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December 17, 2012

Touchy Feely

Skippers Warm Up to the Benefits of Touch-Screen Systems

 

Traditions are slow to fall among experienced anglers, but when they do, they tend to go like dominoes — seemingly en masse, but actually just one at a time. That’s what’s happening with billfish captains, as manufacturers like Raymarine, Simrad, Garmin and Furuno continue to develop interactive touch-screen systems. However, the first chatter heard from captains was all about resistance.

“The touch screens are too hard to manage when the boat is rocking and rolling,” said some users, who felt that
it was easier to touch a button on a moving target than to touch a smooth screen. “The touch systems appear to be too basic,” other users said. And still others were concerned that when they touched the screen with fishy or dirty fingers, the smears made it harder to see.

To find out what’s happening now, I touched base with a few captains using these handy new screens to see how they have fared with them.

Bill Platt of Dickinson, Texas, runs Papatonic. He’s also an electronics retailer and installer. Like most, he was skeptical when touch screens began to drift aboard helm stations.

“I currently have two Garmin 7215s, and I love them,” Platt says. But he wasn’t always so smitten. “Right when touch screens came out, I was used to buttons. I didn’t think I could deviate. So, when we changed our displays, I said, Give me one touch and one with buttons.”

Garmin wanted to know why Platt was hedging his bets.

“I do a lot of electronics demonstrations, so I said I wanted to have both so I could demonstrate the benefits and liabilities when selling the new equipment. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure I’d like the touch, and that was my excuse.”

Now, after running the units for some time, Platt is a touch evangelist. He lives and dies by his sonar and uses the new chirp technology that transmits a broad-spectrum tone, ranging from low to high frequencies, instead of the single-frequency “ping” that traditional sonars emit. He gets the most bang for his touch-screen buck when using his sonar.

“When we tournament fish, I touch
it all day long, changing range, zoom
and frequency. It’s easy, fast and gives me so much more flexibility. I keep the chart and weather on the left and the bottom machine on the right. I never quit using it.”

But what about when the boat is rocking and rolling? Platt answers this oldest of objections most easily.

“I brace my hand against the rim of the unit or against the panel it’s on and touch where I want to touch. It’s just really not much harder than a button.”

Platt also sees no disadvantage at speed.

“Touch or buttons makes no difference if the boat is flying around. It’s hard to hit anything. After I ran my system for a year, I changed both screens to touch. People used to a flip phone or a Blackberry don’t want to change. But after you do, you’d never go back,” he says. “I can enter data and waypoints so much faster than anybody else with buttons. It’s badass. It really is.”

What does Platt do most with his touch screen?

“I run the gain up to get a little closer to see a fish. I’ll change the zoom and range to get a closer look. I’m always looking for baitballs, and I can mark bait at any depth. I touch a baitball and I can change the zoom or range or chirp frequency quickly to mark the bait better. You can add a little gain or take it away so fast. And when I’m ready to go, three touches and I have a computer keyboard to enter waypoints. Hands down, touch is so much easier and so much faster.”

Garmin is one unit that often has its simplicity misinterpreted as reflecting less functionality. But Platt disagrees.

“Garmin has more stuff in there than I can use. It’s kind of like a computer. I never use 90 percent of what it can do. I think the Garmin can do anything I can imagine.”

Terry Nugent, who operates a Raymarine e-Series on a 33-foot Riptide out of Bourne, Massachusetts, finds an advantage in touch technology.

“It may be a little harder to hold steady on a screen, but you have so many more buttons to push on a button unit,” he says. “I can change waypoints, enter waypoints, and do just about everything easier and quicker than I can with buttons.”

Still, Nugent harbors a love-hate relationship with his touch-screen system. One of the original objections — greasy fingers marking the screen — is his biggest complaint. Nugent works the cockpit and the helm of his boat all day long, and if there is a downside to using touch screens, it concerns a captain who likes to get his hands dirty.

“I have my hands on baits and in the salt all day. When I come back to the helm and make an adjustment on the screen, the slime goes on my screen. Sometimes I go through a bottle of screen cleaner a day,” he says.

Even though Nugent grumbles about getting the screen dirty when touching it, he still loves the screen’s obvious benefits, especially after installing a recent firmware upgrade called Lighthouse.

“I’m getting better with it. The newest firmware update gives better touch calibration, easier zoom with the knob, and changing sonar-zoom range is a snap. Now I just touch the zoom line, and the zone changes.”

Nugent’s favorite touch feature is HD Radar. “With HD Radar, when I touch ‘bird mode,’ it goes right to a preset mode, and I can be very effective finding birds. Even somebody with no experience with the product can work it.”

Aside from the dirty screen, Nugent gets pretty excited about the conveniences of touch screens versus buttons. What would he consider to be the best of both worlds?

“I would like more redundancy with buttons and touch,” he says.

Dennis Hogan is a product manager for Navico, maker of Simrad’s NSS touch-screen navigation multifunction display (MFD). He acknowledges that there are still some skeptics, which is why the company includes certain buttons for some of the most-used functions — with a caveat.

“At a show, when people see a bright screen, they want to touch it, because they’ve learned to expect to interact with it that way. Mobile phones and tablets have an economy of movement, and that’s what people like most,” he says.

Navico’s studies show that most people will brace their right hand on the MFD’s top-right corner to interact with it. Knowing that, Navico put its rotary dial and key functions, such as zoom, and menu-access buttons, on the top right of the display. That way, the functions that work best by touch are accessible by touch.

Capt. Holden Radicke runs Aqui No Mas from Port Aransas, Texas. It’s equipped with Furuno Navnet TZ Touch systems, and Radicke says that he “love[s] the touch screen.” It’s phenomenal, he says. “I would 100 percent refit with touch again. This weekend, we had a long trip, and everyone was amazed by the technology. I’ve still never had problems accessing anything under way, whether we were offshore or not. Touch lets me zip between the engine-room cam, weather, sea-surface temperatures, GPS and sonar,” he says.

“Radar overlay is the smartest thing. It was brilliant. I was waiting for a buddy to follow us out,” Radicke says. “We’d gotten a big head start, and I looked for him on radar and touched a target. It gave me range and bearing, and from that I knew it was probably my partner, so we settled in for the trip, knowing he was coming along just fine.”

Radicke uses AIS receivers too and likes knowing that he can identify the big ship’s course, range and closing speed at a touch. It makes him a safer captain.

Though captains like Terry Nugent who run the cockpit and the helm find that dirtying the touch screen can be a little annoying, big-boat captains don’t run into that issue at all. What does Radicke miss about button access? “Nothing,” he says. “I’m really surprised.”