Welcome to the Marine Electronic Age of Enlightenment

Technology is rushing forward at such a quick rate that pricing cannot keep pace, and the cost for old technology—meaning that which has barely been on the market for a year or two—is plummeting.

5th March 2013.
By Lenny Rudow

In this techno-gee-whiz society we expect hot new cell phones and computers to go out of date within a year or two, and many of us are willing to pay a premium to have the latest and greatest gizmos at our fingertips. To some degree this trend has extended to marine electronics, at least on the research, development, and manufacturing side of things. But we boaters don’t tend to upgrade our electronic systems on a yearly basis. In fact, it’s more common for us to hold onto the same system until we upgrade the entire boat, which, on average, takes place every five years or so.

Examples of fishfinder views

Examples of old-tech fishfinder views, and those of a fishfinder using multi-spectrum pings to see what lies below. Photos courtesy of Airmar and Raymarine.

Yet this hasn’t slowed down the rapid pace of electronic advancements, which means that most of us leap-frog several generations every time we get a new navigation, fishfinding, or communications system. Meanwhile, the cost of older technology—just a year or two older—falls at a shocking pace. Net result? If your boat is several years old, you can buy a much newer, more advanced electronics system which may not be “cutting edge,” but is light-years ahead of your existing system, at a shockingly low price.

Let’s look at fishfinder technology, for a prime example of this phenomenon. The latest big development has been the application of multi-frequency burst transmissions, commonly called “SST” (for Spread Spectrum) or “CHIRP,” to vastly increase detail levels and depth range. This technology first became widely available on the recreational market in 2011. Most of the major manufacturers including Garmin, Raymarine, and Simrad, (see Fishfinder Follow-up for a direct comparison between these units) quickly introduced units which utilized this technology. Cost ranged from around $1,600 to over $2,000, and that was just for the black box. You also needed to upgrade your transducer (adding another grand or so to the equation), and you could only use these goodies if you already have a late model multifunction display (MFD) at the helm.

Now, a mere two years later, Raymarine is introducing an all-new stand-alone CHIRP fishfinder called the Dragonfly, which includes a transducer and even has a built-in chartplotter, for the mind-numbingly low MSRP of $599. Yes, in two short years the cost of this technology has dropped to about one quarter of what it was when first introduced. If you bought a new fishing boat two years ago, are you really going to wait another three years to upgrade to this level of fish-finding performance? With a price drop this steep, it’s such a technological bargain that upgrading should be a no-brainer.

Next, consider handheld VHF radios. For many of us they represent a form of last-resort communications for use in emergencies, and/or as a back-up when out fixed-mount units suddenly go quiet. As a result there’s always been a large number of units on the market which featured rugged waterproof construction, fairly basic functionality, and relatively low cost. In fact, for around $150 you could buy a handheld from any number of manufacturers, and they performed about as well as any other. But in the past few years, shrinking chipsets and manufacturing efficiency gains have made it possible to equip a light, small, rugged handheld VHF with an internal GPS and full DSC functionality. One of the earliest adopters of this technology was Standard-Horizon, which rolled out the HX850S at a price of about $250. Here we are four years later, however, and you can find a number of handheld GPS-equipped DSC VHFs for about $180—just $30 more than your average old-tech radio. Even the very latest example to hit the market, Lowrance’s Link-2, which adds a simple plotter with up to 500 waypoints, MOB functionality, and position polling functions to the radio, lists at just $199.

 fuel flow display

Today, fuel flow is usually displayed along with other critical engine data right at the dash; in-line flow-meters are no longer necessary.

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to your navigation and communications suite, either. Ancillary electronics also see a tremendous tech boost at little to no cost. Take fuel-flow monitoring, for example. Ten years ago, in order to know exactly how much fuel you were burning at any given moment you would have had to install an in-line flow meter, along with a display at the helm. Cost for the hardware and installation of an accurate system of mid-level quality would have ranged from $1,000 to $1,500. But today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a new boat with a powerplant of 200-hp or above that doesn’t already include digital fuel-flow data at the helm, thanks to our modern computerized engines and LCD data displays. It’s part of the package, at no additional cost.

More food for thought: six years ago, the introduction of emergency satellite texting devices halved the price of a global 911 button—and their cost has declined by over 25 percent since their introduction. Ten years ago, we stared at very expensive and very blank LCDs while we waited for them to re-draw, but today’s displays cost half as much and refresh five times as fast. In those yesteryears we paid $250 for cartography that came on a chip that needed regular replacement, and today we pay half as much for built-in data that can be updated with a web download. There’s no doubt about it: today the technology found in a marine electronic device is a bargain. And if you haven’t upgraded your electronics in the past few years, this is a great time to do so. Sure, it’ll cost a few bucks. But it’ll be a far cry from paying a premium.

Need new electronics? Do your shopping at the Boats.com Gear and Parts Store Electronics section.


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About the author:

Lenny Rudow

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Lenny Rudow is Senior Editor for Dominion Marine Media, including Boats.com and Yachtworld.com. With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, he has contributed to publications including Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design who has won 28 BWI and OWAA writing awards.
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