Here are some of the most important questions to answer when in the market for marine electronics.
How big is your boat?
Size determines how much space you have to mount electronics. With limited dash space, a smaller combination unit (chart plotter and sonar combined). Larger boats, over 26 feet, generally offer plenty of space for electronics, with enough room to mount dual flush-mount multi-function displays (MFDs). Mid-size center consoles generally offer adequate dash space to mount electronics, while bay boats and skiffs may require the smaller, bracket-mounted versions of chart plotters and sonar. The amount of available space on your boat should steer your first set of decisions.
Where and how you fish dictates what you really need
If most of your fishing is nearshore and inshore, a sophisticated state-of-the-art sonar may be of limited use: however, a side-scanning sonar may be invaluable. Look at just what you need to determine what to buy.
- VHF Radio —This is an essential item for everyone. Whether you choose to use a handheld model or a full-sized radio depends on how much space you have available.
- Chart plotter — The plotter is the heart of any system. It’s a set of electronic charts that lets you navigate effectively is essential for every fishing boat.
- Fish finder — This is the second consideration, as described above, the way you fish will help determine your needs. Consider that sonar relies on a transducer, which may be a transom-mounted bolt-on, or the type that is permanently embedded in the bottom of the boat, which may require drilling through the hull to install it. Trailer boats need a transducer that sits flush with the bottom, or a transom mount. Boats that live in the water have more leeway in the type of transducer.
Features versus Simplicity
With technological advances, marine electronics are constantly incorporating new features into their products’ latest models. While certain features, like touch-screen on chart plotters, fish finders and multifunction displays, are very user friendly, others can be quite complex and increase the difficulty of operating a piece of equipment. Remember that new features usually come at a premium, so unless you feel confident dealing with new technology, or don’t mind working your way through an extended learning curve, the latest top-of-the-line unit may not be your best choice. A more basic unit, often a prior generation, is bound to be simpler and save you some money as well.
Which brand is best for you?
Marine electronics companies use different platforms and operating systems, so using one brand of chart plotter or fish finder can seem considerably more difficult to you than another. If you favored a particular brand in the past, it makes sense to look for the new gear you need within said brand’s product line. It’s also a good idea to attend a boat show in your area for some hands-on product demos. Then you can short-list the two or three candidates that most appeal to you and check into each a bit more in-depth. Online reviews can help you determine not only the brand’s track record of quality and customer support, but also how a product compares to similar units from competitors.
Should you opt for stand-alones or an integrated system?
The trend in marine electronics leans towards integration, which can be as simple as a plotter/sounder combination unit, or as sophisticated as black-box processors for every function, wired into a network. Combos are simpler, but may will limit your future options. Networked systems are the most streamlined, but you’ll generally pay more for a system like this. However, the expansion options are nearly unlimited.
How do you get the best bang for your buck?
First of all, buy a well-know reputable brand that offers good customer support. Marine electronics are competitively priced, and there won’t be a big variation in price between most retailers. What does vary is the support you can expect. You can buy mail order and save a few bucks, but then you’ll need to have the gear installed, and the dealer who makes the sale is much more likely to take good care of you on installation, trouble shooting and any eventual repairs. Service is important and having a shop behind you is worth a lot more than the few bucks you’ll save up-front on the purchase. Besides the searching online and ordering catalogues, try attending a boat show to learn about the latest and greatest.