Choosing a marine electronics package from a single manufacturer seems sensible, yet most of us end up with mixed and matched systems at the helm. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Could an electronics system composed of multiple manufacturers actually be advantageous?
Despite having spent decades immersed in the world of boats and marine electronics, I wasn't entirely sure of the best way to answer these questions. Electronics advance so rapidly that you’d have to rig multiple boats with new systems, some single-species and some mix-and-matches, each and every spring, to be sure—so it was time to go to an expert in the field. Scott Heffernan, sales manager at The GPS Store, gets to put together both types of systems each and every day. Here’s what he has to say on the matter.
Q: Hi Scott. For starters, can you tell us the basic advantages of going with all one brand?
A: There are several advantages to going with one manufacturer for all your electronics. First, there’s the atheistic benefit — products from a single manufacturer make an attractive installation and often have the same case size, color, graphics, and screen orientation. Then there’s the fact that the products will likely be designed to easily integrate with each other and were originally engineered to work together, like the ability to display radar, sonar, and chartplotter all on one display. They will also likely share a common user interface [how you go through menus and call up features], so you only have to learn how to use a single one. Finally, if there’s an issue that requires tech support it can be easier to diagnose when all the pieces are from one manufacturer, instead of having two companies pointing fingers at each other.
Q: And, what are the downsides of going with all one brand?
A: You could end up spending more money than necessary for the functions and features you want. For example, if it’s important for you to have a fixed-mount radio and an AIS system, your brand of choice may require you to purchase two separate units — while a different manufacturer could provide a VHF radio with AIS built-in at a much lower cost. Certain manufacturers also have reputations for building the best radars, or sounders, or autopilots, or radios, and you lose the ability to take advantage of this when you’re locked into one brand. If you do your research, you can get a lot of features for your money without overspending on features you won’t want or need. You can also maximize use of space by selecting products that include the multiple functions you want.
Q: Installation worries me — won’t all of the NMEA data wires be of different colors? How will I know what to hook up with what?
A: This might be an issue, especially for DIY boaters. You may have to speak with customer service departments from multiple manufacturers to clarify things. Or, if you purchase from a company like The GPS Store, we can help. A trusted dealer who’s familiar with multiple brands can be very helpful, as he’s likely encountered these challenges before.
Q: Are there any other hints, or pitfalls to look out for, or final advice when mixing and matching brands?
A: When shopping for electronics, think about what kind of boater you are and how you will spend your time on the water. If you’re more interested in getting the best performance and the most features for your money, you might be a good candidate for mixing brands. If one thing is most important to you — say offshore fishing — having a dedicated sounder, or getting a particular brand of sounder, could be a priority, and might require a mixed helm. On the other hand, if you’re more motivated by continuity in the user interface, consistent appearance, and the ease of dealing with one manufacturer for connecting instructions and customer service, just about every manufacturer out there has a full package for the job.
So, what’s the bottom-line answer to our questions? As usual, it depends. Taking Scott’s advice into account shows that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Before you decide whether to go with a mix-and-match marine electronics system or a single species, think over all of these factors and you should be able to make the best choice, for yourself.