Lenny Rudow points to an extra MFD display onboard a Sea Fox boat. 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. The most advanced systems also function as the main user-interface with the boat, thanks to digital switching systems which allow you to activate any of the boat’s systems ranging from lights to bilge pumps with a tap on the screen. Even in less advanced installations, most modern MFDs will 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 many 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.” Rather than flipping a manual switch you can turn things like lights or air conditioning on and off with a swipe of your finger. In many 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 2023
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 TZT22X and 24X
Furuno’s TZT3 system has always been a top-shelf choice, but in 2023 they up the ante in a big way with the TZT22X and TZT24X super-sized MFDs. These are 22- and 24-inch 1920 x 1080 in-plane switching LCDs, driven by blazing-fast quad-core processors. They’re so massive that you can now go beyond the usual four split-screen max, and divvy all that LCD glory into six individual views. When you’re outfitting a yacht-class sport fishing boat, units like these are exactly what you’re looking for.
Highlight features include a built-in fishfinder, integrated GPS, MapMedia mm3D chartography, and ports for USB, LAN, video, aux NMEA2000, and microSD. Optional equipment runs the gamut, from remote controllers to 96-mile range, 25-kW open-array radar antenna. Furuno gave the TZT systems a cool new fishing feature in 2022 by adding the Fish-It and Drift-It features, which allow anglers to get starting points to make accurate drifts over hotspots in various time intervals. Now they’ve also got Follow It (choose a contour line on the PBG bathymetric chart and it will turn into a route the boat follows), plus complete compatibility with SiriusXM Fish Mapping services. These units are still so new that cost is TBD.
Visit Furuno for more details.
Garmin GPSMAP 8400/8600
Garmin hasn’t introduced a new top-of-line MFD system for a while, but year by year they make improvements and the GPSMAP 8400/8600 is considered one of the best MFD systems around. Display sizes range from 10- to 24-inches, and screens are full HD in-plane switching for the best viewability possible. Networking includes WiFi, 1-kW dual-channel CHIRP, ClearVu, and SideVu sonar are all built-in, and these units are even ready to display Garmin’s live sonar options. Starting last year they also come with extensive preloaded Navionics mapping and can run Auto Guidance+. Price ranges from $2,599.99 to $12,299.99.
Visit Garmin for more details.
Humminbird introduced the Apex to the world shortly after Covid-19 hit, the resulting supply chain problems made it virtually impossible to get one of these units prior to 2022, and now in 2023 demand is through the roof; though availability can still be problematic for some units in some places it’s vastly improved. The Apex is specifically designed to optimize fish-hunting abilities. Side-imaging fishfinder tech utilized mostly for freshwater and inshore saltwater fisheries is second to none with Humminbird’s MEGA SI+. The Apex’s shockingly high-resolution side-finding abilities take the cake thanks to the use of frequencies up to 1.2 megahertz, and down-viewing is maximized via dual spectrum CHIRP. The system also 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. Displays with 1920 x 1080 resolution range from 13- to 19-inches, and cost goes from $4,299.99 to $5,299.99.
Visit Humminbird for more details.
Raymarine Axiom 2 XL
Back in 2022 the Axiom got 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. Then the Axiom line expanded with the Axiom 2 XL, bringing 16- to 24-inch glass-bridge-style MFDs into the mix. These units are as potent as they get when it comes to sheer brain-power, with six-core processors doing all of the thinking and 64 GB of internal storage. Networking options are just as extensive as you’d expect from a flagship model MFD, and the Axiom 2 XL also has some unique perks, like the ability to display advanced sailing tools (including laylines, preloaded polars, sailing dashboards, and racing timers), and ClearCruise augmented reality (with AIS, waypoints, and chart objects overlaid on high-definition video).
Visit Raymarine for more details.
The big news for 2023 from Simrad is a new software release for their NSX systems. The NSX line is Simard’s MFD system for mid-sized boats, and comes in seven-, nine-, and 12-inch models. They have 1280 x 800/1280 x 720/1024 x 600 resolution, NMEA2000, WiFi, and ethernet connectivity, can support video, 32-channel GPS, and are capable of digital switching. For 2023 with the new software NSX units enjoy full integration with Mercury interfaces and controls, new C-Map chart management systems plus shaded relief and satellite overlay enhancement, support for additional chart options, and sonar-sharing between displays in multiple-MFD systems. Price: Starts at $1,299.
Visit Simrad for more details.
Editor’s note: This article was last updated in August of 2023.