Small Smart Stuff

Electronics December 2002
By Ben Ellison

Small Smart Stuff
Furuno and Airmar squeeze large IQs into little packages.

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Stuff
• Part 2: Stuff
• Electronics Q&A

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• Electronics Column Index
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Are you familiar with R2D2, the cute, little `droid from the Star Wars series? In movies full of dazzling technology, he--I mean it--is the rather homely machine that nonetheless serves as a bright and able sidekick to the human star. As I study Furuno's new RD-30 display device, I can't help but draw some parallels. The RD-30 is also diminutive--about eight by five inches--and its 41⁄2-inch (diagonal) monochrome screen is downright doughty in this world of big, bright color displays. Even its essential function of manipulating, presenting, and distributing data via the plain old NMEA 0183 protocol is not exactly futuristic. But this "lil' feller" could be a smart and handy mate to today's data-swamped skipper.

For instance, what method of boat speed display works best for you? Do you want to have one big digital readout filling the RD-30's entire screen? Okay, boss. Or perhaps you want that screen shared two or four ways with other data? No problem, cap. Or how about a needle-on-dial, automobile-style speedometer customized exactly to your boat's top end? My specialty, sir! Of course you can choose the unit of measurement that suits you, and you can also set high, low, and range alarms and even spec an alternate screen graphing your speed over a variable time period.

Depending how you feed it, the RD-30 can slice and dice wind, heading, depth, water temperature, and other sensor data in a similar fashion. It can also receive waypoint calculations from your GPS or plotter and put the values in data windows or present them in a familiar highway display. So what's the appeal of this feature if your plotter can already do it? Well, it's turning out that predictions of an all-in-one navigation screen may rank accuracy-wise with the famous "paperless office" (I'm among the guilty). I observed two experienced navigators as they got to know their new ten-inch, high-bright color plotters last summer. I wasn't surprised that they both fell in love, but I learned something when each complained about having to obscure even a few square inches of their glorious electronic charts with needed data windows. Like money and horsepower, "enough" screen space may turn out to be an elusive goal.

That's why some skippers adopt a strategy of offloading easy data display chores to small, relatively inexpensive monochrome screens and hoard bright color for complex chart, radar, and fishfinder imagery. This is not an entirely new idea. For years, instrument systems have been pushing numbers around boats, usually using some sort of proprietary networking. And some clever folks have been using NMEA 0183 to move numbers from a busy device to an underused corner of a radar or autopilot display. Raymarine's brand new ST290 system adds so many new graphic and networking capabilities to the instrument strategy that it deserves its own column (stay tuned). Meanwhile, the RD-30 kicks up the 0183 technique several notches.

Next page > Small Smart Stuff continued > Page 1, 2, 3

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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