Boat electronics have become part of the basic equipment on a vessel. Today, a boat without a marine radio and GPS seems as rudimentary as a household without a computer.
Every mariner should also consider a VHF radio to be as vital as any single piece of marine electronics, even more important than a GPS. A marine VHF radio can be used for distress calls, to communicate with the Coast Guard and fellow boaters, and to stay up to date on important weather information and navigational hazard warnings.
One other piece of gear that is not really a piece of electronics, but should be consider essential aboard a boat, is a compass. You should have a compass installed within easy view of the helmsman on any boat that operates more than a few hundred years from shore.
If you spend the majority of your boating time on the water chasing and trying to catch fish you should have a look at our fishing electronics page to get the most fishing results for your hard earned dollars.
Boat Electronics—Radio First
A good quality fixed-mount marine VHF radio can be had between $100 and $200, and a VHF antenna will run you from $50 to $250. Adding a few bucks for antenna cable, and other tidbits would bring the minimum total cost to install a VHF radio on your boat to about $180. Of course, you could spend much more if you select a top of the line radio and antenna. A VHF handheld is a good backup for a fixed mount and on many small boats the handheld will suffice as the main radio. Decent handheld marine VHF units are available for around $100.
The Global Positioning System, or GPS, allows mariners to pinpoint exactly where they are located on the water. The popularity of GPS technology has grown by leaps and bounds as these units see more and more land-use in vehicles. Marine ready GPS gear is available in a handheld GPS unit or a marine chartplotter or a combination unit.
Boaters looking to meet basic navigation needs without buying a fixed mount chartplotter should check out our choosing a handheld GPS for marine use page. They cost significantly less money than a fixed mount marine chartplotter.
Ideally, the boat electronics units like these should be waterproof or water-resistant and designed with intuitive, easily operated buttons and controls.
You can spend from $200 to more than $5,000 on GPS equipment for your boat. It all depends on the size, functionality, and built-in feature set. Some machines can do everything but bake a loaf a bread. Most chartplotter GPS units for boats are sold with cartography capabilities, meaning they show an electronic chart on a display screen. These days the screen will most likely be color, and the bigger and better the screen, the higher the cost.
Our list of tips on choosing a GPS chartplotter will get you headed in the right direction for your next marine electronics purchase.
Yes, GPS units are super accurate and offer convenient features, such as plotting waypoints and marking a course. But they also rely on ships electricity or battery power to function, and they can malfunction, become damaged or just crap out on you. For these reasons, you should always have paper charts for your area of operation aboard your vessel, and you should know the basics of navigating with paper charts.
Sonar, Fishfinder, Depth Sounder
Sounders or fishfinders are also a common piece of boat electronics; they tell you the depth of the water. You should use this information to enhance safely while navigating and to play a role in avoiding contact between your boat and the bottom. Boaters that dont fish really only need the depth displayed in numeric format. These types of units are the least expensive type of depth sounder and can be fitted for under $100. The two components of the system are the display and the transducer.
If you need or desire a fishfinder you can expect to get many more features and a larger display screen than you find on a digital numeric style display. A fishfinder, also sometimes referred to as a bottom machine, sounder, or sonar, will show the contour of the bottom and other information such as water temperature on a display screen that can vary in size from 3-inches to over 10-inches when measured on the diagonal. Prices for fishfinders start at around $100 and go up from there. A top notch recreational fishfinder and transducer will cost between $800 and $1500.
More Boat Electronics
Besides the basic marine electronics you should have on your boat—marine radio and GPS—there are lots of small miscellaneous pieces of gear you may wish to investigate as well as several uncategorized products. Here is our review list.
The most basic component of any boat electrical system and the main power supply for your marine electronics is the battery. When you go about choosing a marine battery for your vessel do so from an educated viewpoint for best results.
One more option for the budget minded boater is used marine electronics.
When things get a little complicated and you don’t have all the answers you need for a product selection or installation, send us your questions using our contact page and I will post answers on the marine electronics FAQ page.
For boats operating at night or in poor visibility conditions, a marine radar can be indispensable addition to your electronics suite. Radar shows the mariner on a display screen the obstacles he or she must avoid for safe navigation. It also provides the speed, direction, and distance of other vessels. Radar systems are expensive—usually several thousands of dollars.
Combination units—machines that meld a marine GPS and sounder capabilities or radar— are very popular among recreational mariners because they save space and give you a good bang for you buck. Downside: If the unit dies or malfunctions, you’re without at least two pieces of boat electronics.
Automatic Identification System or marine AIS is a relatively new technology in the recreational boating world. In simple terms, AIS is like radar in that delivers positional data to you of other vessels in your area. AIS will be displayed onscreen and show other vessels using triangle shaped icons. Other data about the vessel like course, speed, and name are available too.
The system helps prevent collisions. The cost depends in part on the unit’s sophistication and functionality. For instance, receive-only units let you track other vessels, but your boat will not be on the AIS system. Two-way receivers which show your position and other vessels are more expensive.
Small Boat Autopilots
When you talk about boat electronics, you must include autopilots, which allow you to set a course and let the computer drive the boat. Even the most inexpensive boat autopilot will hold a heading or follow input from a chartplotter to stay on a route. Auto pilots are great for long voyages, as they can reduce stress and strain both on the helm and the helmsman. On a long trip using an autopilot to steer a straight course could even save you a bit of fuel.
Data communications among all of these neat pieces of equipment is possible. Some units talk to each other using propriety network style connections while others transfer data using systems managed by the National Marine Electronics Association. The two data transfer systems currently in use are designated NMEA0182 and NMEA2000. The latter is newer and faster.