For a while I have been planning a new system on my sailboat for navigation.  I started out back in 2007 with a Garmin GPSMAP 5208 which worked great at the time.  It was a touch screen system, and a bit on the small size for the display.   Over time I found many errors with the charts, problems with it keeping up with the amount of AIS targets I had (the fan would spin up and the UI would slow to a crawl) plus a few other things.

I have been watching the developments of broadband radar via panbo.com and other places online, and wanted to add that to my boat for safety reasons.  After a lot of research, I choose the Simrad NSE12 multi function display, and BR24 radar.

One of the reasons I’m writing my thoughts up here is that while there is a lot of info on manufacturer’s sites, they don’t let you delve deeper into their products without (a) buying them, (b) seeing them at a store, or (c) reading their entire manuals.  And what most of us care about, the user interface, isn’t something you can see except for (a) and (b) which are either short term (a) or a purchase.  I’ve taken a bunch of screen shots and written up my thoughts to help anyone else interested in Simrad’s stuff…

Background

I already had a Simrad TP32 tiller pilot, and a Brookhouse NMEA multiplexer (more on this soon), Icom M504 DSC capable radio, plus Tactick wind, compass, and depth instruments, so integrating these were a priority.  Having the Simrad TP32 made the choice even nicer because it can interface with the NSE12 over a SimNet connection.

I considered Raymarine, Garmin and Simrad before choosing, and Simrad was the only one who had a broadband radar that had been around longer than the others, and had a very well designed interface on the MFD to charts, radar and all of the components.  Some of the other vendors had broadband-like radar, or MFDs that would support something similar, but they hadn’t been around as long, or had similar interface problems that I had found in the Garmin that I was trying to avoid.  They also didn’t have the depth of features, nor the Navionics charts, which ended up playing a bigger part in my decision than I thought it would.

Why did I choose an MFD over running something like Coastal Explorer on a laptop?  Well, I do run Coastal Explorer on a laptop, and use it a lot for planning and investigation, since it’s much easier to do that at home than on the boat.  The concern with using something like CE as a primary navigation aid is the PC itself. Having a deep PC background myself, and watching simple non-marinized components degrade after a winter of disuse, and looking at the exorbitant prices for a marine PC, I chose the MFD route.  I think in 2-3 years PC components and cases will have gotten to the stage where MFDs will have a lot of serious competition.  For now, I wanted something that was completely protected from the elements, took a small amount of power, and offered something as close as possible to a PC experience as possible.

In a week or so, I’ll write up an experiment I did with a semi-marinized PC and Coastal Explorer with a Planar touch screen.  Not quite ready for prime-time yet!

My configuration

I have an NSE12 connected via NMEA0183 @ 38400 baud to a Brookhouse NMEA AIS multiplexer.  Connected to the multiplexer as well is my Icom 504 radio, Tactick NMEA gateway, Simrad TP32 tiller pilot, and ACR Nauticast Class-B AIS transponder.

Connected directly to the NSE12 is the BR24 radar, which I mounted on a Scanstrut self-leveling pole (more on that in the future) along with the add-on GPS extender for the Simrad GS15 GPS Antenna.  The TP32 and GS15 are connected to my SimNet, which is also connected to the NSE12.

NSE12 screen, case and user interface

The NSE12 is very well built – the case feels like you could hit it with a sledge hammer and it would still work.  The cabling and all other aspects of the outside are similar to many of the other MFD’s.  The control interface is well designed and easy to use, and backlit very well in all conditions I’ve used it in.

What is really amazing is the screen – it’s so crisp and clear from all angles, and can be adjusted a wide range of brightness.  The other fun thing is that the NSE12 draws between .2 and .3 AMPS less than my smaller Garmin GPSMAP 5208!  Most of this I assume is due to the LED backlit screen on the NSE12.

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Touch or No Touch?

I really liked the touch screen interface with the Garmin, and in choosing the Simrad NSE12, I gave that up.  The best part of that interface was to move around on the chart and find a new point of interest or AIS ship.  Navigating menus via the touch interface always had it’s problems/challenges.  There were drop down or scroll bars that were extremely hard to use, if not impossible.  And if it happened to be cold outside, you had to lose one of the gloves to get it to work.  Many people have asked if rain was a problem – I didn’t see too much of a problem with the water, but it was down below in a sheltered location.

Simrad did an excellent job of providing controls to the user – there’s a scroll wheel that you can click with as well as scroll, a directional pad, and an in-out button.  I use the directional pad most of the time to move the cursor around.  It’s still new to me and I’m not anywhere near as good as I was with touch, but I am sure I will get there.  There’s also a numeric keypad, which at first glance seemed a bit dated.  After having used it a number of times to enter waypoint names, navigate quick menus, and the like, I can say it’s a step up from the on screen keyboards or messy scroll keyboards that other solutions have.  It works similar to cell phone text entry, and is pretty fast for entering names and letters.

I really like the menu system that Simrad has put together.  Things are ordered logically, and organized in large blocks – I hate user interfaces that hide everything that isn’t relevant, or require many clicks to get to what you want to see.  Simrad has simplified some things, but generally speaking the menus contain everything you could want to change or see in one place.  And navigating with the click wheel is a breeze.

Night mode

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Night mode on the NSE12 is one highlight in their design.  Not only does the chart or other object change colors that are more conducive to night navigation, but the unit’s backlit keys change to red as well.  The only odd thing is the gradiated colors at the top of the instrument panel which you can see in the screen shot below.  I like the colors they’ve chosen for the maps more than the Garmin and Raymarine interfaces I’ve seen.  They’re easy to read in low light, and easy to identify the same key areas as the daylight lighting.  In many other MFD’s, night light is a lot of red text and colors, which are hard for me to see.

The most disappointing thing with night mode, and for that matter, the general mode is that it is not auto sensing or driven based off of GPS time, as far as I have seen.  Both Raymarine and Garmin did this in past systems, and I found it to be a nice convenience.  Whether it simply switched to night mode at the right time, or changed the brightness on the screen based on ambient light.  That feature seems to be missing from Simrad.

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Charts

The charts on the NSE12 really shine.  I purchased the Navionics Platinum Plus charts for the Puget Sound area, and have been very impressed with their level of detail.  It was a bit hard to find the option to enable them at first, but once turned on, they are easy to use and fast.

This choice turned out to be one of the cornerstones in my overall selection of MFD solution.  I had seen Navionics charts a few years ago, but there wasn’t anything that, to me, set them apart from what I had with g2 Vision from Garmin, or some of the options that Raymarine offered.  In the last year I had a lot of time to research and see Navionics charts and was truly impressed.

Speed is one of the areas that Simrad’s marketing talks a lot about – how fast redraws are with chart options enabled.  I’ve done a lot of testing on this, as it was one of my bigger complaints about the Garmin technology. According to various sources, Simrad has a 1.6Ghz CPU in the NSE12 allowing for the graphics speed.  I would imagine it’s an Atom-based CPU or other low power consuming chip.

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In my screen shot below, I have the charts in 2D mode with all of the options turned on.  Redraw zooming in and out is nearly instantaneous.  I have never seen an MFD keep up that fast.  I use Coastal Explorer on a laptop for trip planning, and it has problems zooming as fast as the NSE, and it’s on a pretty fast system with beefy graphics hardware.

Enabling 3D mode slows things down, but only a small amount.  3D mode to me is a nice-to-have, but so far it hasn’t solved any urgent problems I’ve had.  It’s very interesting to see some of the places you frequent in 3D mode and fly through them – a completely different perspective as you can see from the screen shot.

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Photo charts are even better.  The digital imagery they used here is very clear and crisp, and scales very well when zooming in and out.  You can see the detail in the screen shot below of the Ballard Locks.
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Again, moving around and zooming with photo charts is pretty fast – the photos do take a bit longer than anything else to show up if you are panning.  If you’re zooming, it’s near instant.

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Where things start to slow down is when you turn 3D chart mode and photos on at the same time.  Part of this in my case was because the photos didn’t exist in all areas, but much of it is the system having to render not only 3D charts, but find and render the photos in pseudo-3D as well.  I don’t think it’s a showstopper at all – after all, I am asking for it to do the hardest thing it can while tracking 100+ AIS targets and dealing with all of the other things going on.

Overall, the charts functionality is what you would expect from a top end MFD, and faster than any other system I’ve seen out there.

Utilities

One of the areas that I think Simrad doesn’t talk about a lot is in their utilities and pages areas.  Here you can do things like have a display of instruments, navigation headings and XTE stuff, as well as manage your saved files, screen shots (yes!) and do the usual sun/moon/tides interactions.  I think these interfaces are surprisingly well done – most of these on MFDs are after thoughts and scattered all over the UI.  In Simrad’s case, they are centralized and easy to use.

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Alarms

One area in particular that shines for Simrad is in their alarms management page.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hunted around in an MFD interface to disable an alarm that was going off over and over (AIS targets are a big one) and found it buried in some sub-screen.  In Simrad’s case, they give them all to you on one page – extremely convenient and fast to figure out.

Radar

A lot of reviews have been written on the BR24 broadband radar – I won’t re-hash all of that here.  I am still impressed with it’s clarity and ability to pick out really small objects with high degrees of accuracy.

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In the screen to the left you can see nearby buoys right outside of the marina entrance which are only about 3-5 feet tall and pretty narrow – the BR24 found them though…  Not to mention the detail it shows of the marina and boats themselves.

I haven’t yet found out how to customize the list of vessels on this page, and in many cases it seems to be pretty random what shows up on it – for instance, it’s showing three vessels that are between 6 and 10 NM away from me, when there are clearly marked AIS targets that are much closer than that.

The controls on the radar page are, as many other reviews highlight, very well done.  Being able to use the click scroll wheel to change the gain, sea clutter, and rain clutter is very well thought out.

I also appreciate the ability to change the colors used for the screen – I’ve tried the yellow and green options (instead of red) and they can be useful in certain circumstances.
There are a number of other great settings and details here in the radar menus – maybe sometime in the future once I learn more about them, I’ll post here.

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One of the features I really like is being able to overlay the radar data on top of a chart.  You can really begin to see the power of the whole MFD solution when using it this way.
In the screen shot to the right, you can see the AIS vessel leaving the marina, and the radar echo that is quite a ways ahead of where AIS is reporting it.  You can also see the buoys I mentioned further up in the channel, and many other landmarks that the BR24 is picking out.  Seeing it overlaid on the chart is extremely helpful.

For the ultimate in all features enabled, here’s 3D charts, photo overlay (land only) and radar overlay.

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AIS

The NSE12 has good AIS support.  It doesn’t seem to lag or slow down like my Garmin did the moment it starts to discover more than 15 AIS targets.  I am not particularly fond of the large triangle shapes, and bold for dangerous targets.  I liked the Garmin shapes and colors better, but I assume this may be refined in newer versions of software.  There’s a lot of configurability here that I didn’t see in Garmin or Raymarine in terms of how long you wanted the line out in front of the AIS target, and alarms settings as well.

One of the more annoying things that always seems to happen with any AIS solution is the alarms for the AIS enabled boats in the marina that are not moving.  They all pop up in the first couple of minutes of powering on.  I am not sure if there is anything that could be done about that – i.e. see if they aren’t moving and not alarm, but I bet that would be a bad thing if there was a dangerous target that wasn’t moving ?

On first startup the NSE is very quick to acquire all of the targets, and the screens for viewing the data on a vessel are very complete.  Alarms themselves are well organized and clear when they occur.

Data Panel

One nice touch is the ability to customize the data panel at the top of each screen.  You can see that I have something different on the chart screen, versus the chart+radar screen, versus the radar screen.  You can add just about any of the data you would think is relevant, and have two bars stacked like I do, or have a rotating bar.  I really like vendors who choose to do things this way and give the power to the people who are using it, rather than fixed options that might contain 80% of what you want.

The other nice thing is the status icons at the top right hand – they show the radar status (standby/transmit), GPS status, and if there are any outstanding alarms.  It’s very easy to see the status of your entire system at a quick glance.

Boot up time

Out of everything, this might be one of the biggest drawbacks from any of the new MFDs.  The NSE12 takes a good 2 minutes to boot from the time you turn it on.  I don’t think there’s much that can be done to change this.  If you have flaky power, or if when you start your engine, things drop below normal voltages (you really should fix that – I did 2 years ago) then you might not like any of the newer MFDs.

Power consumption

Power consumption on a sailboat is always important, and was one of my design concerns as well.  The final system, with all of the instruments on, including the NSE12, draws about 2 AMPS.  If I fire up the radar, I go up to about 3 AMPS, which is unheard of for radar power draw.  If the tiller pilot is really working, and I’ve got all of these  components up and running, I might get to 5 AMPS.  That’s within the tolerances of what I set for a goal on power usage.  Of course, I could shut off the radar, turn down the screen brightness on the NSE12, or even put it in standby (this saves about an amp).  I could even shut it all off, and just use tiller pilot and solar charged Tactick instruments at about an amp of usage.
Several of the other MFDs I looked at drew considerably more – especially those with similar screen sizes.  Many of those are tailored towards power boats and video displays that suck a lot of power.

Integration with other instruments

This turned out to be far more complicated than it should have been.  The TP32 was easy – SimNet found it instantly, and it worked.  Same with the new GPS antenna that I bought with the system.  The NMEA0183 stuff was far more difficult.

I’ve used NMEA0183 stuff for years, and had several multiplexers that help with this.  In this case, the NSE12 only has one input/output port for NMEA0183, and for some reason, even though I had turned off many of the sentences from being transmitted from the NSE, it was still sending them.  This created a headache for about 2 hours until I powered everything off and back on again, and magically things began to work.  I will be writing up more of this in a separate post on integrating with the Brookhouse NMEA multiplexer I have.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m very happy with my new system.  I think the NSE12 has been very well designed from top to bottom, and has enough flexibility for end users, as well as a platform for Simrad to improve upon going forward.  There are some areas that could use some improvement, but nothing that prevents me from using all functionality in a way that improves my voyage.  Combine that with top notch charts, and an amazing new radar technology, and I feel that I have far more information at hand when navigating that will keep me safer on the water.

Posted by Steve Mitchell

I'm a technology nerd who loves sailing, music, and writing. I have at least 10 projects going on at any time, and love discussing all of them. When not playing the piano, you can find me on the water