Brand-new, highly desirable sonar and GPS features are announced at least once each product year by the makers of marine and outdoor electronics.
Years ago, when such improvements made your current electronics obsolete, the only way to update your dinosaurs was to buy new, cutting-edge models. And, if you had the misfortune to buy a unit with a software bug, the only solution available to manufacturers was a factory recall.
The first official software updates available to boaters required sending your unit back to its manufacturer and paying a modest fee. It was better than having to buy a new unit, but it was still a pain.
Those days are mostly behind us thanks to several major marine electronics manufacturers who offer free software upgrades for many of their products. Owners can download and install them right from company Web sites.
The importance and value of these updates can’t be overstated. When Humminbird introduced Down Imaging (the ability to see straight down under your boat with the picture-like detail of the company’s Side Imaging technology) owners of Side Imaging units got the new feature free of charge with a software download. No new transducer or other hardware was required; the Side Imaging beams already overlapped to cover the area below the boat, and all that was needed was software to interpret and manage that coverage.
You can usually see a list of a new software version’s improvements on the manufacturer’s Web site.
I recently updated an older Lowrance HDS Sonar/GPS unit, and the site showed that the version 4.1 software included sonar performance enhancements like better tracking at high speed, better deepwater tracking and shortened lock-on time for trolling motor-mounted transducers. On the charting side, quick-access mapping selection (the ability to toggle back and forth between Lowrance and Navionics mapping) is now provided, and users can also display points of interest supplied by the Navionics User Community.
Fixes in the update included accurate distance measurement between your moving boat and an active screen cursor, a correct altitude overlay for altitudes greater than 9,999 feet and EP-60R fuel flow sensor corrections.
Downloading a software update is easy but not always completely automatic. I downloaded the aforementioned Lowrance update directly to an MMC card, put the card in the unit and then powered the unit up. HDS units check for new software updates as they boot up and automatically install them.
This time the unit powered up, but didn’t recognize the update. When all else fails, read the directions, right? The downloading instructions said to unzip the .zip file and copy ONLY three of the four existing files to the card, and then insert the card in the unit.
I started over and downloaded the zip-compressed update to my computer’s desktop, unzipped it and copied the correct three files to the card. I put the card into the unit, powered it up and a screen message showed that the update had been found and, in less than a minute, installed.
After the installation, another screen message told me to remove the card and press the power key once to reboot the system. The update was in place and, sure enough, the sonar picture looked better at speed and while fishing on my next trip to the lake.
The world of software updates doesn’t end with sonar and GPS units.
Garmin now includes free mapping updates for life with some of its nuvi® automotive navigation models, and you can buy a lifetime subscription for many new and older models that didn’t come with one.
If you run a navigation unit in your tow vehicle, you probably know how quickly mapping information runs out of date. Each year, speed limits change, bypasses are built around towns and cities, new roads and streets appear and existing two-way streets become one-way and vice-versa. The millions of points of interest covered by these units are also in a constant state of flux.
Having free mapping updates for life means you can download a new map set as often as twice each year, and that is probably slightly more often than they become available.
These updates are about as simple to install as updates get. You connect your nuvi to your computer with a USB cord that comes in the box with the unit. On-screen instructions lead you through contacting the Garmin site and downloading the necessary map management software to your computer. This software checks the nuvi’s current mapping software’s version number and leads you through the updating process if a newer version is available.
My older nuvi model doesn’t have enough storage space to hold a complete update, so the program told me I could either install a memory card to hold the rest of it or it would guide me through selecting the complete mapping data for only the three-quarters or so of the country where I expected to be driving.
Not all new capabilities can be added with a software update. Marine electronics makers are adding advanced networking abilities that sometimes require pre-installed factory hardware. If, for example, you want to run a new factory-optional radar scanner on your Humminbird or Lowrance unit, that unit must already have Ethernet capability built in. Lesser network types simply can’t carry a sufficient amount of data fast enough to support real-time radar sweeps.
The Bottom Line: Go to the Web site of the company that manufactured your units, visit its support or customer service section, and look for available software updates. If you don’t find any, call the customer service phone number and ask if the company offers them.
If they are available, make sure your units have the latest versions installed — it’s like getting next-generation electronics for free.