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May 03, 2013

Plugging In

An electronics guide for new buyers

Buying marine electronics for the first time — whether you’re a seasoned angler or novice — can be research intensive as much as it can be exciting. Now, I realize “exciting” might not be the quickest description that comes to mind when discussing electronics, but I know many people who get as pumped about a new sounder as they do about an iPhone update.

The buying process should start with an assessment of your boat and your fishing preferences. The core products to focus on initially are those most associated with basic safety and fish finding: a multifunction display (or separate GPS/plotter and sounder) and a VHF radio.

To help first-time buyers, we asked major manufacturers to compile recommendations for inshore and offshore “good” and “better” packages. These are only suggestions; we didn’t ask for specific price points or stipulate boat size.

First Steps

“Usually a customer calling in about a first purchase starts off with something they’ve researched and asks us things like: ‘Do you think this is a good idea? Am I missing something?’” says Scott Heffernan, sales manager for the GPS Store, a North Carolina retailer that sells most major electronics brands. “We follow that up with a list of ­questions of our own.”

Heffernan says his salespeople ask about the kind of boat the buyer owns and the kind and frequency of fishing activities. “Some units do some things better than others,” he says. “Everybody’s looking for the most for their money. They always question whether they need that much or if there’s a less-­expensive unit. We try to help them get the most for their budget.”

Dealers certainly provide knowledgeable information; most also offer a number of units on display that you can experience in simulation mode. “Test-drive the products,” says Dennis Hogan, Simrad product manager. “Try programming a waypoint or perform a ‘go-to cursor’ function. Adjust the radar or echo-sounder gain function.”

At the same time, do some research online and at boat shows, and seek out qualified opinions on service and ­reliability to add to your knowledge base.

Mix and Match?

While manufacturers prefer that consumers buy only their branded products when purchasing multiple units — and often it truly is easiest to do that — you can choose to install one brand of sounder and a different plotter. “Thanks to the National Marine Electronics Association’s NMEA 2000 standards, we can do that,” says Heffernan, referring to the networking protocol developed by that membership group that allows different product brands to talk to one another.

Jason Kennedy, vice president of Standard Horizon, agrees that mix-and-match can work: “The best value is to buy the best actual components, and that might not be just one brand.”

Buying one brand, though, “lessens the number of surprises when you install. You won’t need a special adapter plug for this or that,” says Jim McGowan, Raymarine marketing manager. “And should something go wrong with the system, you have one warranty from one manufacturer.”

In addition, if you buy one brand’s multifunction display and want to add radar or an additional sonar module — which carry higher-bandwidth data — you must buy the same brand.

Chances are, the longer you fish your boat, the more you’ll want to invest in electronics and other accessories, such as radar, weather services, an autopilot or AIS. You’ll probably consider upgrading your sounder too. You can certainly change brands as you go, but finding a brand that matches your needs right off the bat can save you a considerable learning curve, and keep you from having to rewire or refit for new equipment.