Digital Dash Buyer’s Guide: Which is Best?


Digital Dash Buyer’s Guide: Which is Best?


Digital dashes are becoming more and more of a necessity with today’s tech-laden builds. Whether you need to monitor a variety of specific data points, or you simply want to avoid mounting numerous individual gauges and creating a rat’s nest of wiring in the process, customizable displays offer the most efficient solution for a growing number of car projects.

“Most aftermarket engine management systems don’t communicate all that well with factory dashes, so you lose access to a lot of important information,” explains Pyng Thai of AEM Electronics. “That’s something that’s particularly common in race car builds. It’s a situation where you’re often using a different hardware than the vehicle originally had; whether that’s an older vehicle with a more modern engine, or it’s a newer vehicle that can’t natively communicate with an aftermarket computer. A display can solve a lot of those problems.”

And as Dustin Wilson of Holley Performance points out, it’s often just a more pragmatic approach in general.

“Packaging definitely comes into play here. You typically don’t have a lot of extra space to work with in a race car, so you might not be able to put a ton of gauges all over the place even if you wanted to. You also might not be using a conventional instrument panel that allows you to mount traditional gauges like that. With a digital dash you can just mount it to the steering column, or a single mounting point on the instrument panel, and you have everything you need right there.”

The benefits aren’t confined to motorsport applications, though. “This will, in most cases, use a single cable that runs from the dash to the ECU for power, ground, and data,” Wilson says. “And that greatly simplifies the wiring in a street car project, too. But beyond that, not only can you monitor many different types of data simultaneously, with these dashes you can also do things like set up warning lights if a data point that you’re monitoring goes above or below certain thresholds. And that can allow you to prevent all sorts of failures that otherwise might have cost you a lot of money.”

Holley, Racepak, and AEM digital dashes all offer a wide range of features and customizability, but each is also designed with a general use-case in mind. Here Wilson and Thai provide some insight that should help you determine what makes the most sense for your particular project.


Holley’s 6.86-inch and 12.3-inch standalone dashes bring a customizable high-resolution touchscreen display to the party, along with data logging capability, 13 multi-configurable inputs, four ground switched outputs, built-in GPS with speed, odometer and trip odometer functionality, and a whole lot more. Thanks to their versatility, they’re found in everything from street machines to the NASCAR Truck Series, but Wilson tells us that a lot builders go with these dashes simply because want to step their game up.

“Many of the folks who are using these dashes have put Sniper EFI or Holley EFI on their car, and they want something that’s nicer than the handheld display that comes with the system. Something with a bigger, high-resolution screen that will provide them with more data at a glance.”

Holley EFI digital dashes also include 16 pre-loaded backgrounds skins and offer unlimited options for importing custom layouts. They also feature rugged, water-resistant aluminum case construction for added durability. These features benefit the visual appeal of the vehicle’s interior, too, and Holley offers ways to elevate the aesthetic even further. “There’s a wide assortment of digital dash bezels available for popular muscle cars and old-school truck platforms,” says Wilson. “That means that in vehicles like first and second-generation GM F-bodies, squarebody C10s, Fox-body Mustangs, Chevelles, Novas, and many others, you can give the install a clean, professionally-integrated look.”

Thai also notes that when paired with an existing Holley EFI system, the integration of a Holley digital dash is about as hassle-free as it gets. “These dashes are designed around Holley EFI engine management and that whole ecosystem, of course. And that makes this a true plug-and-play affair.”

See the full line of Holley digital dashes and components now


Racepak has long been known for no-nonsense dash offerings like the IQ3, but now you can also get Racepak functionality in a contemporary, high-resolution package with company’s latest 6.86-inch and 12.3-inch touchscreen digital dashes. While those looking to upgrade from an IQ3-style system will likely be drawn to Racepak’s own touchscreen offerings due in part to the likelihood that they already have Racepak sensors installed in their vehicle, these dashes have some compelling features that go well beyond just built-in compatibility.

“Racepak’s older products were really all-business, and that tailored them toward motorsports applications, specifically,” Wilson says. “But the new Racepak Pro dashes are built from the same foundation as the Holley EFI Pro dashes, and that gives them much more versatility. The older Datalink software was pretty complicated, the programmability of the readouts was fairly limited. But with the new Racepak dashes you’re not limited by any of that anymore – you can just plug it into your V-NET connection and do everything right from the dash’s screen instead of using external software. And you have a wide variety of options when it comes to the look of the readouts, how the various pages are configured, warning setup, and things like that.”

These new dashes can also read the Holley EFI CAN protocol as well as Racepak’s own CAN protocol, making this a plug-and-play proposition for Holley EFI users as well. Racepak has some big feature upgrades that are scheduled to roll out for these dashes later this year, but in the meantime, Racepak’s motorsport-focused data acquisition capabilities should be top-of-mind for any prospective buyer. “With a Racepak system you’ve got options for sensors that will get shock travel data and other things that can really play an important role in a race program,” Wilson says. “Racepak also offers things like four-channel wideband controllers, whereas you get two-channel wideband on a Dominator system, or a single channel on HP and Terminator X. So if you want to monitor eight O2 sensors, for example, it makes a lot of sense to go this route.”

See the full line of Racepak digital dashes and components now


Although AEM’s CD-5 and CD-7 dashes are also particularly useful in racing applications, Thai says that AEM’s approach to user programmability and customization differs from Racepak on a fundamental level, and the benefits of that can also appeal to those with projects that are bound for the street.

“AEM units are open source, and that allows the end-user to customize the system however they see fit. For example, we’ve had some folks who’ve gotten the CAN info from OEMs, and they then input that information into their dash file. That allows them to get readouts from check engine lights that gives them a detailed explanation of what the issue is, rather than just a code.” AEM’s Dash Design software is free to download, which allows builders to mock up layouts even before they purchase a dash.

“I think these dashes are ideal for projects that don’t warrant a plug-and-play solution because of a previously-existing setup,” he says. “The price point is there for street builds, but it has the capability needed to work really well in a motorsport environment. We have customers who are swapping out MoTec units for ours – in many situations, you can get the same capability from an AEM product for less than half of the cost.”

The CD-5 and CD-7 are offered in four different flavors (a basic dash, a dash with data acquisition capabilities, a dash with GPS functionality, or a dash with both), all of which boast carbon fiber enclosures and multi-color displays that are designed to be readable even in direct sunlight. But Thai says that it’s the systems’ universal compatibility that really sets these products apart from the crowd.

“The unit has two CAN inputs, and we have two CAN sensor modules, which is where you would input your basic sensors if you’re not getting it through CAN bus. And because of that, we see customers using these in competitive tractor pulling, where they want a lot of information. Some of these guys use two of our 22-channel CAN sensor modules, and since our system works with any aftermarket sensor, they’re logging everything, and they have the pertinent real-time information displayed across several different screens. As log as you have the data for it, you can put it into our modules.”

Thai suggests that builders consider how many different forms of information they’re not currently getting – and how much it could potentially cost to implement that functionality – when considering their options for a digital dash. “We’ve had a lot of folks call us who’re three gauges into a project, and right there they might already have $1000 invested. But if they’d just bought our 5-inch display instead, the sky’s the limit as far as the information that they can get.”

The system that’s controlling your engine should also weigh heavily in the decision-making process, Wilson says. “Is it carbureted, is it an OE PCM, is it an aftermarket PCM? That’s where you’re going to start. From there it’s really about determining your priorities and needs. One person might really want a clean-looking install, while another may want to use specialized sensors or have more customization capability. It really just depends what you have, and what you want to do.”

See the full line of AEM digital dashes and components now


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