A new generation of chartplotters offers sailors more processing power than ever before. Sam Fortescue examines what you get when you upgrade
Just as mobile phones are constantly being superseded by newer technology, so it is for the chartplotter and other hardware at the heart of your boat’s navigation network.
Multifunction displays (MFDs) are unimaginably complex and powerful compared to the simple ‘chartplotter’ of yesteryear, capable of crunching radar and fishfinding sonar signals, processing video, switching and monitoring systems all around the boat.
And, yes: they can still tell you where you are on a digital chart.
The next generation of chartplotter
B&G, Raymarine and Garmin have recently shrugged off COVID-19 to launch shiny new MFDs with a host of new features.
In fact, B&G has been busy with two big launches.
The first is its Nemesis display – a sleek-looking 9in or 12in screen designed to repeat key navigation or boat data.
This began its development life as an upgrade to the popular HV mastfoot display for race boats, showing boat speed, wind speed and wind angle.
Nemesis has a customisable template that can be bent to displaying almost any combination of data.
‘The traditional ones are great for low power, but restricted in that you can only show one figure,’ explains product director Matt Eeles.
‘We wanted a display that allowed the user to show whatever data they liked in whatever format.
‘They can be as creative as they like.’ In time it will even be possible to put logos, pictures, photos and more on the screen alongside the data itself – something that might appeal more to younger sailors. It also has a far more visible screen, with ultra-wide viewing angles, even when wearing polarising sunglasses.
‘It is reusing some of our proven technology,’ adds Eeles. ‘Things like the IPS Solar Max screens, touchscreen and daylight viewability, so that we can now bring colour into those instrument displays, whereas they would have traditionally been a 7-segmented display like the HV.’
There is a power cost to this enhanced performance.
The 12in unit draws up to 1.8A in streaming mode with a full backlight, or about 1A in normal use.
It is designed for cockpit or mast use, with a beefy Ethernet connection to integrate into your existing network.
But in the end, this is basically a beautiful repeater.
If you want it to crunch wind or heading data, or make sense of broadband radar signals, then you’ll need to hook it up to an MFD or a black-box computer.
B&G’s new Zeus3S would do the trick.
With the same enhanced viewability as Nemesis, it includes a powerful quad-core processor, which Eeles says should keep chart rendering perfectly smooth, even with radar or sonar running in the background.
Besides the screen and the speed, the key upgrade is the ability to run embedded apps.
These run on so-called HTML5, and will be carefully vetted by B&G before approval, in order to keep the user experience satisfying.
B&G is tight-lipped about future apps, but don’t expect to find Netflix or Spotify here (they’re on Raymarine’s Axiom+, more on that below).
Zeus3S has also been engineered to accept input from Flir marine cameras, which can provide real-time imagery of what lies ahead by day or night, and even what’s going on beneath the waterline.
There are many potential uses for this, but expect a future software update to blend cartography, AIS data and video, for so-called ‘augmented reality’.
Collision avoidance is another avenue under the scope at B&G.
Zeus3S starts at a 9in model costing £2,700, up to a 16in model which will set you back an eye-watering £6,660.
The Nemesis costs £3,260 (9in) or £4,900 (12in).
Buy the Zeus3S 9inch now at eBay US
Buy the Zeus3S 12inch now at eBay US
Buy the Nemesis 12inch now at eBay US
Over at Raymarine, there has been a similar progression.
There, the flagship display is the Axiom, which has just been upgraded and relaunched as the Axiom+, bringing it into line with the brand’s oversize Axiom XL and Axiom Pro units.
It has seen its internal memory leap from 4GB to 16GB, as Raymarine gears up to roll out its own proprietary LightHouse charting, which will include street mapping, as well as depth contours and points of interest (from shops and restaurants to marinas and slipways).
Launch for UK and Irish waters is expected in spring 2021, with pricing around £145.
The screen has also been upgraded with in-plane switching (IPS) technology that works through polarising filters.
‘It improves on the visibility by 25%, and sunlight visibility has got a lot better,’ says marketing director Jim Hands.
‘Axiom was great before and now it’s even brighter with the Plus.’
A new nano-particle screen coating repels water, oil and smudges better resulting in a touchscreen that is easier for sailors to use accurately, even in wet conditions.
Axiom+ also has a faster GPS receiver, capable of updating your position ten times per second.
With most of us sailing at relatively slow 5-7 knot speeds, the benefit here is not really greater accuracy, I suggest to Hands.
‘Is it going to seem more accurate?’
‘No,’ he agrees. ‘But it is more sensitive with an improved signal-to-noise ratio. The benefits to sailors are more in challenging conditions, if the unit is mounted below decks or canvas.’
Raymarine is further down the line with apps than B&G, and already offers a dozen or so, from PredictWind and BuoyWeather to the likes of Victron and Netflix.
And yes, perhaps surprisingly, Netflix is among the most popular apps, with people apparently settling down at the helm or the chart table to catch up on Money Heist.
Expect to see new apps from third-party equipment suppliers from watermakers to underwater lights, and new capabilities such as active collision avoidance.
‘We are laying the groundwork for that,’ says Hands.
It is looking likely that in time, your boat’s every electronic function could be centrally controlled from the MFD.
Raymarine’s Axiom+ starts at £745 for the smallest 7in model, up to £2,495 for the 12in option.
Buy the Axiom+ 7inch at eBay (US)
Buy the Axiom+ 9inch at eBay (US)
Not to be left behind, Garmin has just unveiled its new GPSMAP X3, with a very fine bezel and some by-now familiar features.
These include the IPS screen that is sunlight-viewable, even in polarising glasses, and a more powerful processor with twice the performance of its predecessor.
The screen has 50% more pixels, and there is also a 10Hz GPS receiver.
Networking gets a look-in, too, with the ability to combine digital switching, cameras, engine data and nav data.
Through the ActiveCaptain app, you can do your passage planning at home, and have it transfer across to the display when on board.
Garmin’s entry-level 7×3 unit has a 7in screen, and costs £900 without sonar, while the 12in version is £2,600.
Buy the GPSMAP® 723 on eBay (US)
Buy the GPSMAP® 723 on eBay (UK)
When to invest in a next generation chartplotter
As they get more capable, MFDs are also getting more expensive.
For that reason, upgrading only really makes sense if you have a very old system, or if you are an intensive user of sonar and radar, which requires lightning fast processing capabilities.
Otherwise, it’s a bit like switching to the latest mobile phone.
Features are similar across all three brands, but B&G has an undisputed lead when it comes to its suite of sailing tools: SailSteer, Laylines, SailingTime and so on.
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The trade-off is a much higher price, however.
Raymarine’s Axiom is the best connected in terms of third-party apps, through its attractive and flexible LightHouse 3 operating system.
Garmin offers keen pricing and impressive performance, with a growing suite of sailing tools.
If you want to move seamlessly between home and the boat, planning passages and scrutinising charts, then B&G is the best equipped (for an annual subscription cost of $45), followed by Garmin.
Raymarine is lagging in this sphere, with two poorly reviewed apps for remote viewing of the plotter when on board.
What lies ahead
‘Where I see things going now, we’re waiting for technology to catch up with us,’ says Matt Eeles of B&G.
‘The time has to come when tablets become daylight viewable, and you can potentially see your navigation device being completely mobile.
‘Why have a chartplotter screwed down on a dashboard where you can’t move it? You can sit somewhere protected, under a sprayhood, with a portable device that you can take off the boat and take home for a seamless transition.
‘The value in the future is more in software.
Between a Garmin, Raymarine or a B&G – they’re 99% identical – the MFD is just somewhere to run the software; a housing.’
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