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Upgrade or Download?

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It’s always nice to buy presents for the one you love—even if it is difficult, sometimes, to persuade your wife that the boat needs a new plotter more than she needs that designer purse.

But maybe you figure that now isn’t the best time to be spending big money on electronics upgrades. Well, the good news is that you can often significantly improve your marine electronics without spending a cent, simply by registering yourself on the manufacturers’ Web sites and downloading the latest software for your existing equipment.

Most of us who use computers at work and home look upon software updates in much the same way as we do a dentist’s appointment: a necessary evil. Upgrades often slow down our computers when they’re being installed, demand restarts when we’re in the middle of something, and then tell us that they’ve successfully fixed some “security issue” that we never knew we had.

But marine software upgrades aren’t like that: You download them only if you want them, you install them only when you want to, and for the most part, they provide genuine enhancements— including those boring bug fixes.


Raymarine RA1048HD
This 4-foot, 4-kW radar scanner is part of a range of radomes and open arrays using digital processing to give a sharper picture on any E or G series display. ( $5,090)

For instance, Raymarine’s E-series multifunction displays (above) were introduced almost exactly five years ago. Now a five-year-old boat is hardly likely to be showing her age, and the E-series hardware hasn’t even begun to look dated. But the most recent E-series displays are being shipped with fourth generation software, including features such as 3-D chart plotting, animated tide and current arrows, and range rings. They can switch almost instantaneously between navigation charts and the highly detailed bathymetry of Navionics “Fish’n Chip” charts, and they can display the latest meteorological information from the SIRIUS weather system—all features that were missing or were available only in relatively primitive form in the first generation software of 2004 and 2005.

But you can upgrade your 2004 E-series unit to a 2009 model simply by registering on Raymarine’s Web site and then downloading the latest software onto your computer. You’ll need a blank compact flash card to transfer the downloaded file from your computer to your E-series, but apart from that, it’s completely free. One word of warning, though: Make sure you’ve backed up all your waypoints, routes, and tracks on another CF card before installing any new software.

The E-series isn’t the only product to benefit from software upgrades, nor is Raymarine the only company to be offering them. Garmin, whose marine range has been developing in leaps and bounds over the past couple of years, is offering major upgrades, even to such recently introduced products as its 5000 Series touchscreen plotters. Changes include several improvements to the menu system and user interface, as well as smoother, faster screen redraw when panning, scrolling, or zooming around the chart.


Garmin 606xHD radar scanner
This 6-foot, 6-kW radar scanner from Garmin’s fast-growing range of digital radomes and open arrays, produces crisp images on the company’s 4000 and 5000 series displays. ($5,299.99 )


The new software download also extends the Mariner’s Eye 3-D function, allowing you to view 360 degrees of your surrounding area in virtual reality, and adds “auto-guidance,” a feature transplanted from Garmin’s automotive navigators that automatically plans a safe route between any two points, taking account of the depth of water and your boat’s draft.

Of course, software upgrades are specific to particular products, so you can’t put Garmin software into a Northstar plotter and expect it to work. But most manufacturers offer opportunities similar to these, and it will take you only a few moments to find out about them: Just go to the appropriate company Web site and look under “customer support” or “downloads.”

One of the beauties of a software upgrade compared to buying new gear (besides cost) is that it doesn’t involve drilling holes or carving chunks out of an instrument panel, which are two good ways to quickly make a new boat look old. But the move away from dedicated instruments and towards greater use of multifunction displays means that many boats whose electronics are less than about five years old can make significant hardware upgrades by adding or replacing the black boxes and white domes that feed information into their displays.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.