The electronics test vessel Gizmo gets a major makeover revealing many facets of the modern multifunction display.
The versatile Maretron DSM150 instrument
Redoing almost all of Gizmo’s electronics has taken longer than I would have guessed last fall, when it seemed like a good idea to rip everything off the boat. However, the hoped-for glass-bridge theme is revealing itself and I like it a lot. In this article I’ll describe the test setup I’ll soon head south with and also note a few of the features that have worked well and not so well during summer shakedown cruises.
Visitors tend to gasp or laugh when they first see Gizmo’s new flying-bridge helm. It is unusual to have four large MFDs at one station on a 37-foot boat, especially one of each of the four major brands, any one of which can do nearly everything the others can, though with many little differences. But that’s the valuable test aspect of this endeavor. In the above photo, for instance, the displays are set up to compare some of the new medium-cost high-definition bottom-exploring sonar options that are of nearly as much interest to cruisers as fishermen. At left, the Simrad NSS16 evo2 mounted in a Seaview Power Pod is showing StructureScan HD side- and down-looking sonar as well as a fishfinder screen sourced from an Airmar B75 CHIRP transducer. Furuno doesn’t yet offer a similar hi-def option, though they’re masters of commercial-level side scanning, so on this test day the panel-mounted TZTouch 14 will serve as the principal chartplotter and radar, both of which it does beautifully.
The Furuno TZT14 shows multiple chart types.
The next glass-style multi-touch screen is a Raymarine gS125 displaying a CHIRP DownView window, which actually images details about 30 degrees to each side, as well as a CHIRP fishfinding window, both of which emanate from a single affordable Raymarine CPT-120 transducer. Eventually, Garmin’s SideVü/DownVü will join this ping party—the through-hull version of their transducer was just released—but on this day I’m using the video input of their GPSMap 8212 mounted in the ScanStrut Deck Pod to see what an EchoPilot black-box forward-looking sonar can do. Though still quite unusual this FLS product has been available for a while—and could use any MFD camera input for display, at least theoretically—but it is of special interest now because Simrad is about to launch ForwardScan, a low-cost FLS option that will only require a small transducer and a software upgrade, presuming you already have at least one NSS evo2 display.
If ForwardScan works at least as well as EchoPilot’s technology, Simrad will gain a little edge in the fierce multifunction competition, especially with the boaters who like to poke around outside the well-beaten paths. But we may well see more FLS choices as one aspect of the modern glass style is that any one of these major brand systems has enough hardware/software moxie to handle it and many other functions you may not have seen on your nav screens before. Consider, for instance, what’s not on Gizmo’s flying bridge anymore, like analog engine gauges, stereo remote control, thermal-camera joystick, or even a conventional autopilot head.
I look forward to lots of sonar testing—Gizmo also has an installed casing ready for a ForwardScan transducer when it ships—and will be writing Web entries (see the Panbo blog at www.pmymag.com) about my findings, as well a comparison of the two tilt and swivel pods, both impressive so far. My full list of writing tasks, though, is at least as “multi” as the displays (and I haven’t finished all the installations yet, if ever). Each display system has a radar networked to it, and several devices on Gizmo, like the FLIR navigation camera and the Fusion stereo, can be interfaced with any one of the systems at a time. The small CZone digital-switching system installed last year can now interface with the Garmin 8000 series as well as Simrad displays and new modules like the Maretron fuel-flow sensors and Actisense analog engine bridge make their data available to all the MFDs at once, though they can’t all work with it in the same ways. So there will be lots of cruising/testing this fall and beyond, and all the while I’ll be experiencing the subtly different ways each manufacturer lets us manage and view their do-anything displays.
Garmin’s 8000 series offers loads of data.
While there’s a lot more to the glass-bridge concept than dark edge-to-edge glass over bright LED-backlit screens that can certainly look good, I’m learning that there’s value to the style beyond looks. As I become familiar with a particular display system, I picture a more conventional flying-bridge install, like two panel-mounted displays of that brand, and there’s not much left besides the VHF radio, horn, and engine/thruster controls. I’m getting a sense of how the clean, unified glass electronics approach can contribute to relaxed and successful navigation.
Note that the concept is not just about multi-touch controls either, though those can feel wonderfully intuitive and even elegant when done right. The Raymarine keypad near the upper wheel has proven itself a quick, easy alternative to the screen, especially when it’s rough, and all four major brands now offer something similar.
Thankfully, glass-bridge looks and capabilities aren’t exclusive to large, expensive MFDs, as demonstrated by the three 7-inch touch displays now being tested at Gizmo’s lower helm, each of which networks nicely to its larger sibling above along with same-brand radar and sonar. (Furuno doesn’t have a TZT contender this small, but is unique in offering full TZT integration with its own PC nav software.) All three are quite fast, which is important as it’s actually harder to offer extensive multifunction on a smaller screen. When I use just one 7-inch display underway, I’m often switching screens and am appreciative of not just speed but flexible window sizing and shortcuts that make, say, a chart window instantly full screen when desired. Seven-inch and smaller is also where a touch interface must be especially well designed—they’re all working hard in this area, with Garmin probably still in the lead for most users—though I should note that Raymarine also offers an e7 Series with hybrid touch and along with Simrad offers the alternate keypad interface as well.
Simrad’s NSS16 evo 2, left, and Raymarine gS125 both take advantage of intuitive user interfaces.
Gizmo guests also tend to laugh when they check the available Wi-Fi hot spot list on their tablet or phone as every display onboard can also be wirelessly controlled with an app that mirrors the screen. Surprisingly, Garmin is still the only brand to offer a separate planning app that can use an Internet connection to show fresh weather and cruising info, but then easily download your planned route to the MFD system, though I’m fairly sure the other brands are working to make this smooth plan’n’nav flow available either themselves or in partnership with app developers like Navionics. Plus there’s so much else, like automated trip logging to personal Web sites, that’s bubbling up from app/MFD integration.
The lower helm is also where I’m experimenting with the all-in-one color instrument displays that can match and abet the bigger glass screens. With only 7 inches for chart, radar, sonar, and camera display, it’s great to get a big depth number or next waypoint info on another screen. I’m tickled about having my engine vitals shown in color with format choices (though also conservative enough that the original Volvo Penta gauges are now mounted in a cabinet below the wheel).
Another glass-system factor that’s especially obvious at the lower helm is how useful the latest generation of screens can be when the boat is not underway. Alternate instrument screens can display tank levels, battery-bank status, outside weather conditions, and the Raymarine i70 even has an AIS display. Meanwhile, any of the MFDs can arguably serve as a better interface to the Fusion stereo and its large iPod and USB-stick music library than the color Fusion 700 head unit itself.
I’ve also found that moving the lower helm’s screens from brackets down to the panel is not only tidier but improves my view out of the boat, which may be the most important feature of all. After all, the goal of good electronics, I think, is to impart needed info so efficiently that we can give more focus to the dangers the electronics can’t reveal and also to enjoying our time on the water.
That’s why I further value audible and visual alarms when they work well, and they could work especially well in a unified glass-style system, which has so much data available to its processors. But this is an area where all the major players have lots of work to do, which I’m largely aware of because I’ve been using Maretron’s truly sophisticated alerting and alarming features for more than a year. Their little gray DSM150 at the lower helm definitely lacks glass-style pizzazz, but so far it’s the only instrument that will flash and set off loud alarms at both helms if the engine’s now digitized coolant temperature exceeds a point I’ve set just above normal, rather than waiting until it’s dangerously hot. The Maretron gear can also alarm me if a nav light fails because it knows how much 12-volt current they’re using, information that’s potentially available to all the systems over NMEA 2000 but not understood by them yet.
There are many other examples where smaller specialist companies are doing a better job in their niche than the big boys, and I’m happy to highlight them in my online reviews. But here’s the good news, those smaller companies possibly excepted: this current generation of glass-style marine electronics is capable of almost anything. There will be incremental hardware updates—Simrad’s NSS evo2 is a substantial one—but I think we’re moving past the painful times when relatively new displays became quickly obsolete. There are still many advancements to be made, but now the question for the manufacturers is not so much “Can we do it?” as “Which feature should we add or improve next?” So it’s a good time to speak up about what you want your boat’s electronics to do for you, and thus I invite you to www.pmymag.com, not only to follow the extended Gizmo glass-bridge voyage south, but to join the conversation.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.