Update for Excellence

It’s free, quick and will make the most out of your electronics package.

An SD card (some use other devices) transfers updates from a manufacturer’s Web site to the GPS unit.

Almost every piece of marine electronics you’ll find on your boat these days, whether it’s a VHF radio, fishfinder, chartplotter or autopilot has some sort of internal computer system or chip built-in that supplies the “brains.” Computers run software and this code may need to be updated on occasion for a variety of reasons.

Before we talk about how to update your system, let’s look at a few reasons why you would want to keep the latest software load installed in your gear.

First off, electronics manufacturers occasionally make mistakes when coding, or find anomalies in the software once it goes into service. Although software testing prior to release is extensive, every possible combination of gear and use simply cannot be examined. Oftentimes a glitch will be noted that requires a fix in the next update. If you have a unit that does an odd thing or two, this could be the reason.

These days, different pieces of marine electronics gear talk to each other and share certain data strings. Because electronics change so fast and so often, software changes may be needed in one piece of gear to allow it to communicate with another unit. This happens most often when a maker updates unit capabilities or introduces a new piece of equipment. For example, my boat has a package of electronics that includes a chartplotter and autopilot from the same maker. When the chartplotter was installed the autopilot was not even on the market—when I installed the autopilot I had to update the software package in the chartplotter so the two units could communicate and interface properly.

More recent software changes improved the functionality of the plotter/pilot combination, so to take advantage of these enhancements I updated the software again.

A few electronics companies occasionally upgrade a unit’s performance and operation by making software changes that enhance features without the need for changes in hardware. Basically what you get is a better, more capable piece of gear simply by uploading the latest software. This is one of the few “free lunches” left in the world today.

To perform a do-it-yourself software upgrade requires some equipment specific to your unit. These items will likely include an Internet connected personal computer, card reader, and blank memory
card or flash drive. Most of us already have an Internet connected computer and the remaining gear is fairly inexpensive.

Keep in mind that electronics designed for an owner upgrade will usually have the appropriate card slot or USB port built-in. Some units may need a return to the maker for a software update.

Just because a piece of electronics doesn’t have a card slot or USB port doesn’t mean you can’t do the upgrade yourself. More likely it means any new software upload will need to be done through a connection to another upgradeable unit. For example, my boat electronics package consists of two multifunction
displays (MFDs), a GPS sensor, black box sounder, radar and autopilot. Even though only the MFDs have a card slot, all the equipment gets a new software upload whenever I update. FS

Software Upgrade How To

To get started uploading the latest operating software for your gear, take a look at the manufacturer’s Web site. You can usually find a link for the latest software update on the product page along with in-depth instructions on how to perform the update. You should read through the procedure and make sure you have all the necessary hardware before you proceed. For my Garmin system I download the software to my PC, place it on a memory card, and then put the card into an MFD card slot. Doing so with the unit on starts an automatic software update procedure of every piece of gear connected to the MFD. After everything updates (which can take as long as 30 minutes) remove the memory card from the slot and you are back in business with a freshly upgraded system.

Protect Your Waypoint and Route Data

As with any computer software update weird things can happen on occasion. You will very likely find warnings in the instructions about this possibility—heed them. To avoid losing valuable navigation information you should make a back-up copy of all user data you may have entered into your chartplotter prior to beginning any software update. It is also wise to have this data backed-up elsewhere, too. I keep a spreadsheet on a personal computer with all my waypoint data just in case catastrophe strikes.

First Published Florida Sportsman Oct. 2011