Lenny Rudow points to an extra MFD display onboard a Sea Fox boat in 2020. Photo: Nate Cantalupo for Boat Trader.
Most people think of a multifunction display, or MFD, as the hub of your boat’s entire marine electronics system. And that’s exactly what it is, but modern MFDs can actually be a whole lot more—in many cases, they serve as the electronic brain for your entire boat. These days, most modern MFDs incorporate:
- A chartplotter with marine charts and additional data like tides and currents and port services.
- Fishfinders, often with multiple frequencies and display formats.
- Radar capabilities, often with plug-and-play capabilities when you add a dome or open array to your boat.
- AIS receiver capability, often with an added module.
- System monitoring and display abilities, including for your engine(s).
- WiFi and Bluetooth communications with boat systems, apps on your cell phone, and the wider world.
- Advanced Multifunction Display Features and Functions
Before we take a look at some of the leading MFDs on the market right now, let’s cover some of the basics about these devices and how they integrate with your boat’s electronics. (Or skip straight to the list if you prefer).
Multifunction Display (MFD) Basics
Modern MFDs are capable of networking via NMEA 2000 protocol (sometimes called N2K), a 250-kbs Controller Area Network (CAN) system that allows different electronics to share a common “language” and communicate with plug-and-play ease. Many can also communicate via NMEA 0183 (an older, slower version of NMEA 2000), J1939 (a similar communications protocol used in the automotive world), and/or proprietary networking systems. And in advanced systems, video capabilities also come into play.
Networking an MFD with different systems in the boat can be as simple as running a “trunk” line (sometimes called a backbone) with T-connections that have drop-lines running to the different pieces-parts of the system. Some other pieces-parts may be able to communicate with the MFD via WiFi or Bluetooth and don’t even need a wired connection.
In practice, however, building a completely networked system around your MFD can get a little complex. What type of engine(s) your boat has, for example, makes a difference. While some manufacturers use NMEA 2000 to communicate engine data to the gauges, others may use different languages that require special “gateways,” plugs, or adaptors. In some other cases, specific brands of electronics may communicate seamlessly with specific brands of outboards with no additional hardware needed, but not necessarily others. (See Mercury SmartCraft Control via MFD, for an example). And when adding new units or sensors to a system the MFD may need a software update.
The good news about updating software is that most of today’s WiFi-equipped MFDs can suck that latest version right off the internet, when they’re within range of a hotspot. The bad news is that this tech evolves incredibly rapidly, and the capabilities change so often that from model year to model year the different ins and outs of each individual networking system are likely to be different.
In the case of the most modern networks on the most modern boats, the MFD often serves not only as the hub for the electronics system but for all of the boat’s systems via digital switching. There are several digital switching systems out there (read NaviOP Integrated Boat Control and Switching System or Scout 350 LXF: Garmin, Mastervolt, and Scout Get Integrated for some examples), but they all boil down to the same essential ability: the touch-screen of your MFD displays digital “switches,” and you can turn things ranging from lights to air conditioning on and off with a swipe of your finger. In some cases you may even be able to operate certain systems remotely, via an app on your cell phone.
Advanced Diagnostic Capabilities
All this tech not only gets you a better interface with your boat, it provides enhanced reliability. Sure, digital gremlins are always a possibility, but analog switches go bad on a regular basis. More importantly, your system can monitor itself, flag issues, provide security, and even alert your dealer or service center when maintenance or repairs are in order. Plus, if you’re running a fishing boat these types of onboard tools are integral.
Consider the new Boston Whaler 325 Conquest, for example. It integrates Raymarine Axiom XL MFD displays along with digital switching, and remote vessel monitoring and control (including geofencing and engine immobilization). If you tie in VesselView Mobile (which means opting for the VesselView Mobile module and downloading an app on your cell phone) the engine data gets beamed to your phone via Bluetooth. If you set your preferred dealer in the app, you can then share the data with the dealership. Any time the system detects a fault an alert gets sent, small issues or maintenance needs can be nipped in the bud before they develop into big problems.
Top Multifunction Displays in 2022
There are many different multifunction displays out there, in varying price ranges. The actual cost for a full-blown system can be two to four times as much as the base cost of a single MFD display, depending on what you add and how expansive a network you set up. How will you know which MFD to choose? Here are five top picks for the best MFDs right now, from different pricing categories, that will help give you some starting points.
Furuno Navnet TZ3 touch TZT19F
When you’re outfitting a yacht-class sport fishing boat, units like the TZT19F are in order. With an 18.5-inch touch-screen in-plane switching LCD display, quad-core processing power, a built-in one-kW TrueEcho CHIRP fishfinder, integrated 72-channel GPS, MapMedia mm3D chartography, ports for HDMI/NTSC/PAL video and USB as well as NMEA CAN bus, and wireless LAN, these MFDs represent tip-top tech. Optional equipment runs the gamut, from remote controllers to 96-mile range, 25-kW open-array radar antenna. Furuno upped the ante for 2022, adding the new Fish-It and Drift-It features, which allow anglers to get starting points to make accurate drifts over hotspots in various time intervals. Single MFD cost is approximately $8500.
Visit Furuno for more details.
Garmin GPSMAP 743xvs/943xsv/1243/xsv
Garmin recently introduced this new batch of mid-sized GPSMAP units (available in seven-, nine-, and 12-inch models), which are ideal for midsized boats and especially for the fishing inclined. SideVu side-scanning sonar and ClearVu down-scanning sonar are built in, along with traditional CHIRP sonar. Mapping is included as well, in the form of Bluechart G3 and Lakeview G3 digital charts. Despite the midrange size and cost, these units offer top-end functionality like compatibility with third-party devices via OneHelm digital switching, built in WiFi for pairing with the ActiveCaptain app, and even the ability to communicate with Quatix marine watches. Single MFD cost ranges from $1199 to $2999.
Humminbird Apex 13 Mega SI+
Humminbird introduced the Apex to the world shortly after Covid-19 hit – and the resulting supply chain problems made it very difficult to get one of these units prior to 2022. Now availability is improving, and systems specifically designed to optimize side-imaging fishfinder tech utilized mostly for freshwater and inshore saltwater fisheries can be built upon this manufacturer’s newest, most advanced offering. The Apex’s shockingly high-resolution side-finding abilities get high marks, thanks to the use of frequencies up to 1.2 megahertz. They system integrates with what Humminbird calls their “One-Boat Network,” intended to tie together the offerings from sister-company Minn Kota via ethernet and/or Bluetooth, while also offering NMEA 2000 connectivity. Single MFD cost starts at $4199.
Raymarine Axiom Pro 9
Offering full capabilities in a small package, the Raymarine Axiom Pro 9 will be a top contender for smaller, open boats with limited helm space. For 2022 it gets a tech-boost thanks to Raymarine’s introduction of the LightHouse 4 operating system, with revised menu mapping, the addition of SiriusXM Fish Mapping compatibility, Mercury Marine engine data compatibility, and Navionics charts. Along with the networking abilities you were expecting (NMEA 2000/0183, ethernet, SeaTalkNG, WiFi, and Bluetooth) the Axiom Pro has another capability that can prove particularly useful on relatively small boats: a tactile button interface, alongside the touch-screen. When you’re running a 25-footer through the ocean it can be difficult to tap in the right place or swipe where you want, and those backup buttons can be a big perk. Single MFD cost ranges from around $2,700 to $3,500 depending on transducer and mapping choice.
Simrad NSO evo3S16/3S19/3S24
If you’re looking to build the ultimate system with space constraints and cost mere afterthoughts, you’ll ant to check out the Simrad NSO evo3S. At 16 inches the smallest unit tops the largest in some MFD lines, and the 24-inch displays are utterly monstrous. We’d list out the system’s capabilities, but the bottom line is that integration and expandability are second to none. Units feature an iMX 8 six-core processor for maximum speed, six-panel split screen ability, and BEP C-Zone/Naviop digital switching. Single MFD cost starts at $7699 for 16-inch model and hits $12,199 for the 24-incher; note that sonar isn’t built into this unit, so you’ll have to add a black-box.