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Electronics

Understanding Marine Electronics Screens

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Get beyond the techno-jargon to understand what your next helm screen can do.

Large marine monitors, such as these 19-inch Furuno MU190HDs, provide plenty of screen space to keep captain and crew in the know.  Marine electronics screens—whether they’re big-brand multifunction displays (MFDs) or stand-alone monitors in a custom system—are the preferred means to deliver mission-critical intelligence at sea. And the intel includes not just electronic charts, echosounder, radar, and weather data. Now the list includes engine and tank monitoring, engine room and security cameras, thermal night-vision imagery, television, audio, and the Internet. Single-monitor setups and MFDs let the skipper toggle through various combinations of split screens. And the larger the yacht, the more helm real estate you have to use. Imagine a row of three 23-inch monitors configured in “quads,” each of which is divided into four windows: 12 different viewing panes showing real-time info.

The first thing to know is that almost every type of marine display today, whether a multifunction display or a standalone monitor, uses LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) technology. Light shines through liquid crystal when power is applied. The liquid crystal element works like a camera shutter to bring color to the screen. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have become the norm for providing the necessary backlight.

“There may be some company in Uzbekistan that is still making CRTs, but everything in our industry is LCD,” says Dennis Hogan, referring to obsolete tube-style monitors. Hogan is a Navico product manager, whose projects include the Simrad NSS touchscreen MFD.

Not all LCDs are created equal, Hogan says, describing the attributes that differentiate the LCD of a household TV or laptop and those designed for the harsh marine environment. That new iPad may boast some pretty snazzy display technology, but the screen washes out in sunlight and becomes totally unreadable in direct sun. The features that make displays “marine” all come at a cost; they are industrial grade. They are shock and water resistant to precise international standards.

However, within the category of industrial displays, there are factors that often add to the cost. Call them er-factors—sharper, brighter, with fewer amps consumed, wider viewing angles and ranges of operating temperatures. And depending on the installation, you might actually be wasting money buying a display that is superlative in every category.

For many skippers, an early decision in the buying process should be to sort out whether the display will be touchscreen or not. Touch capability is often a personal preference. Some skippers may like the interface of a particular brand of navigational software and know that it works well in sea conditions typical of a boat’s home cruising grounds. Despite the rise of iOS and Android devices, however, some mariners remain touch skeptics when it comes to navigation, preferring rotary knobs and physical keys.

Touch or no touch, the next question is location. Will the display (or displays) reside in shade or sunlight? Will the display generate heat harmful to itself or other devices mounted on the same panel? Integration is another question. Are you building a “glass bridge” with multiple displays, or do you expect to create a navigation and ship’s monitoring system that integrates monitors and MFDs? Do you anticipate having to expand the system later on? Answer these questions with your electronics installer’s help and you will be on your way to finding the ideal setup. At least until the next generation of developments comes along.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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