower, because Carbon has twice the RAM and twice the processing power.
Wait a sec—won’t you have to spend a bundle to get a unit with integrated WiFi?
As is often the case with tech, price actually drops as time marches on. These days you can get a fishfinder/chartplotter with WiFi built-in for as little as $500. And you can add WiFi functionality to many pre-existing systems with add-on units for a few hundred dollars.
As WiFi gets incorporated here, there, and everywhere, we’re also seeing a much greater degree of integration between MFDs and the boat’s mechanical systems. Digital switching is becoming the norm.
A new Yellowfin 24 bay boat we recently took for a test run didn’t have a single switch, much less a switch panel, at the helm. Running lights, livewell pumps, bilge pumps, and anything that previously required a switch was controlled right from the MFD screen.
Before you say you don’t want to depend on electronic switching to run your boat, let me note two things: there were back-up manual over-rides mounted inside the console. Switches mounted at the helm are likely to fail eventually anyway from weathering, corrosion, and exposure—long before the digital switching system is likely to fail. If you’ve ever had to replace a decade-old switch panel, you know exactly what I mean.
Even power systems are now being integrated with the MFD at your helm. I’m not talking about gauge displays, which we’ve seen for several years. It now can go well beyond that point. Simrad’s latest MFD (NSS evo3) can actually be used to control Mercury Smartcraft powerplants.
If you want to alter trolling speed by 50 rpm increments, for example, you do it on the screen, not with the throttle. Watersports towing profiles and cruise control are also handled via the MFD.
Not only is engine data displayed, but also fault codes. Now, remember that WiFi link? You can easily see how handy it could be, if an engine got troublesome and a fault code was showing up on-screen. Instant engine diagnosis is only a WiFi link away and along with it, a slew of advantages for us boaters.
Email Lenny Rudow at [email protected]