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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Electronic Chart Plotters

As part of planning out our boat, I need to decide on all the navigation electronics.  There are many different parts to the question, but the Chart Plotter is the best place to start.  It's the heart of the navigation system, and forces the answer to a number of follow-on questions.  Electronics vendors love to lock in their customers with systems of interoperable components.  Customers benefit from the integration and interoperability, but quickly find themselves locked into the vendor since changing one component to a different vendor causes a ripple effect of change that quickly becomes too expensive.  When products are really good, customers welcome the integration and do not object to the lock in since they would buy the good products anyway.  Apple is a good example.  But when products are marginal, customers quickly become resentful of the lock-in and a more adversarial relationship emerges between the vendor and customers.  Microsoft is a good example.  With Navigation systems, the primary lock-in is between chart plotters and radar.  Radar data is pretty uniformly transmitted over ethernet, but in a proprietary format so it can only be displayed by the same vendor's chart plotters.  Selecting a vendor for one means selecting the same vendor for both.

In my case, I'm going to let the chart plotter take the lead in the decision.  With one notable exception, I think all the big vendors' radar systems are comparable.  Radar has been around a long time and is no big secret, so everyone has good products.  The notable exception is Simrad who have developed a high-frequency (I think) radar that yields much higher resolution images.  It's a nice advance, but comes with some draw backs as well.  But I'm still going to let the chart plotter lead my decision since there are LOTS of differences between vendors.

Before diving in, I should also add some more background.  I spent my career building high tech products, almost all of which were a combination of hardware and software rolled together into a stand-alone product, much like all the components in our navigation gear.  As a result, I'm pretty demanding about tech products, and have very little tolerance for poor products.  I say this to warn you that I may be overly critical, so take all this in context.

I had Raymarine (E120, radar, AIS, Fishfinder, Autopilot) in my last boat.  Although my problems were small compared to other people's, I did have issues with devices dropping off the network.  Some reading revealed this to be a common problem, and some of my friends were seriously plagued by it.  Support from Ray was hit or miss, with a lot more misses reported than hits.  In nav gear, I'm looking for rock solid reliability, which seldom goes hand in hand with software, but I still want it.  Granted, all this was in the darkest hours for Raymarine.  The industry was in the tank and RM was in financial straights on the verge of bankruptcy and trying to find someone to buy them.  Their US headquarters were just down the road from me at the time and I indirectly knew a number of people who worked there and they were experiencing constant layoffs.  I've heard support is better now, but product breakages still seem to be high.  For these reasons, RM is currently below my cut line.

My current boat is set up with Furuno everything except AP which is Simrad.  I picked Furuno because I wanted something rock-solid, and Furuno had that reputation.  My Furuno NavNet 3D is 4 MDF12s networked together with AIS, Radar, Fishfinder, and Sat weather.  The AP and all other devices are on an N2K bus.  I also have MaxSea running on a PC which also connects to the NN3D network.  For those who might not know, the Furuno NN3D chart plotters all run MaxSea as well.  I think I have a straight forward configuration that does not push any limits.  The issues I have with it fall into 2 categories; usability, and reliability.  The usability issues can be worked around and lived with, but they grate on me every day.  Instead of being a daily pleasure, it's like I have a pebble in my shoe all the time.  If you are a Windows-turned-Mac-user, you know exactly what I'm talking about.  The reliability issues have not been hardware problems, but rather software problems.  Some are just poor design and implementation, and some are bugs that cause crashes.  Yesterday someone asked me what my complaints were with NN3D, and I'll post my response in a separate message a little later.

That said, and remembering that "the Grass is Always Greener" and the "devil you know...", Furuno  is at the top of my list, in pencil, teetering, for now.  Simrad and Garmin are the serious contenders to replace Furuno if I can convince myself that one is really better for my needs and desires.  And I'll emphasize this last part, because what matters to me may not matter to others.

I like Simrad for a number of reasons.  First, I think the stuff is well built.  All the AP gear that I have is well made, solid, with good fit and finish.  I also find it to be well thought out with clear menus, logical navigation, and well grouped commands.  The documentation is good, and everything has worked correctly.  All this extends to the plotters as well.  They appear to have all the requisite features, and the menus and controls are well organized and intuitive.  All the things that bug me about the NN3D work in a much more satisfactory way on the Simrad.  But there are still a number of things that I need to try first hand, and of course there are all the yet-to-be-discovered Simrad issues which I expect exist.

The down side of Simrad as I've discovered so far includes a few things.  First, there is no integrated companion PC nav software.  At a minimum I want a PC program where I can do route planning, create waypoints, etc. and easily transfer them to the plotter and back again.  I also want to have active nav data displayed on the PC when underway, including AIS.  Nav data is easy to interface over N2K, but AIS is more of a problem since there isn't a consistent standard for carrying it over N2K, so that part of integration may be an issue.  I also don't want to have to buy a different and separate set of charts for the PC and the plotters.  I know I would have to forgo radar overlay since every vendor's radar data is proprietary, but I can live with that.  This whole area needs much more investigation, and I'd welcome any tips from people who have done this with Simrad.  I have an older copy of Rose Point so I'll probably start there and see how far I can get.  Anyway, this is one aspect of Simrad where it's up to the owner to figure it all out.

Simrad uses stock Navionics cards, which I like.  Unfortunately, they only support Navionics, so I'd have to get comfortable that they provide best-in-class coverage for all the places I plan to go, including some pretty out of the way spots.  But if you have to be stuck with a single vendor, Navionics is one of, if not the best to be stuck with.

I'm also nervous about Simrad's support.  I bought a WR20 remote for my current boat and it was flakey from the get-go.  Support was OK, but very slow with a return for repair that took almost a month.  An in-warranty repair should be advance-replacement, and in fact I later read that Simrad advertises just that, but it wasn't offered to me when I had a repair need.  My other support incidents have been less than thrilling.  Not bad, but not confidence inspiring either.

As for Garmin, I know the least about them.  The couple of Garmin car GPSs that I have had I thought were garbage so I have a hard time taking them seriously, but owners seem to be thrilled and that can't be ignored.  They clearly are very serious about being a leader in Marine Electronics, and they have the resources to do it.  One down side that I will have to investigate very carefully is chart quality and coverage.  I think Garmin is the only vendor who locks you into their own charts.  Furuno has proprietary formatting and packaging of charts and you can only buy through them, but they are repackaged C-Map and Navionics so you know what you are getting, and you have two to choose from.  As far as I can tell, Garmins charts are all Garmin start to finish.  I need to be convinced that they can really support world-wide navigation.  For example, I want to see their charts of So. Georgia Is. and the antarctic peninsula.

Garmin also has no black-box plotter, but I'm not sure that's really a problem.  To me, the value of a BB is that you can use a big screen where the MFDs all top out at 12" or maybe 15".  But unlike others, Garmin has big MFDs so that might be just fine.  And I have no idea about companion PC software, etc.

So that's where my head is on all this.  Furuno is the default choice, but teetering.  Simrad is a very serious contender with Garmin a bit further behind, and Raymarine is currently below the cut line.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Although I understand your concern about picking the best systems you can find, I'm convinced you are guilty of over thinking the issues. One of my passions is playing with "all" the chart plotter manufacturers & I've found that, all things considered, Simrad is the best. Yes, Furuno usually gets the nod but it's mainly for their radar and equipment they have built in the past. Both Simrad and Garmin have caught up and passed Furuno in the "intuitive" department.