Electronics 2013: He has the answers

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electronicsBen Ellison discusses the state of marine electronics, from trends and brands to installations and upgrades

Ben Ellison is the editor and owner of Panbo.com, an online, independent and free source of news and opinion about marine electronics. Ellison has helmed the blog since April 2005 and has posted more than 1,700 entries. The site contains announcements and tests on new products, along with commentary and questions from readers.

Ellison, who has been boating for 40 years, has captained a charter sailboat, worked on oil field boats off Louisiana, tried his hand at commercial fishing, delivered yachts, and taught navigation and seamanship. Off the water, he has served as director of the WoodenBoat School, edited Reeds Nautical Almanac and written for a variety of marine magazines, including Power & Motoryacht, Sail, Soundings and PassageMaker. He is also senior electronics editor for the AIM Marine Group, which includes Soundings Trade Only.

ellisonEllison lives in Camden, Maine, and cruises aboard his Duffy 37 lobster yacht, Gizmo, a boat he calls a near-perfect platform for testing electronics. Ellison doesn’t have formal training in engineering, but he has an innate interest in electronics and technology, and a natural curiosity about boats, boating and how on-board systems work.

How would you compare the current pace of development and innovation to previous periods or cycles in the industry?

A few years ago I would have compared the pace to that of computing in the heyday of the 1980s and ’90s. Remember, ours is a small and fragmented industry compared to most computing and consumer electronics sectors, so it took awhile to adapt the advances in microprocessors and software to boat-specific equipment. Now the larger electronic world is in a new heyday of mobile computing and connectivity, and since boats are mobile in their own way, the marine electronics world is jumping on that trend big time. Boatbuilding may have declined, but innovation in electronics has never moved at such a fast pace.

Can you identify some future trends in the field?

There’s no question that navigation systems are going online in one way or another, most likely via your smart phone when it’s connected by cable or Wi-Fi to your multifunction display or MFD network. You’ll be able to get real-time weather overlays and chart updates, maybe even use your waterproof touch screen to write emails under way. I also think we’ll see simple MFD texting via small global satellite devices like the DeLorme InReach, which could prove invaluable for safety communications.

There will also be more marine apps on cell phones and tablets; the development is happening independently and within the marine electronics industry. Navico is combining the two with a strategy called GoFree, which enables third-party developers to access several data “tiers” in its MFD systems. The results could be very interesting, and other major manufacturers may follow Navico’s lead. Meanwhile, there’s a growing number of devices that put NMEA 0183 and 2000 into Wi-Fi for the use of apps, and some hobbyists have even reverse-engineered a couple of modern radars so they can be used with open source nav programs.

Another trend is more integration, with boaters being able to monitor and adjust all of their systems through the central MFD network.

I’m driving a teched-out car these days and am enjoying some great safety and convenience features, such as voice commands to change the radio station or set a nav destination. It’s an entirely integrated and online system that makes for less-distracted driving. I can picture some of that technology migrating to the marine world. But don’t expect automobile-style integration to happen quickly.

What is the typical life cycle of navigation electronics?

In truth, the useful lifetime is largely up to the user. Marine electronics don’t break as consistently as they once did, which is great if the product on your boat is good enough for your needs. Then again, there are a fair number of boaters who really enjoy trying new electronics.

As far as manufacturing life cycles go, it seems to be hovering at a few years, which upsets some boaters. But I don’t think shorter cycles matter too much as long as the new models are reasonably compatible with the existing stuff you have from the same brand. However, frequent step changes that render expensive equipment obsolete can really hurt a brand’s reputation and should be a factor in a boat owner’s buying decision. On the plus side, some companies — Garmin gets a gold star here — are still improving software for products they haven’t sold in years.

You must get this question a lot: Which brand should I buy? How do you answer?

The answer is largely subjective, so before I give my opinion, I ask the boat owner to answer a few questions about how he plans to use the equipment and what compromises he’s willing to make.

When selecting a new primary nav system, the choices generally come down to the big four: Garmin, Raymarine, Furuno and Lowrance/Simrad. (Lowrance and Simrad are Navico brands and can be mixed to some extent.) At this point, all of those brands are doing good work. You can’t go wrong with any of the big four or even the smaller nav system providers such as Si-Tex or Standard Horizon. But each brand has strengths and weaknesses, so the right decision involves what is most important to you. Garmin, for instance, has earned its reputation for ease of use, but that’s partly because the company is disciplined about not adding features or adjustments that only a few customers will care about. If you’re the type who appreciates the ability to tweak electronics, you might be happier with something like Furuno’s MFD radar menu.

What are the advantages to staying within one brand family?

The “best of breed” concept — mixing the best performing radar, fishfinder and plotter, regardless of brand — is pretty much over, at least for small and midsize boats. The MFD puts all that information on one screen, or a networked family of screens, and lets you access data with a unified interface. But when you buy an MFD you’re also committing to that company’s radar and sonar, and those big accessories won’t work with another company’s MFD. Even autopilots, which stand alone more than most devices, are now offered with special features if used with the same brand of MFD.

Integration is one obvious benefit of staying with one brand, but so is the ability to troubleshoot problems. A technical support staff has a harder time pointing fingers elsewhere when most of the equipment is theirs.

On the other hand, international standards have made the mixing of smaller sensors and subsystems with another brand of MFD easier and often desirable. For instance, there’s little advantage to getting the same brand of AIS receiver or transponder because the data output is IMO regulated and delivered over NMEA 0183 or 2000 protocols supported by all of the major manufacturers. You may well find better value or extra features in another brand that will work just as well. NMEA 2000, in particular, has enabled a lot of interesting peripheral devices from smaller companies like Maretron, Actisense, BEP and others. It’s getting easier for your main displays to show fuel flow measured by a third party sensor or even control your lighting via N2K.

So, yes, there’s a big advantage to staying with one main brand, but one important factor in my book is how well that brand plays with smaller brands over NMEA 2000.

What are the most common mistakes people make when buying or installing marine electronics?

They don’t realize that NMEA 0183 wiring still causes a lot of problems because it isn’t standardized and the wires are tiny. That’s one reason I like NMEA 2000, with its standard cables and plugs, although VHF manufacturers haven’t been as quick to adopt it as I had hoped.

A less common but more serious mistake is to presume a new device will work with equipment that’s already installed. For instance, I’m about to install several Maretron temperature sensors on my engine, and while I know the information will get to Gizmo’s MFDs and instrument displays, I don’t yet know which ones can display it, let alone label it. Never assume new equipment will work with older stuff from the same manufacturer because sometimes the technology is just moving too fast to maintain backward compatibility. Do extensive research before any product purchase.

I’m also seeing a new generation of boaters who believe tablets and smart phones will soon take over dedicated marine electronics. While this technology can be terrifically useful on boats in all sorts of ways, it’s no substitute for primary navigation equipment and may never be.

As electronics become more sophisticated, is it increasingly difficult for do-it-yourselfers to install equipment?

I don’t think so. Good information is much more accessible. There are well-written manuals, and fellow DIY installers discuss issues online at Panbo.com and similar sites. Plus, cabling systems are now much more uniform and easier to handle. On the other hand, some equipment now requires IT skills, which weren’t required of traditional marine electronics installers a few years ago.

I installed all of the electronics on Gizmo with no prior training, but I’m a lifelong DIY type, and I believe boaters who install their own systems are better prepared to troubleshoot and fix them. That said, I’m sure a pro could have installed Gizmo’s systems faster, better and more neatly.

When do you recommend bringing in a professional?

It’s kind of like reefing a sailboat: Do it when the thought first comes to mind. If you feel you’re in over your head, seek an expert. While many types of marine electronics are easier to install than they used to be, there can still be all sorts of odd little problems that challenge even smart people who install electronics all the time. Incidentally, some professional installers are quite happy to work with DIY boat owners, and in some cases you’ll get a warranty extension if a pro makes sure that the installation is done right. If you have a pro do the complete install, ask for a tour of the work and schematics of the cabling.

What advice do you have for people with midsize boats looking to upgrade their navigation and communication electronics?

The good news is that marine electronics are much more capable, reliable and easier to use than ever. If you have nav gear that’s even just a few years old, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what modern multifunction displays can do. VHF radios have not evolved as rapidly, but there are exceptions, including the fixed models that also receive AIS and the handhelds that include GPS navigation and DSC capabilities. There’s also a growing number of cellular boosters, long-distance Wi-Fi radios and low-cost satellite communications units.

The bad news is that choosing a boat’s primary navigation system has become a more complex decision; no matter which way you go, you may see something you’d rather have a year from now. I encourage people to do lots of research before buying a new system. You’ll be less likely to suffer disappointment, and you’ll be able to get the most out what you bought once it’s installed.

Tell us a little about Panbo: The Marine Electronics Hub. How big an audience do you attract, what are they interested in, and what sort of conversations take place?

The blog was started by a guy in Amsterdam in 2004. I picked up on his blog and connected with him. When he got bored with it, I took it over and was encouraged when I quickly received positive responses.

On the site, I write about new products and my testing of some of those products. I also cover some regulatory and general boating subjects. Anybody’s welcome to the site, and I’ve made commenting easy. Some of the regular commentators who take their boats very seriously have become guest contributors, and Panbo has since grown to become a publication of sorts.

Panbo has about 80,000 unique visitors a month; most are from the Americas, but there are readers all around the world. The industry appreciates Panbo for the honest consumer feedback, and consumers like to have a pipeline to manufacturers. Panbo helps facilitate direct communication between manufacturers and consumers, which I’m proud of. I’m also proud of the numerous honors the site has received, including a first-place award for Original Content from Boating Writers International in 2011 and 2012.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue.

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