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September 21, 2007

The Color LCD Revolution!

Fishfinders, chart plotters and radars-and some combination units with split-screen capability-use LCD technology to take up less space and draw less power.

Marine electronics continue to evolve at an amazing pace. It wasn't very long ago that we were all still using paper-chart recorders to find fish. Cathode ray tubes (CRT) were standard equipment with radar, of course, but very few recreational boats had those, and CRTs didn't play a big role in our fishing lives.

Then color video sounders began to appear. The early ones weren't too sophisticated, and I remember people saying that these new-fangled contraptions would never replace the paper machine. Well, that was an erroneous prediction, because the paper machine has been virtually extinct for some time now.

Now, however, it now looks like the CRT may join the paper machine as a marine electronics dinosaur. Color Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) appears to be the technology of the future, and virtually every major manufacturer of electronics is introducing new color LCD models at a breakneck pace. These new models aren't limited to fishfinders, of course, but include almost everything that comes with a screen, including plotters, radars-you name it.

The LCD Advantage

The LCD Lowdown:

  • Prices for color decline
  • Transflective vs. TFT
  • Brighter is better
  • Improving resolution
  • Screen size on the rise

LCDs offer quite a few advantages over CRTs, including lower power consumption, smaller housings and cabling for ease of installation, and the ability to be seen more easily in sunlight. That was a serious Achilles heel for the CRT. How many times have you had to have someone stand in front of your CRT color machine to block the sun just so you could see it? Most of us assumed that was something you just had to put up with, an inevitable part of fishing.

Well, now it's not. LCD screens have improved so rapidly that they now offer resolution equal to that found on a CRT. These improvements come to us as a side benefit from the laptop computer industry. The technological leaps and bounds that LCD is experiencing appear as engineers race to make laptops better and better, and the spillover is a boon for fishermen. Many of you will remember that earlier LCD screens also had difficulty being read in sunlight, especially color screens. And the early color LCDs were extremely expensive. That is changing too as color becomes the norm in the laptop industry and competition drives down screen prices, while allowing the companies that build them to offer larger screens than ever before.

How It Works

Let's review how LCD works. An LCD screen has a liquid crystal solution pressed between two sheets of polarizing material. An electric current passes through the solution and causes the crystals to align so that light can't pass through them. Each of the crystals acts like a tiny shutter, either blocking light or allowing it to pass through.

There are two basic kinds of LCD screens, the transflective screen and the Thin Film Transistor, or TFT, screen. A transflective screen uses ambient light to help illuminate it, so sunlight helps make it brighter. These screens are obviously backlit somewhat in order to work at night when there is no ambient light. They accept light from both the front and the rear to help illuminate them. The transflective screens are very cost-effective, but have a limited palette of eight colors.

TFT screens, also known as Active Matrix displays, look much like a television screen, with 256 colors available. TFT screens must be illuminated from the back, and the more power you use to make them brighter, the more heat they produce. The TFT screen is refreshed more frequently than the transflective screen, and each pixel is controlled by one to four transistors. TFTs offer the best resolution among LCDs, but are also the most expensive.

Brightness and Resolution

The brightness of an LCD screen is measured in nits, and five years ago most LCDs probably rated somewhere around 100 nits. Today, the brightness of most machines falls between 300 and 400 nits, a remarkable improvement, and there is talk in the industry that we will soon see screens of 1,000 to 1,500 nits. We'll have to wear sunglasses when looking at our fishfinders!

But the biggest improvement has come in resolution. Once again, computer technology has filtered down to us in the marine electronics world, and screens are now sharper than ever. It's not uncommon to see resolutions of 240 by 320 pixels, and quite a few screens now offer VGA-quality resolution at 480 by 640 pixels.

Even though TFT screens still hold the edge in resolution, there is help on the way for non-TFT displays, too. A technology called High Performance Addressing (HPA) is in the works that will provide better response rates and contrast for non-TFT displays, effectively narrowing the gap between the two technologies.

Smaller and Cheaper

The last major innovation concerns size. Until recently, it was almost impossible to get a high-quality LCD screen much bigger than eight inches, measured diagonally. Now, ten- and even 15-inch screens that boast the brightness and resolution of smaller screens are popping up all over the place. Price has been the biggest obstacle to getting these screens into the marine marketplace, but as demand for them increases in the PC world, the prices will continue to fall.

If the integration trend continues as expected, we may soon see boats equipped with one or two high-resolution, color LCD screens through which all electronic information on the boat is dispensed. This technology is still in its infancy, but it's growing rapidly. And, as we've said before, it's good news for fishermen. If you haven't seen one of the latest color LCD screens for yourself, go check one out. Chances are you'll never look at your old color CRT machine the same way again.

>  ¿br>> ¿p>>I got the chance to run the F225 at Yamaha’s test facility on the Tennessee River outside Chattanooga back in early May, and as the owner of a two-stroke Yamaha 225, I was interested in how this new model might stack up. Test boats included a Regulator 23 with a single, and a Grady-White 263 CC Chase with twins. ¿/p>> ¿p>>The first thing that struck me as I stepped aboard the Regulator was that the idling engine produced no vibration at all. The second was that there was absolutely no trace of smoke or corresponding fuel-rich "exhaust smell" we associate with two-stroke outboards. Third, the engine was eerily quiet. ¿/p>> ¿p>>Performance was exceptional. Acceleration from a standing start was torquey and smooth, and appeared to be on par with that of a similar two-stroke. Tight turns at full throttle were clean. The engine noise level at cruise speed and above was fairly significant—although nowhere near the snarl of my carbureted two-stroke—but I think it could be attributed to the fact that the Regulator had a notched transom and not even a splash well gate to act as a sound barrier. ¿/p>> ¿p>>The Grady performed equally as well with the twins, propelled along at nearly 52 mph at WOT. At cruise speed, about 35 mph, the decibel level was so low that Chuck Butler, Yamaha’s Senior Applications Engineer, and I could sit on the upholstered stern seat and converse as if we were riding in a car. Here, however, the Euro-transom design really seemed to enhance the engines’ inherent quietness. ¿/p>> ¿p>>One thing I did notice, while simulating docking maneuvers in both boats, was the distinct sound of the shift dogs engaging. The reason? Simple. The F225 is so quiet at idle speed that the shifting noise just seems loud! —Barry Gibson ¿/p>> ¿/td>> ¿/tr>> ¿/table>> -->