• Published:January 12, 2018
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Are you looking to replace that old fish finder? Time to upgrade to a touch screen? There is a lot to consider.

Today's marine electronics require constant updating, upgrading, and replacement. Just like cell phones and computers, marine electronics usually become obsolete long before they wear out or suffer a failure. And if you don't keep them current, you'll be fishing at a serious disadvantage.
Choosing your marine electronics, however, is no easy task. The vast amount of systems, features, and accessories that hit the market make it nearly impossible to keep current on the latest and greatest.


1. Don’t be afraid to jump manufacturers. There was a time when it was smart to stick with a brand, because as new models were rolled out they shared an interface similar to the older version. Switching brands took a big leap of faith, since you knew it would take time to figure out how to use that new gear. Raymarine guys usually stuck with Raymarine, Garmin guys usually stuck with Garmin, and so on. But these days, thanks to hyper-intuitive user interfaces based on modern cell phone menus and apps, it’s pretty darn easy to figure out how to use virtually any system.

2. Get AIS (as a fishing tool). Most people think of AIS (Automatic Identification System) as a safety feature, but it also helps fishermen. AIS allows you to locate and ID commercial fishing vessels. Scallopers on the East Coast, shrimpers in the Gulf, and squid boats just about anywhere are often shadowed by game fish, and when a hot bite can be found astern of a commercial boat, having AIS will put you there first.
"When it comes to the screen size of marine electronics, bigger truly is better."
-- Lenny Rudow
3. Ignore the term ‘CHIRP.’ CHIRP was always a somewhat misleading marketing term (it stands for “compressed high intensity radar pulse.”) Many manufacturers label a fish finder “CHIRP” and then sell it with a transducer that isn’t capable of pinging at multiple frequencies. Some others utilize a pitifully small spectrum of frequencies which doesn’t really help the angler, yet allows the company to stamp CHIRP on the box. And still others produce units with screens so small that any enhanced detail wouldn’t be possible to view anyway. Think more about the type of fishing you do (trolling, bottom fishing, jigging, etc.) and purchase a fish finder that fits your needs.

4. Ignore “Scanners” and “Imagers” if you only fish blue water. Most units with scanners/imagers do provide excellent detail, but only in relatively shallow water. If you commonly fish beyond the edge of the Continental Shelf they won’t do much for you unless the fish are up high in the water column. We should point out, however, that in water 500 feet or less, some of these units offer enhanced detail.

5. Figure out your boat’s mathematical radar range. Most of the time a radar is limited by the curvature of the Earth, not by its maximum range. The formula for figuring out range is 1.2NM x the square root of radar antenna height + 1.2NM x square root of target height. If you use 100 feet for the target height (it’s rare you’ll be looking for anything that stands higher) and if the radar antenna is mounted nine feet above the water on a hard top, your range will never go beyond 15.6 nautical miles (1.2x3 + 1.2x10 = 15.6). In this scenario, you’d get better range by installing a pedestal to raise the antenna’s elevation than you would by spending thousands more on a higher-powered unit.

6. Invest in maximum screen size. When it comes to the screen size of marine electronics, bigger truly is better. Take advantage of every square inch of fiberglass at the helm, and shoe-horn in the widest screen possible. As you split the screen to view things like chart plotters and fish finders at the same time, the screen seems to shrink and details can become hard to make out. So yes, bigger is better.

7. When upgrading or replacing a VHF radio, get one with built-in GPS. Prices aren’t much higher than units without GPS but they provide a big advantage in that DSC (digital selective calling) functionality is automatic (as long as you register and plug in the MMSI number). In the past, running wires from the chart plotter to the radio has been a barrier to DSC functionality and to this day the USCG reports that the majority of boats with DSC capabilities do not have it activated. That’s a problem since DSC will let the Coast Guard see your exact latitude and longitude when you make an emergency call.

8. Get an MFD with buttons, even if you love touch screens. Touch screens are great, but they’re problematic on boats. In rough weather, touching small icons on the screen is nearly impossible, and when fish gore is on your fingers the screen can become a nonfunctional mess. That doesn’t mean you can’t use and enjoy a touch-screen when appropriate, just choose a unit that also has buttons or a remote keypad which you can use when necessary.

9. Put on your sunglasses and try viewing the screen from 160 or 170 degrees off to the side. Older units used to black out if you looked at them from any sort of angle, and through the years screens have become better and better at remaining bright and visible when wearing sunglasses.

10. Get a unit with built-in Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi connectivity is a wonderful thing in a marine electronics system because your boat can now communicate with the wider world. This makes software updates and cartography downloads a breeze, and eliminates the need to shuffle small cards around. Most new units have Wi-Fi built in, but if your system is just a couple of years old you can bring it up to date by adding Wi-Fi, and allowing the system to re-educate itself from time to time.

The final tip would be to go out with an electronics rep and try using the new gear on the water before you plop down a bunch of money. We hope you find electronics you love, and will be happy with them for years to come. But don’t get too attached because as fast as marine electronics advance, you’ll be due for another update before too long.