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Ben E

Which plotter, radar, autopilot system to buy?

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I get this sort of email request fairly often and would much rather struggle with it here on the Forum where others may add their opinions and/or benefit from the conversation. The writer runs a rapid response service like Sea Tow or Vessel Assist (he wants to stay anonymous) but his needs aren't much different from anyone who wants electronics that will hold to hard use:

"I know this is SUCH a loaded question, but I'm in the position to be outfitting a completely new boat for my work and I haven't been in the position of buying electronics in about ten years.

I have had Raymarine, but am now partial to Garmin for ease of use. But Simrad seems to be making such great inroads in the marine industry lately. Garmin appears to be somewhat more expensive than the other brands.

I'm in the market for a 12" MFD, radar and autopilot for a boat which will be operated by up to five different operators in any given week.

I know, it's a tough discussion... Any thoughts?"

17 Replies

  • Well, sorry, but I suggest that your choice is even harder than you realize! That's because a Furuno NXT radar and TZTouch 2 12-inch MFD seems to fit your needs. It's also excellent gear and price competitive I think.

    Moreover, I think that "Garmin is easiest to use" is a fading distinction. This is a more subjective area than most, but I find the current Simrad and Furuno TZT2 interfaces quite easy and likable, and Raymarine's new LightHouse 3 also looked good to me on a demo ride.

    Incidentally, LightHouse 3 has a custom user profile feature that might be great for a multi operator situation likes yours. Each skipper could create and own his or her own favorite interface without messing up another's:

    Another thought, given what you do, is Garmin's VIRB camera integration. I imagine that it could be valuable to video towing and rescue incidents, and Garmin makes that really easy. On the other hand, Garmin is the only one without paper-chart-like raster charts, if that's important to your team.

    Overall, you can not go too far wrong with any of the four major brands. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but I think it's quite true. All four are building good gear and seem to have healthy futures.

  • Ben, this is always an interesting discussion. For me, a 100% Raymarine setup (E120 classic, radar a nd ST60+ instruments plus autopilot) is showing its age in places. The E120 MFD always had the screen 'flash' and Raymarine's unwillingness to acknowledge the problem means that Raymarine is a non-starter as a replacement system.

    In my analysis, I find myself driven by the availability of good quality charts for my cruising area. In my case, the Bahamas and Caribbean. Thus, I require a system that will take either Explorer electronic charts or NV or Garmin. But I have Garmin on my iPad - which is a great planning and what-if tool. My experience with Raymarine has taught me that you need backups so my iPad supplements my PC with OpenCPN which I would also like to have display the new Radar.

    My point in adding this additional 'backup' layer of complexity is to demonstrate that the choice is nowhere as clear today as it once was when you start to take either graceful or unplanned 'degradation' of the navigation platform into consideration. Its now a much wider discussion that I look forward to participating in :)

  • I sell Garmin, Raymarine and the Navico Family (Simrad, B&G and Lowrance). I love all at different times and for different boaters with different needs....but if you press me I will tell you that in high end Fishfinder/Chartplotters Garmin has lost its vaunted lead in "Ease of Use" to any of the Navico products.

    I'm not saying Garmin is bad. Quite the contrary. They are good. I'm saying Simrad, B&G and Lowrance are easier for a rookie to understand and use without cracking open a manual.

    I don't use the Furuno products, so I won't venture an opinion on those.


  • Thanks, Dan, and I agree 1,000% with "love all at different times and for different boaters with different needs."

    I actually had a guy on Facebook threaten to punch me out because I refused to say which system I'd buy for my own boat. It's a pointless question unless the person was buying me a present, and even then I'd have a hard time answering.

    At any rate, that guy had some sort of baloney notion about how I'm paid off in free equipment and/or advertising, but I have trouble even when an innocent person asks "what should I buy?" The conversation has to involve who they are as boaters and electronics users and the answer is usually a complicated matrix of possibilities. Fortunately no one can go too far wrong these days and I think that the real key to marine electronics satisfaction is learning your gear.

    By the way, Dan, don't hesitate to tell us where you sell electronics if you'd like to.

  • I'm not hesitant at all. I used to be the Electronics Specialist at Seattle West Marine. Now I'm the Manager of the big West Marine in Anacortes, WA. (70 Miles North of Seattle, gateway to the San Juan Island and Canadian Gulf Islands, for those in other areas)

    Living on a Passport 40 sailboat, riding my bicycle to work, getting the boat ready. Mast goes back in today, in fact, with all new rigging, and new LED stuff up at the top.

    Thanks for all the great writing Ben. I refer many to your site.

  • Spent some time looking at MFDs in West Marine and was wondering if anyone else has the perception B&G is a lot more affordable for sailboat owners, costing less than Garmin, or if anyone has the perception Garmin has solidly moved in on B&Gs turf with many sailing features and graphics that seem to look far prettier?

  • Oh see, now you're just asking for a fight. Truth still depends on what you have and what you want.

    Garmin has some sailing features with compass rose, laylines, etc. They also have race start features if you want those. They bought the Nexus line of wireless wind instruments. Those are also cool. B&G doesn't have wireless. And if that GND box puts out real NMEA 2k, you should be able to use that Wind Instrument from Garmin with a B&G systems if you like that Nexus GWind instrument better than the B&G one...but do you want to do all that system integration?

    So B&G vs. Garmin for sailors. Which is best. Again, different needs can lead you different ways. But personally, I think "Sailsteer" from B&G is actually a better realtime view of what's happening around the boat. But that's only if you have all the instruments hooked up. And you can get it in a 5 inch Vulcan unit if you want. Garmin doesn't have that option.

    But remember to make a B&G system sing you need all those other inputs. Those are Wind speed/direction (it can come from any N2K wind instrument), Water speed, (This is DST 800, and is the same unit if you buy from Garmin or B&G), and the secret sauce is a heading sensor. You get that from a B&G auto pilot if you have, or buy buying their $200 GPS antenna. You don't need the GPS, both Zeus and Vulcan have one of those built in. But if you don't have any other heading source (a compatible autopilot) you need the one hiding inside the B&G GPS antenna. It's that heading that is the key to SailSteer.

    Any old GPS in a chartplotter can tell you your heading and boat speed. But when you add a heading senor to a B&G system it can tell you both where you are going AND which direction the boat is pointing...not the same thing. That's what makes B&G SailSteer interesting. And gives you more information about what wind and current are doing to the boat...and tells you laylines that will give you the best VMG upwind to where you told it you want to go. Also, B&G has wind over time readouts that give you a heads up to how the wind is trending.

    So Garmin...has options. B&G has options. Both are OK.

    Would it help if I just told you I just installed a B&G Zeus3 9-Inch system, Full B&G Wind,Speed,Depth, 4G Radar, B&G NAC3 Autopilot. Oh, and my wife wanted I got that too. AIS and the new VHF radio as well. (I wanted it for the wireless command mic)

    I might have made other suggestions or choices if I was starting from a different base. But I just bought a 35 year old boat that needed I started from scratch

  • Great reply Dan, I enjoyed reading that.

    A heading sensor hiding in the GPS you wrote. Is that nearly as good as the Precision 9?

  • Better question, is the hidden heading sensor in the B&G GPS better than the Simrad RC42?

  • No on both counts. Remember, the RC42 is the predecessor of the Precision 9. It was designed to run the autopilots...allowing MARPA tracking in Radar, Radar Overlay, yadda, yadda. Both top of the Simrad line when they came out. The heading sensor in the GPS is not as sensitive. Good enough to make Sailsteer work, yes. But not as good as the Big Boys.

  • Regarding B&G and Simrad autopilots, both appear to use the same "brain" box and motor controller--a version of NAC-2 or NAC-3. We have an older and now failed autopilot that uses a still functional motor and hydraulic pump to drive an autopilot ram. The sailboat is cable steered. The motor is reversible and operates at a variable speed depending on the amount of course correction required by the rudder. Some autopilots operate pump motors only in an on/off mode while others adjust the motor speed. Our experience is that the variable speed motor system works well. Perhaps someone knows whether the NAC-3 unit controls the pump motors at variable speed?

  • Correct. Same brains. In the setup docs for the NAC3 it calls out specifically that when you are setting the "Control Method" you use "Solenoid" for hydraulic control of on and off....and use "Reversible Motor" if you have variable speed pumps and drives. For details, I'd call the tech support crew.

  • That's helpful and seems to settle the variable speed question. I wonder whether for a 43 foot offshore cruising boat it makes sense to look at the B&G H5000 CPU as compared to the NAC-3 Simrad unit?

  • I've been designing, installing and repairing marine electrical and electronic systems for many years. I think we have finally reached the magic moment when, as in the automotive world, there is little to base product choice on other than appearance, ease of use, and minor differences in functionality.

    Reliability is excellent with most problems that I encounter today a result of poor installation, seawater intrusion, excessive heat, both often installation problems, or finger trouble. I could be incorrect as I don't have the actual numbers, but my sense is that the number of actual gear failures is very small. Also, judging today's products by the performance of those of several years ago is like trying to predict the performance of a current automobile based on experiences from the last century. Silly indeed.

    My annoyances stem largely from equipment design that makes installation difficult, time consuming and expensive. I have recently installed some AIS transceiver/antenna switching boxes that had antenna and cable connectors sprouting from both the front and rear of the cases. This made a tidy installation at an otherwise very neat navigation station essentially impossible. I had to build a custom bit of woodwork and hide the equipment in an adjacent cabinet in the head. Great equipment but I don't think the manufacturer actually ever installed one on a boat with a demanding owner.

    I recently flush mounted a VHF at a nav station with very limited access to the rear of the mounting area. The flush mount clamps had to be installed with Phillips screws once the radio was inserted through the new hole in the panel. They went on from the rear working blind with only one hand able to reach the back of the radio. If the manufacturer had seen fit to provide knurled headed screws with Phillips drives on the ends to complete the job, it would have saved half an hour of time and some blue language.

    All this to suggest that design, installation ease and ergonomics are becoming much greater purchasing considerations than functionality and reliability.

  • I would disagree Rich.

    As consumer MFD's have made an evolutionary jump recently in processing power and functionality (see Ben's radar comparison, new sailing features), and openness (WiFi, MFD's consume crowd sourcing data), split data networks (live boat data split between nmea-2000 and IP networks) we have brand new opportunities for reliability, incompatibility, and huge feature differences between the brands.


  • Also, is "installation ease" an objective and measurable purchasing consideration between brands? With a great deal of the installation time having to do with our choice of the physical location of our components, not sure how you can measure?

    I just installed B&G components in three locations on my boat in a mixed network of components.

    Was it easy because it was B&G or was it easy because of NMEA-2000?

  • hmmm... Dan, I understand your points, and certainly progress brings opportunity for complexity and incompatibility. However there are many more functional similarities between brands than there are differences. Features come and go with software changes and software failures are more easily rectified than hardware disasters. As far as the installation problems are concerned, I didn't present that as a major decision making factor; more a general comment that installations can be made unneccesarily difficult due to mediocre design.