Buttons, Dials, and Touchscreens

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 11:20AM - Comments: (0)

April 3, 2012

Testers looked at how some views affected cartography; note how the warning about buoys is obscured.

We’re just wrapping up our testing of the new e7 MFD from Raymarine, which we ran side-by-side with the Garmin 740s, one of our favorites in our recent comparison of small chartplotter-sounders. The e7 was the most interesting electronic gizmo we saw at this year’s Miami Boat Show, the annual debutante ball for manufacturers to unveil their newest creations to the public. The company calls it a “hybrid” display, using both a touchscreen, some dedicated pushbuttons and a button/joystick/rotary-dial that it calls a UniControl for the interface.

My initial impression is that this is a step in the right direction in terms of user-interface, but I worry that the marketing emphasis on “gee-whiz” features like Wi-Fi connections to iPads and a Bluetooth remote control are overshadowing some of the more mission-critical features. Our test report will look more closely at Wi-Fi interface and other “frills” that seem to enthrall so many other electronics writers, but for now, I’ll just focus on the interface, which I feel is probably its most important contribution to this field.

Since our first test of Garmin's full touchscreen multi-function displays a few years back, our testers have always been hesitant to jump on the touchscreen bandwagon. The promise of a watertight display with no buttons or dials to fail is alluring, but the lack of a tactile interface was less than ideal in certain situations. If we were bouncing around in rough weather, certain actions like zooming, or selecting screens or menus were not as easy as they were using a button. The ability to pan with a swipe of your finger is one of the handiest features of a touchscreen, but some actions like clicking through menus are easier with a button or dial. We have always been staunch advocates for a dedicated man-overboard button, preferably one with a tactile response.

The e7 UniControl combines a rotary dial and joystick/button.

At first glance, Raymarine’s redesigned UniControl appears to be a step backward. It looks like an ordinary dial, and only Simrad seems married to this function anymore, despite the fact that our testers liked the dial interface. But the new control actually combines a dial with a combined joystick/OK button in the center. The UniControl on previous Raymarine designs like the E-series and C-series plotter had a recessed version of this control beneath a rubberized membrane. In my view, this new re-designed UniControl is easier to use. Given my experience with rubberized membranes on some handhelds, I also think the new design will last longer—but that remains to be seen.

All in all, I was very impressed with the way the Raymarine e7 combined the touchscreen with conventional interface. As obtrusive as the new UniControl may seem, it is easy to manipulate even when you are wearing gloves, a rare feature these days. My initial impression is that Garmin still has a better feel on how to handle some of the touchscreen elements, but the hybrid interface of the e7 is overall the better of the two. It will be interesting to compare what Raymarine has done with the "IntelliTouch" dial that Simrad introduced last year on its NSS-series, a comparison still on the horizon. 

Look for our full review of the new Raymarine e7 in the June issue of Practical Sailor.

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