BRIGHT SPARKS 416 - Web wary

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Is buying electronics plain sailing?

BRIGHT SPARKS 416 - Web wary
BRIGHT SPARKS 416 — Web wary

Marine electronics is moving as swiftly as an outgoing Kimberley tide, reflecting the strides in technology and consumer demands.

We’re wanting more user-friendly devices, more choice, reliability and, of course, the best price. The winter months are a good time to ponder over new gear and purchasing decisions with the boat-show season the highlight for buyers and tyre-kickers alike.

But like that Kimberley tide, the latest US survey from MTA shows that marine electronics buyers are moving offshore with purchasing decisions.

The 2011 MTA survey showed five main buying channels and in order of popularity they came out as: international retail websites (83.9 per cent), specialist marine electrical suppliers (79.6 per cent), manufacturer websites (38.3 per cent), consumer electronics stores (27.8 per cent) and chandleries (10.4 per cent).

Interestingly, the only growth area (albeit in a very rocky US economy) was in buyers using specialist marine electronic providers in preference to the more traditional chandleries, which experienced the largest fall. The main reasons cited were a limited selection, high prices and long order times in the chandlery. On the other hand, the specialist suppliers gave expertise and convenience, which buyers translated into value for money.

Surprisingly, manufacturers’ websites fell in popularity as well, with the main reasons being a lack of clarity, uneven pricing and too much confusing marketing material. What these figures show is that the lion’s share goes to the web retailers who are smart enough to display products clearly and at competitive prices. But buyers’ expectations are often low in terms of after-sales service and purchase purely for price and convenience.

Locally, retail in general is suffering and I suspect web imports (that are tax free for goods under $1000) is playing a major part, especially with our strong dollar.

This latest survey raises quite a few points I think: about warranties, the commoditisation of electronics and how we maintain the gear. For instance, is a two-year-old radar costing $2000 worth the trouble of removing from the boat and being shipped back to the manufacturer or repair shop, if you don’t have an onboard factory warranty?

Commoditisation is another interesting area, whereby household consumer electronics standards are being shipped aboard our boats and we are expecting similar value for money along with user friendliness. A poignant example of this just arrived on my desk recently — the new iPad2 which can run literally hundreds of marine applications. With a screen bigger and clearer than many chartplotters, its inbuilt GPS combined with charting from companies such as Navionics, Imray, and many others is the kind of product that is changing the way we sailors experience marine electronics.

One important channel the MTA survey didn’t mention specifically was our buying behaviour at boat shows, but having attended the Sanctuary Cove International Boat Show in May along with 36,504 others, I’d say it was a worthwhile experience for the above-mentioned buyers and tyre-kickers alike.

At the shows you can ask the technical staff the curly questions — like, does the term 4D-charting really mean classical physics theory missed that fourth dimension all those years ago or is it hype? — while looking them straight in the eye.

You can also twiddle the knobs on the latest plotters or more likely touch their screens. At Sanctuary Cove the main trends included yet more touchscreen interfaces. Controlling onboard systems via a touchscreen using underlying CAN-bus technology is becoming more mainstream as demonstrated by manufacturer ETA at the show.

Similar to how a computer’s motherboard has a single data circuit running through it, CAN-bus systems similarly use this principle for all onboard systems, with separate power ring and ECU (electronic control units), which allow instant fault finding and control of particular onboard items. Deployed on larger vessels it can give a weight saving of about 30 per cent over standard multiple cabling systems, according to a technical manager at Nautor’s Swan yachts I spoke to recently.

Elsewhere at Sanctuary Cove, Simrad unveiled its range-topping 12in NSS Sport model, which has touch controls for the first time, and along with the 7in and 8in versions, this new range also has inbuilt sonar support and GPS.

New on the Australian scene is Italian manufacturer Geonav that importer BLA hopes will give it some market share in the larger vessel market. It has produced a new range of multifunction displays in 10in and 12in sizes (GIS 12 and GIS 10) using joystick and button controls that it will sell for $4000 and $5000 respectively. Features include inbuilt sonar and dual charting — it uses two card slots so can display both raster and vector charting in split-screen mode.

No doubt about it, getting to feel the merchandise before you buy has a lot of merits over the faceless web and I’ll be doing more of the same at the Sydney International Boat Show on July 31. See you there.


1). CAN-bus data systems can give Swan yachts a 30 per cent weight saving over traditional cabling.

2). Online discount store Defender was voted most popular retailer in the US MTA survey of 2010

3 & 4). Geonav’s new MFDs will run new C-MAP 4D charting that has near-real time updating.

5). Simrad unveiled its 12in hybrid touch plotter with the able help of its marketing girls. Mmm…


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