Features May 1, 1999 Issue

Nexus Best Buy in Integrated Instruments

Instrument packages from Standard, Autohelm, Navico, KVH, Nexus, Simrad and B&G offer a confusing array of choices, but beneath it all are some very clever features. We sort it out.

Since our last look at integrated instruments in the March 15, 1993 issue, much has changed. Last August, two major players were acquired, and three other companies, including Raytheon, the market leader, announced changes, some of them major.

Unlike the case in 1993, most integrated instrument systems today connect seamlessly with critical equipment like your autopilot, GPS, chart plotter and notebook computer. But to do this to the fullest extent possible (two-way data exchange), you may have to purchase an optional NMEA interface.

An advantage of integrated systems are the many options available. You might decide to have large dedicated displays forward in the cockpit for all crew to see, a multi at the helm and a repeater down below at the nav station. Locations will determine wiring complexity.

NMEA Interface
When buying a new instrument system, be sure that your GPS has a NMEA 0183 output. This will be necessary to connect it to your instrument package…if your instrument package accepts NMEA input. Many instrument packages just output NMEA sentences. For example, a knotmeter that outputs NMEA data can be connected to a radar so the radar can display speed. But if the instruments cannot accept NMEA input, you won’t be able to display latitude and longitude or other data from a GPS or Loran. It’s the difference between one-way and two-way data exchange. Among the seven systems surveyed in this report, the KVH Quadro2, Simrad IS 15, Navico Corus, Nexus and Autohelm ST60 have two-way NMEA data exchange. (Of these, Nexus and Simrad provide it as standard; the others require purchasing an optional interface.) The B&G Network and Standard 100 Series have only output. For interfacing, you will likely need a cable that costs between $20 and $40.

Recently, the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) announced it is developing a new standard, NMEA 2000, which presumably will improve upon some lingering deficiencies in 0183. Once implemented, it will be interesting to see if 0183 devices can integrate with newer 2000 devices.

An advantage of buying from companies that offer a full product line of GPS, radar, etc., is that they can integrate with your instruments via proprietary bi-directional bus systems like Autohelm’s SeaTalk. But not all owners want to be so committed, preferring instead, for example, a Magellan or Garmin GPS. Before buying any electronics, ask both manufacturers about compatibility. There are fewer “language” difficulties now than there used to be, but they still exist.

Fluxgate Compasses
Compared to older designs, a good fluxgate sensor offers real advantages, especially for racers. Readings are significantly more stable and precise. The net effect will be to make your instruments more accurate, especially for functions like bearing to waypoint or degrees off course. If you already own a recent model autopilot, chances are you already have a fluxgate, which can be integrated with your instruments. A fluxgate enables the display of compass functions such as headings, current set and drift and course made good.

Fluxgate compasses are optional on all systems evaluated except the Nexus 3000, which has it as standard, and the Standard Horizon 1000, which does not offer one.

Central or Distributed Processing?
One thing that has not changed since 1993 is the choice between distributed processing systems and instruments that rely on a central processor. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. And both connect displays in a daisy chain of cables, so that even with a central processor, not all displays have to be wired back to it.

With a central processor, information is passed between instruments more rapidly and the system is easier to install and repair should it go down. In addition, critical data from the wind, speed and depth transducers can be displayed on most any monitor at any time. The only drawback is that if the processor goes down, everything is dead. One system, however, the Nexus, in an emergency can connect the speed and depth transducer directly to the Multi display, thereby bypassing the processor.

Instrument displays in distributed processing systems, on the other hand, are self-sustaining, and every product we surveyed offers owners multi displays or repeaters for the cockpit and nav station that can call up data from various transducers. But in many cases these multi displays, unlike those with central processing, can only show data from, say, two transducers. If you want more, you need to buy other dedicated or multi displays, which may be partly redundant.

Multi displays typically show two lines of data in digits smaller than dedicated displays (true of both central and distributed processing). This means that if mounted at a distance, you may have a hard time seeing the numbers. For that, you’ll need to spend extra dollars for dedicated or maxi view displays.

When looking at the competing integrated instrument systems, we asked the same questions of each. We considered features and options (the spectrum of possible features against which each system was checked is on page 16); ease of use; display characteristics; customer service; warranty and warranty execution.

Autohelm ST50+ and ST60
The ST50+, a distributed processing system, has enjoyed the lion’s share of the market. Its combination analog/digital displays are well organized, easy to read even at night, and easy to program. Since 1993, Autohelm redesigned its transducers and upgraded its software.

SeaTalk is Raytheon/Autohelm’s proprietary bi-directional system for letting different instruments share information. Two-way NMEA interface with non-Raytheon products is optional.

We learned that owners have a few common complaints about the ST50+.

Tim Thornton, owner of TT Designs Marine Computing, a U.K.-based marine electronics consulting and installation company, said Autohelm is poor at correcting wind data and that “you will get pretty major changes in true wind speed and direction going from a beat to a run, for example.” Nonetheless, the ST50+, he said is the most popular package of instruments in the UK.

Peter Bennett, who has an ST50+ system on his Yamaha 30 Sloop in Vancouver, BC, was one of several people we talked to who said that his ST50’s sea water temperature function has a mind of its own. “It reads 40°C/104°F most of the time.” When he puts the transducer in ice it only goes down to about 15°C. Autohelmtold us its transducers are made by Airmar, also used by most other instrument makers.

Another owner complained about the waterproofing of the units.

In 1999, Raytheon announced the introduction of a new instrument line, the ST60. The venerable ST50+ will continue to be sold for about a year, after which it will be discontinued.

Raytheon, which bought Autohelm a number of years ago, said that because of a consumer perception that Autohelm instruments are only for sailors, the new ST60 is called a Raytheon, subtitled the Autohelm Series. Color of the cases is no longer black, but the same gray as other Raytheon products. And, it’s launching a new logo, Raytheon Onboard, with a marinized whoosh a la Nike. In addition, the Apelco line will disappear.

The ST60 retains most features of the ST50+ and is still positioned between the lower cost ST30 and higher-cost ST80 systems. Improvements include four levels of green backlighting; full-time backlighting for the keypads; 40% larger digits (1.42"; a Raytheon spokesperson said the ST60’s numbers are more visible than its competitors because they have lower multiplexing); a Goretex patch over a hole in the back to let the instrument breathe yet prevent water from entering; flush and surface mounting options, and the ability to control the instruments with any of Raytheon’s remote control autopilot keypads.

The ST60 also has a new, larger masthead transducer, which should correct the afore-mentioned problem with true wind.

The round cut-out dimension for surface mounting the ST60 instruments is larger at 3-5/8" instead of 2" for the ST50. Their prices are higher as well—about $30 per instrument.

The price comparison on page 18 lists the Tridata for depth, distance and speed, but many buyers start with dedicated Speed, Depth and Wind displays mounted forward in the cockpit, using the Tridata at the helm. Any display not coupled to a transducer functions as a repeater. The Multi-Function Display, which has NMEA and can function as a GPS repeater, also can be set up for external alarms from the other displays, such as shoal water, course and wind change, etc.

While the standard Z130 Autohelm fluxgate compass is the one shown in most catalogs, Raytheon recommended to us the fluid-filled M92649 fluxgate, which for a few dollars more outputs SeaTalk.

The ST60 has all functions on the Feature List except Target Boat Speed and Target Wind Angle.

Dealing with Raytheon, the defense contractor giant, may require patience. It took 17 minutes navigating voice mail and holding to reach a customer service representative, who was not very helpful. Raytheon’s policy, she said, is to refer a customer with a failing unit to the nearest dealer, even when the product is in warranty. She put us through to the warranty department to help us locate a dealer. They didn’t answer, so we left a message. They did, however, call us back.

Bottom Line: Due to Raytheon’s size and diverse product lines, the ST60 is potentially the most complete system, integrating with other Raytheon products such as GPS and radar. As an example of Raytheon’s commitment to innovation, its new LCD radar can also function as a chartplotter, or the RayChart 520 can display radar when cabled to the RL70R. Data from the ST60 also can be displayed. In the ST60, a good system just got better.

Nexus 3000 System
Since its inception in 1993, Nexus Marine USA is making noteworthy inroads. Buyers seem to be learning that Nexus offers owners more features for less money.

Nexus instruments are sold as stand-alone units (do not integrate with NMEA) and Nexus Systems (which do integrate with NMEA), ranging between $600 and $1200 depending on the transducer package. Each System package includes one Multi display, which is a unique digital spreadsheet display that can show any combination of information you can think of.

To explain his System packages, Nexus Marine’s president, Mike Sweeney, uses a computer analogy: the instrument server is the hard drive, the transducers are software programs, the displays are monitors and the optional remote ($306.49) is the mouse.

Adding extra displays can be done by the owner. Cost is $280 each.

Sailors will want to add the Wind Data for $280, a bargain. It is the only one in our review that shows apparent and true wind simultaneously.

We liked the audible alarm and the clever warning system that publicizes important information or sudden changes on all displays, such as an unexpected course change or shallow water.

The Wind Data uses the Nexus “Boost” feature. This is a smart function that measures the percentage gain or loss of speed between resets simply by pressing a button. After you make adjustments to your sails or heading, press a button and the boost function shows a digital percentage and a graphic fan of the gain or loss of speed. It’s not rocket science, but we found it to be a practical performance tracker.

The Multi’s man-overboard function is also clever. Most MOB buttons only tell rescuers and crew where the lost sailor was last spotted. “That may be the last place you want to look,” said Sweeney. After the Multi’s MOB button is activated, the system stores the drop point for future reference and begins to calculate the MOB’s moving waypoint. Nexus factors in the current set and drift plus course made good to determine the present position of the MOB. This allows the crew to go to the estimated waypoint position of the MOB as well as see the original MOB position.

The system was easy to program, although the sheer flood of functions often added a small element of complexity. We may have put certain features in different menu position so that they were more prominent and accessible. The displays are easy to read, bright enough at night, and they stylishly combine sleek analog and digital readouts.

The Nexus 3000 has all functions in the Feature List except it does not offer a matching autopilot or radar.

In terms of customer service, Sweeney said, “If one of my units fails or malfunctions, I will replace it within 24 hours anywhere Federal Express delivers (customer pays for FedEx charge).” That’s a promise we didn’t find elsewhere.

Heidi Bay, owner of a J/29 in Accokeek, Maryland, tested Nexus’ guarantee last year. She said that the day after she called Nexus, they had a new unit on her doorstep.

When we called Nexus, we got right through to someone who offered immediate assistance. There were no voice mail acrobatics. No holding.

Bottom Line: The Nexus 3000 System has the most features for the money, and customer service appears to be very good. It’s our Best Buy.

KVH Quadro2
In 1993, we gave KVH Industries highest honors for the Quadro, a central processing system. The Quadro2 is a development of that earlier product. Changes include new supertwist LCD displays with sharper resolution; zero ghosting; better viewing angles and brighter daytime visibility; new four-layer circuit boards to meet CE requirements (for export to European Union countries); glued housings instead of gaskets; polarized, anti-glare displays; a new NMEA Concentrator interface with multiple inputs and outputs; power filtering in the brainbox, and 8” pigtail cables for better sealing of the housings.

A central processor or “brain box” is installed below into which plug all sensors (speed, depth, wind, compass, etc.) and the displays via one cable. Like the other central processors in this group, the Nexus and Simrad IS 15, or Navico’s Active C600AD, you can basically get whatever information you want on whatever display you want. Optional analog displays are available.

Exceptions to the Feature List on page 16 are no matching radar or autopilot and time of day is unavailable.

The Quadro2 dropped its engine module to concentrate on navigation functions, such as its race software and NMEA interface.

The Race Performance Software loads into your laptop; data is collected from instrument sensors and can evaluate performance against polar data created by the system for your boat. Price is $500 for scaled polars; custom polars are available.

Don Knull, owner of Stringendo, a J/32, said his boat’s Quadro system is “flawless in operation, and very easy to read from the helm even though the instruments are above the companionway, about 10 feet away.” The Quadro’s displays are sleek, modern and impressive looking.

Although he’s very happy with his Quadro system, Knull said setting up the system and programming it is “a daunting task. I still don’t have the system fully set up to show my favorite functions on the four pages that are easily reachable from the cycling page buttons.”

Aki Atoji, owner of the J/29 Black Jack he keeps in San Diego, had concerns about KVH’s customer service. He said it took almost two months to get a replacement manual. In addition, while the unit was still in warranty, he said he had to replace his masthead transducer. In both cases, Atoji said KVH’s customer service left something to be desired.

Similarly, two hours after we placed a call to KVH’s customer service department, customer service was nowhere to be found. A day after we left the message, we were still waiting for their call. To be fair, we spoke to more satisfied customers than disgruntled ones.

Quadro isn’t cheap. In order to integrate with a GPS, you need to buy a NMEA interface for $595. It has two-way data exchange, but it costs more than the other companies charge.

Warranty is 1 year, plus a 3-year buyer protection plan that limits costs, but only if dealer installed.

Bottom Line: A top quality central processor-type system that when fully tricked out fits in somewhere between the others in this report and top-end systems like B&G Hydra and Ockam. It is the most expensive of the seven surveyed, but less so now that it is available from select mail-order catalogs. Prior to this, KVH systems were sold only through dealers.

Brookes & Gatehouse Network
Brookes & Gatehouse dominates the upper end instrument market for a reason. If you’re a serious racer with a fat budget, B&G’s Hydra products are superlative, offering tactical information such as lay lines and performance monitoring with polar updates, target speeds and angles. But the system of interest to the average owner, and which is found in the mail-order catalogs, is the B&G Network.

The displays are among the easiest to read of the instruments we examined. We had no difficulty making out text from a distance. The displays and keypads are backlit and visible from any angle. The resolution of the numbers and graphics is excellent with almost no glare and the displays can be seen from any angle.

Menus and functions are also very friendly. Each menu is connected to a single key, which minimizes fumbling around for features. In minutes, we were able to master the B&G Network unit.

B&G’s warranty is also first rate. If you give them a credit card number for security, they will replace a faulty or malfunctioning unit in 24 hours.

Following our 1993 report, a fluxgate compass and display were developed for the Network, which plugged a rather conspicuous hole.

Exceptions to the Feature List include lack of a remote control, course on next tack, maxi view, time of day, target boat speed and wind angle and password protection.

To obtain VMG you must buy the Tack or Data displays, which drives up its cost by about $440 at discount.

But it has one option that the others lack—an Engine display. Developed in conjunction with General Motors, gas engines shipped with its Engine Control Module (ECM)—which include Volvo, Mercruiser and Crusader—can be monitored by the B&G Network Engine display. Functions include tach, fuel flow, engine hours and temperature.

B&G manufacturers a complete line of autopilots that can be integrated with Network instruments to increase functionality.

B&G was purchased last August by the YEOMAN Group, PLC., but there is no reason to expect that its service or quality will be affected.

Bottom Line: Easy-to-read displays and competitive prices make this distributed processing system a good choice…at a somewhat higher price.

Navico Corus
When Simrad A/S bought Navico last August, they acquired a versatile distributed processing instrument system that has been more successful than most in competing against Autohelm for market share. Navico also makes autopilots, an LCD radar and a few models of VHF radios.

Like most others, the Corus uses a bi-directional proprietary network language called CANBUS, which is similar to SeaTalk, only faster, said Scott Sullivan, one of Navico’s service managers.

Corus is unique in that the processors for each instrument are located in the “Active” transducers, which enables any C600AD display head to present data available from the various transducers.

To get the standard NMEA 0183 outputs to integrate Corus with your autopilot, GPS or laptop computer, you must buy Simrad’s NMEA interface unit, retail $450 (NMEA600).

The RACE600 compares performance to polars, shows target speed, percentage performance and optimum VMG on a beat or run.

Exceptions to the Feature List include course on next tack and maxi display.

“The driver is not very powerful and you may need more equipment,” said Tim Thornton of TT Designs. “If you want the output split to more than one device you will probably need an NMEA booster,” he said.

The Corus instruments were easy to manage and program and they were bright at night. Unlike some instruments, the Corus softkeys have labels on the screen; hence their slogan, “What you see is what you press.” This is simpler and easier than trying to remember which button to push. The menu items don’t “rotate,” meaning you have to extricate yourself the same way you went in.

Buyers can install the Corus without trouble, several owners told us.

Bottom Line: Simrad’s Tom Burke told us they will probably eventually merge the Navico Corus and IS 15 into one system with features determined by owner feedback and sales figures.

Standard Horizon 100 Series
Standard Communication is known primarily for VHF radios, not integrated instruments. We learned this early on when we couldn’t locate any volunteers to let us kick the tires on their Horizon Sail Pack 50 instruments. That didn’t matter much, because we soon learned from Standard’s product manager, Scott Iverson, that the Horizon 50 was discontinued at the end of 1998.

The Standard Horizon 100 Series is a basic distributed processing system consisting of just five displays: Wind, Depth, Speed/Log/Temperature, a Multi Display and NMEA Data Repeater. There is no maxi view, remote or fluxgate compass offered.

We are unimpressed by Standard’s one-year warranty. This warranty issue is compounded by our discovery of Horizon customers who say they cannot get spare parts for three-year-old units.

In contrast, Standard’s customer service is solid. We found competent help in around a minute.

The Horizon 100 does not have all of the lights, bells and buzzers that its competitors have. Exceptions to the Feature List include current set and drift; no fluxgate or compass, which knocks out certain nav functions such as bearing to waypoint and true wind direction; course on next tack, and no matching autopilot or radar is available. Consequently, its price is much lower.

The instruments are well-illuminated, easy to read and simple to use. Each outputs NMEA 0183 data but does not accept input.

Bottom Line: If all you want is the basic depth, speed and wind functions, the Series 100 provides them at the lowest cost of the seven systems surveyed.

Simrad IS 15
As noted earlier, Simrad has replaced its IS 11 instruments with the IS 15, as well as acquiring Navico Corus.

The IS 15 is a central processing system that has at its heart the Transceiver into which both transducers and displays are plugged. It can drive up to seven displays. If more are wanted, the Expander drives an additional seven displays for a total of 14. When connected to other NMEA-compatible devices such as GPS and radar, the data exchange is two-way. Lat/lon, for example, could be brought up on any digital display head.

Instrument heads can be configured to function as stand-alone NMEA repeaters. Interface with a Robertson autopilot is via NMEA, not Roblink.

The IS 15 wind transducer is physically the same as the Navico Corus, but has different electronics and operates on the Roblink bus system. Roblink is Simrad’s name for its proprietary data exchange, like Autohelm’s SeaTalk and Navico’s CANBUS.

Speed, depth and temperature transducers are by Airmar, a major supplier to electronics companies.

There is some compatibility between IS 11 and IS 15, but not all details have been worked out yet.

Simrad offers a complete line of electronics including radar; VHF radios; echosounders, and Robertson autopilots, which we favored in April 1 and May 1, 1997 reports.

Bottom Line: Because the IS 15 will not be available until the end of May 1999, we were unable to physically examine the instruments, but hope to do so for a future issue. Based on Simrad’s reputation, it will no doubt be a high quality system.

When shopping around, remember that although there are deals on the Internet, mail-order discounts and sometimes in stores, dealer support is a good thing to have in the event that something breaks. You’ll probably pay a bit more, but when you need help you will have someone to turn to, rather than having to deal with the manufacturer yourself.

Among the seven systems examined, we didn’t find any bad choices. In fact, their quality is generally impressive. Selecting one over another is more a matter of price and sorting through functions and displays for those that best suit your needs.

If you have or want an autopilot or radar, we see advantages in buying instruments from the same company. For example, both Simrad and Autohelm’s remote autopilot controls allow you to manage instruments, too.

Lastly, assess your needs carefully. As Bill Murin, who sails on Chaos, a J/80, said, “Too much information is as bad as too little. Avoid,” he advised, “paralysis by analysis.”

Contacts- Autohelm, Raytheon Marine, 676 Island Pond Rd., Manchester, NH 03109-5420; 603/647-7530. B&G, 7855 126th Ave. N., Suite B, Largo, FL 33773; 727/530-1213. KVH Industries, 50 Enterprise Ct., Newport, RI 02840; 401/847-3327. Navico (Simrad), 19210 33rd Ave. W., Lynnwood, WA 98036; 425/778-8821. Nexus Marine, 333 Falkenburg Rd., Bldg. B-221, Tampa, FL 33619; 800/237-4582. Standard Communications, PO Box 92151, Los Angeles, CA 90009-2151; 310/532-5300.

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