A New Day Dawns
Today’s electronics are made with the needs of real boaters in mind. But the best is yet to come as the units can now grow with you. So stop worrying about what’s new and enjoy the enhanced experience your helm already provides.
Put your smartphone down for a few minutes and think back to the days before the breakneck pace of development we see in today’s electronics. Remember how it was? Once each year, like clockwork, there’d be a boat show in your neck of the woods. Maybe you’d go by there and look at all the new devices and systems for your helm and think about how you were using the equipment you already had installed.
The electronics you had onboard worked just fine back then. Or so you thought until the new stuff entered your field of view, showing what it could do and sending your mind reeling like that of a young man away from home for the first time who’s seen a line of can-can dancers. Brighter displays. Easier to use! More powerful than ever before. It’s not hard to recall the pitches, since we’ll hear the same drumbeat next fall as the shows begin again and the circle of life continues.
But it’s not all as simple as it once was. Updated product seems to hit the shelves with startling regularity these days. So how’s a guy to know he’s not buying the last unit of the last run of the old model? Shouldn’t someone tell you? After all, it would be the polite thing to do.
If you have a good electronics installer, he’ll keep you constantly in the know—that’s the good news. But the better news is this: In many cases now, electronics are growing with you, and putting off the obsolescence with renewed functionality and performance. From basic onboard requirements such as VHF to the latest decked-out, all-in, fully integrated, touchscreen multifunction display, these units are made differently than in the past. As your relationship with your electronics has evolved quickly over the last few years—oh, sorry did your e-mail just ping you? Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere—so have the business models of the manufacturers.
& Piling on the features can mean complexity, but it’s largely in the software. Take radar as an example—the raw data stream from pulse radars hasn’t changed much over the years, but the way the returns get processed is evolving. “One of the great things about Garmin products is that software improvements continue long after the product first ships,” says Ryan Schnitz, radar product manager for Garmin (www.garmin.com). “We are constantly designing and evaluating new features to increase the functionality of our products, and we release regular software updates to deliver those features to both new and existing customers.” Theoretically, as long as that ping delivers the data, the radar will last, well, as long as it will.
ldquo;When developing our radar systems, just like with any of our other products, we focus on making the designs as robust and reliable as possible,” Schnitz says. “Our standard testing includes stressing the device up to and above the expected operating limits for temperature, humidity, input voltage, and vibration.” Garmin even issues updates for discontinued products.
Of course, the duality of today’s electronics raises some good questions: When ever-updated software is matched to bolted-in-place hardware, how long will the relationship last? And when a device interacts with moving parts, such as those required in an autopilot install, how will the stakes get raised?
“We’re seeing more and more boats on the water today with steer-by-wire controls on them,” says Jim McGowan, marketing manager for Raymarine (www.raymarine.com). “These include systems like Volvo Penta IPS, SeaStar Optimus 360, Yamaha Helm-Master, and other joystick systems. Boats with these advanced-technology propulsion systems require a much more sophisticated autopilot. When shopping for an autopilot it’s important to ask exactly what is required to make it all work. Our Evolution autopilot works directly with many of these systems, or through a very inexpensive ECI-100 Universal Engine and Autopilot Interface.”
Like other kinds of technology, the Raymarine Evolution autopilot continues to evolve even after it’s installed. “We recently released our HydroBalance feature for Evolution Hydraulic autopilots,” McGowan says. “That update is free for all customers, and can be downloaded from Raymarine.com and installed into the pilot via a Raymarine multifunction display.” HydroBalance improves autopilot performance by actively compensating for hydraulic-system variables such as air bubbles and flex in hydraulic lines and valve-performance inconsistency (For more on maintaining your steering system, see “Maintain That Course!” here ▶.
So sure, steering is important. And it gets even more important when your loved ones want to spend time on your boat. And that onboard satellite-TV system may play a part in all of this as well.
“Satellite TV broadcasters are often changing the satellites from which their channels are transmitted,” says Paul Comyns, vice president of global marketing for IntellianTechnologies (www.intelliantech.com). “These changes occasionally require a new library of information to be uploaded into the satellite-TV system to ensure continuous uninterrupted coverage. Intellian’s i-Series Antenna Control Unit incorporates Wi-Fi connectivity and an onboard network capability. When used in conjunction with Intellian’s free Aptus Mobile application, vessel owners and system installers can now manage, control, and update the i-Series system from anywhere. With a mobile device, users can now run automated diagnostics and receive instant feedback as well as prompts to download recommended updates over any available Internet connection.”
Much of what boaters pay for electronics these days boils down to the expense of developing hardware capable of bearing the enormous functionality that may only be on the distant horizon. The resulting investment in an unknown future often affects price, at least to some extent. Moreover, since marine electronics are a low-quantity proposition for computer-chip manufacturers compared to laptops and other more mainstream computers, they often wind up with chips that are a step back from the cutting edge. But not all manufacturers see it this way.
“With TZtouch, we actually decided to go with a first-generation chip, so it’s a Sandy Bridge processor that’s in there, which is current-day technology,” says Jeff Kauzlaric, advertising and communications manager for Furuno USA (www.furunousa.com). “So it’s comparable to what’s in laptop computers you get now. We built in a processor that’s going to last for a couple [electronics] generations because that processor will end up being in models two years from now. So if you look at the processing speed of TZtouch even compared to some of the units that just came out from other manufacturers, TZtouch is still screaming fast with how it’s processing the charts and redrawing.”
And Furuno plans on keeping the system up to speed with add-ons and updates. “So if we have any new sensors or equipment that can be interfaced, the software will be upgraded,” Kauzlaric says. “We’re about to release a remote-control joystick for the black-box version of TZtouch. So that new software update will allow not only the black box but also the 9-inch and the 14-inch TZtouch to use that joystick.”
Keeping your boat connected to the Internet may someday be key to staying on top of many of these upgrades today. Satellite connectivity such as that provided by the KVH TracPhone V3-IP can give you the freedom to roam with confidence. “Over the past four years since this product has been introduced, its performance has actually been improved with several over-the-air updates of its operating software,” says Jim Dodez, senior vice president of marketing and strategic planning for KVH. “These improvements included things like updating search protocols to enable the fielded systems to take advantage of satellite coverage added to our network. Updates even upgraded the product’s modems with new coding and modulation technology that dramatically enhanced the performance of every product in the field. The capability to upgrade the fielded population of products was built into the hardware from the very beginning of service. Many times, our customers’ software is updated and enhanced, and they’re not even aware that we’ve added the enhancement.”
Today most devices are updated via SD cards or USB sticks. Expect a good installer to notify you of needed updates. And DIY boaters can get on manufacturer e-mail lists to get news directly.
Updates come from function needs, but VHF manufacturers add functionality out of the box that will hold up over time. A VHF will check the boxes for FCC and Coast Guard requirements from the FCC and the Coast Guard. But good manufacturers are adding features that boaters will use. For example, the new M506 from ICOM (www.icomamerica.com) will offer direct DSC calls to AIS targets, and others do the same.
“VHF is primarily a safety device and the more things that you put in a product in terms of innovation can potentially make it a little more complicated to the user,” says Mark Harnett, product manager for communications, safety, and AIS for Navico, maker of electronics under the Simrad(www.simrad-yachting.com), Lowrance,(www.lowrance.com) and B&G (www.bandg.com) brands. “The innovation of the moment is more about integrating with marine networks. NMEA 2000 is where it’s hitting. That opens up a couple of areas. Certainly it makes it very easy for your average recreational boater to connect to DSC so he doesn’t have to worry about little NMEA 0183 wires anymore. With NMEA 2000 it’s all just plug and play, especially when you’re using industry standard connectors like we are.”
Boaters’ needs drive this innovation and it shows up in the ways that manufacturers set their product lines apart. “Safety has not stopped selling,” says Jason Kennedy, executive vice president of Standard Horizon. “We always start by talking about the technology, so we mention the Standard Horizon GX 1700 because it has the built-in GPS—it doesn’t need to be wired up for DSC—and the GX 2200 because it has the built-in GPS and AIS. And those two radios set themselves apart from all the competitors. The Coast Guard and the FCC are talking about mandating that all marine radios have a GPS built in.”
So yes, the world is changing, and if you play your cards right, your electronics will keep pace. “A fairly small group of customers are the ones most actively buying and equipping boats with new high-end electronic products,” Dodez says. “We feel it’s essential that these customers have a great experience with KVH for the life of the product to win their loyalty and their business the next time they buy a new boat or retrofit a newly acquired used boat.”
That’s a promising sentiment. The next time you leave the marine store with an electronics purchase, you should smile as you hold the door for the delivery man coming in with his handtruck laden with shiny next-generation units. After all, it’s the polite thing to do.
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.