Still using that old fishfinder/chartplotter you bought to celebrate Y2K? Then, writes Craig Ritchie, you’re missing out in a huge way as today’s multi-function displays make boating far safer and more enjoyable than ever.

Let’s face it, we boaties are an odd lot. While we’re almost universally mesmerised by the latest electronic gizmos we see in magazines and at boat shows, the truth is that few of us truly know that much about what these new toys can do, or if they have any specific capabilities that we could actually use. Like extras in a Monty Python sketch, we gather around the helm and admire The Machine That Goes Ping! … with no idea of how it works or even what those squiggly lines on the screen represent.

Perhaps that’s why we’re often a bit lax about keeping our own equipment up-to-date. And that’s a shame, because by clinging to the past we’re marrying ourselves to old technology that’s not only limited in its capability, but so much more awkward to use.

The great irony is that it is precisely we boaties who feel lost beyond the On-Off button – who are hesitant to touch anything else because we’re afraid of buggering the damn thing up – who would benefit the most from updating our kit. It’s one area of boating where the phrase “you don’t know what you’re missing” is really pertinent.

The good news is that you don’t need an electrical engineering degree to keep up with this stuff – the eggheads at the factory make the new gear so easy to use even a child can operate it. In spite of all the techno-babble we see in the advertisements, including all sorts of Proprietary™ Trade Names® and Registered® Trade Marks™ describing each company’s® own name™ for the Same Bloody™ Feature®, all it takes is a little time to learn everything you need to know.


Like anything else using circuit boards, marine electronics continue to develop rapidly and every change seems to bring significant improvements.

“Technology is generally about refinement,” says full-time fishing guide and Simrad pro staffer, Mark Maus. “Compare your cell phone from 10 years ago with what you have today. The new phone has far more memory so it can do all sorts of things that would choke the older phone. It has a far better screen with a much clearer picture, and it processes the information much, much faster.

“If you’re still using a chartplotter from 10 years ago, you may as well be carrying around an old flip phone in your pocket to go with it, with a cassette player in your car.”


It wasn’t that long ago that adding ‘electronics’ to your boat meant drilling a ton of holes in the helm to accommodate multiple little boxes screwed to its top and sides – a fishfinder, a chartplotter, a GPS, maybe a radar set or an autopilot. And more drilled holes for all of the cables. Today, it’s all replaced by a single unit called a Multi-Function Display, or MFD.

More than a simple display screen, the MFD combines the brain power of all those other boxes into a single device that not only really cleans up the helm, but makes operating the boat a whole lot simpler. MFDs come in a range of screen sizes to suit a range of helms – always get the biggest one you can fit in the available space. If you have room, get two and mount them side-by-side. The larger the display, the easier it’s going to be to run your boat because, unlike older gear, MFDs use touch-screens to operate pretty much everything.


Despite their vast processing power, MFDs keep their operation quick and easy, says Maus. “It wasn’t that long ago that trying to make any adjustments on your fishfinder or chartplotter meant scrolling through a bunch of different menus, and just trying to find the setting you wanted could be a major chore. Today’s touch-screen MFDs use cellphone-like icons, and they operate by the same, familiar gestures that everyone already knows and uses every single day. So the ability to operate the unit is 10,000 times easier because it’s now familiar and intuitive.”

The ability to swipe between functions or pinch one’s fingers to zoom quickly becomes automatic, while an ability to stack multiple functions together in various splitscreen modes gives MFDs unprecedented ease-of-use. It all comes courtesy of a massive amount of computing power stuffed into that compact, glass-faced package.

“Tremendous processing speed allows today’s MFDs to analyse an enormous amount of information in real time,” says Raymarine-sponsored fishing and dive guide T.J. Shea. “And that ability to handle vast amounts of data in the blink of an eye means you can combine information from multiple sources for a clearer and more detailed view than ever before.”


The other advantage to the speed and power of newer MFDs is that they offer an enormous level of integration. That includes the ability to run forward-looking, downlooking and side-scanning fishfinders, a chartplotter, a GPS and a high-resolution display all on a single screen.

“Everyone talks about how MFDs eliminate the need to have all these separate units mounted on the dash, but they also clean things up under the dash because where you used to have multiple modules, they’re now built into the unit. There’s no need for black boxes anymore,” says Shea. “That means a much cleaner installation, with less potential for problems with electrical interference or corrosion getting into the connections.”

Because modern MFDs use next-generation communication protocols, they offer plug-and-play connectivity with all sorts of other devices on the boat, from the engine controls to the stereo system to other devices like radar, autopilots and more. Switching apps may change the appearance of the screen – just as switching apps on a cellphone does – but the overall controls are the same, and the ability to flip from one app to the next is also similar.


“For years the most feared piece of equipment on any boat was the radar system,” says Maus. “No one ever wanted to touch it because they were afraid to screw it up. Not anymore. Again, it’s like those old 286 computers compared to today’s newest laptops. Now, you access the radar just like anything else on the screen, through a familiar icon, and it operates the same way, swipe, pinch and use all the same gestures we use on our phones. Operation is fully-automatic, so when you come into the harbour it will flip into harbour mode all by itself, and track nearby targets much more quickly – without having to turn any knobs or switches or anything else.”

Best of all, this multi-control convenience is something you can enjoy from anywhere. Instead of being locked in at the helm, boaties can now control just about everything on the helm from anywhere on board by simply linking the MFD to a smartphone or a tablet. Talk about the ultimate in remote control.


All that extra brain power gives modern MFDs more than just greater ease-of-use. It also lets them run advanced features that make boating better. That includes broadband fishfinders with CHIRP, side-scan, forward-scan and down-scan technologies.

CHIRP (Compressed High Intensity Radiated Pulse), is a game changer for serious anglers, providing an insanely high level of detail that was previously impossible to achieve. Instead of transmitting their sonar signal on one or two frequencies as fishfinders have done for decades, CHIRP devices transmit a signal that sweeps across a wide band of frequency ranges.

It then analyses those multiple returns in real time to achieve unprecedented resolution and target detection. So CHIRP units can see fish sitting on bottom, where traditional sonars missed them altogether. CHIRP can cut through vegetation to show fish sitting in the grass, where old-school sonar can’t.

Processing power also allows MFDs to easily handle side-scan sonar, which projects a narrow beam laterally so you can see what’s off to the sides of your boat, or forward-scan, which shoots the beam ahead to keep you from hitting hidden rocks and reefs. It also provides enhanced power for traditional vertical views, enabling some MFDs to read bottom as deep as 10,000 feet. Need more information? Hit the split-screen function and some MFDs will let you monitor all three views simultaneously.

One of the greatest benefits of the MFD’s touch-screen interface is that it’s possible to create instant waypoints, marking the location of an object or a school of fish with just a touch of the screen. Spot some tuna 200m off your starboard side? “Just tap the screen and you can circle around and put your baits right on top of them,” says Maus. “The system will create a waypoint and store the exact location of that spot. You can even do this after you’ve passed by it. It’s awesome.”

Similar capability can be found on the navigation package with some MFDs, where touching the screen creates instant waypoints. The ability to run a forward-scan sonar simultaneously with a high definition overhead GPS chart view makes it just about impossible to hit rocks or shoals in even challenging waters.


Replacing dated electronics with a new MFD is a great way to get more enjoyment out of your time on the water. But to really get the most from your new prize, you’ll most likely need a new transducer to go with that shiny new screen. Multi-beam, multi-frequency transducers may or may not be included with the MFD of your choice, but they are essential in order to take full advantage of the device’s full capabilities.

It’s also worth thinking about upgrading your own capabilities. Instead of relying on full-auto mode all the time, pull out the manual, watch some YouTube videos and play with your MFD’s advanced features. These things can do some amazing things, and stepping beyond Automatic Mode is the best way to get your money’s worth out of your new purchase.

Or, invest in some hands-on training. “I take out a lot of people who aren’t interested in fishing or diving, they want me to show them how to use different functions on the equipment,” says Shea. “Trying different settings with the manual is good, but spending a half-day with someone who uses the same brand of gear as you every day teaches you a whole lot more.

“I do a lot of charters where we do exactly that – go out and learn how to use the gear. The great thing is that it’s two-way communication, so you can ask questions and get specific answers, which isn’t possible by flipping through the manual or watching a video.”

So thinking it might be time for an upgrade? You’re in good company, as more and more boaties discover the power and convenience of modern MFDs. Beyond just looking good and cleaning up the helm, MFDs and their familiar touch-screen interfaces make it easy for anyone to operate even the most sophisticated marine electronics and look like a total pro.


1. Every MFD comes with a fully-automatic mode, and that’s usually the best choice when you leave the dock each morning. Regardless of weather and water conditions, it will give you a starting point that’s always going to be better than your best guess.

2. To get the clearest images from your fishfinder app, always scan in a straight line while maintaining a slow, consistent speed. Changes in speed or course will distort the images, especially when using side-scanning transducers. Although some transducers can read at speeds of more than 40 knots, slow speeds deliver the greatest resolution.

3. If you need to turn while scanning with sonar, gentle, gradual turns yield the least distortion or loss of image quality.

4. Matching chart speed to the boat’s speed is essential for getting the highest image quality possible. If boat speed and chart speed are out of sync, you will get distorted images.

5. Some side-scanning systems work at tremendous distances, but for optimal accuracy and image quality keep your side-scan range set to no greater than three times the water depth. If you’re in 60m of water, set the side scan limit to a maximum of 20m.

6. Use your zoom function as much as possible, especially if you’re fishing in deep water. When you’re compressing 200m of water into a screen area that’s maybe 25cm tall, it’s easy to miss tightly-packed schools of fish. But zoom in, and you might see swarms of them. Even the highest definition screens have a finite number of pixels, so the amount of coverage each and every pixel represents increases as depth increases.

7. Modern MFDs have tremendous resolution, so watch for faint lines that appear underwater at a relatively consistent depth. They aren’t clutter or false-positive readings, they’re thermoclines – areas where water temperatures rapidly change. Many types of fish will key in on thermoclines, and especially in areas where they contact bottom features like drop-offs, ledges, and troughs.

8. With their high resolution, don’t be so quick to tune out the surface clutter on your new MFD. It might be more than bubbles and wave interference – the clutter could also be plankton or algae. It often attracts small fish, with bigger predators mixed in.

9. Most side-scan sonar systems can’t see directly under the boat, leaving a blind spot between the side images. When you use side-scan, take advantage of the MFD’s split-screen capability to also display a pure vertical image so you don’t miss anything right under the boat.

10. If you already have a radar set or autopilot, selecting an MFD from the same brand is the best way to ensure proper connectivity, and that you’ll be able to take full advantage of all its advanced functions.