Are digital controls really better than the old cable systems, and if so, are they worth the extra expense?
Look at a brand-new outboard in the V6 or V8 size range like the Mercury Verado 400, an Evinrude G2 or a Yamaha F425, and you’ll notice that they all come with digital controls. Most manufacturers have migrated digital shift and throttle all the way down into the 150-horse range and in some cases even to smaller powerplants. But boaters tend to dislike change, and many people still want their old cable systems. When re-powering a boat or buying a relatively small, single-engine rig, you may well be faced with the mechanical-versus-digital choice. So, which should you pick?
Digital Control Pros
On the face of it, common sense says that digitizing outboard controls, just like everything else in modern society, is the way to go. And fly-by-wire systems have several characteristics that are tough to argue against, including:
- Shifting and advancing or reducing the throttle is much smoother.
- Grinding gears by shifting partially or too slowly is forever eliminated.
- Joystick integration is possible.
- Micro-adjustments in engine rpm may be possible with buttons used for fine-tuning trolling speeds.
- Overall long-term reliability is improved.
Digital Control Cons
Despite these advantages, many people resist switching to digital controls. In large part, this is simply human nature’s resistance to change, but there are some valid issues to consider such as:
- Digital controls cost more than mechanicals.
- They can be so smooth that people tend to shift right through neutral and apply power prematurely.
- An electric gremlin can ruin your day and is much tougher to troubleshoot than a cable issue.
Digital vs. Cable
As far as cost goes, this is not an arguable issue – old-style mechanicals are hands-down cheaper, usually to the tune of about five percent of the cost of a new powerplant with controls. Of course, these days some outboards aren’t even available with mechanical controls. So even though the nay-sayers have a point here, considering choice limitations it’s sometimes moot. And on the flip side of this coin, you can find third-party manufacturers like SeaStar Solutions that make digital systems that can be used with a wide range of formerly-mechanical outboards from multiple manufacturers.
And that may be the only valid point those cable-lovers have. Shifters can be adjusted for friction, and if a rig is too easy to shift and/or increasing or decreasing power too rapidly is a problem, that’s really a rigging issue. Maybe the dealer or boat manufacturer set it up that way, or maybe no one ever bothered to adjust the tensioner in the first place. Either way, there’s a quick and easy solution.
What about the prospect of a glitch in the system shutting you down? It does happen. But it happens a lot less than cables bind up, attachment points come loose, and mechanical parts corrode or wear out. Considered on the whole, much like a digital switching system (or any other system on a boat, for that matter) while the possibility of failure is always present, in the long run, reliability goes up, not down, when you go digital.
Now let’s add a few more factors into the mix. Let’s say that five years from now, you decide you want to add a second station in the cockpit or on a tower. If you have digital controls this will be as simple as running wires and mounting a binnacle, and you won’t have to worry about things like cable bend constraints and lengths. Or, let’s say you decide to sell the boat. These days many people of the post-boomer generation expect everything to be digitized and may balk at buying a boat with those old-school mechanical controls.
The bottom line? There will always be some people who insist on sticking with cables, but they’re getting older, grayer, and fewer by the year. Once someone experiences the super-smooth nature of digital shift and throttle and grows comfortable with the system over time, it’s rare that they would consider going back. And as tech marches forward the ability to rig with mechanicals is shrinking, while the ability to rig digitally is expanding. So yeah, digital controls really are better… and even if they do cost a bit more, we’d better get used to it.