Although glutted and confusing, one thing is certain about the portable GPS market: If you dont like the current models, wait around a couple of weeks, something else will come along shortly. With any luck, it might even better or at least cheaper than the current crop.
And so it was this spring, as Garmin and Lowrance rolled out yet two more portable GPS navigators into a market that hardly lacks choices. Garmin has gussied up the venerable GPS 90-one of the first mega-seller handhelds-with its 12-channel GPS chip and christened it the GPS 92 ($549 list, $499 on the street.) Lowrance, obviously intent on making its own mark in aviation GPS, introduced a new model, the AirMap 100, which sells for $599 list.
So, what are we talking here, the same song sung in a different key or do either of these things advance the cutting edge? More the former than the latter, in our view. The GPS 92 is clearly a better performing re-heat of the 90 and the AirMap 100 is but a repackaging of the 300 model, albeit one that we found attractive.
Nonetheless, both companies have cleverly tweaked the price points such that these two full-featured units are distanced far enough from the top-of-the-line products to give buyers pause. (These guys are no dummies.)
When Garmins GPS 90 hit the streets in the spring of 1995, it caused a stir, chiefly because it packed a decent moving map, a huge database and a simple operating scheme into a compact package at what soon proved to be the magic price: about $700.
It’s had two weaknesses: Reading the flyspeck typography on the small screen was like taking an eye test and the single-channel, fast-multiplexing receiver would occasionally go stupid. But by contemporary standards, the competition was ever-so-slightly stupider so Garmin held sway.
The GPS 92 addresses both shortcomings. Garmin equipped it with the new 12-channel receiver which has proven to be a terrific performer in the GPS 195 and GPS III Pilot. The screen, although the same diminutive 1 1/2 by 2 1/8-inch size overall, has slightly improved typography, thanks to bolder fonts. Side-by-side with a GPS 90, the difference is noticeable but we didnt feel our pulse rocketing into the danger zone.
Garmin also added Class D airspace boundaries (see photo above) which can be set to display at user-defined map scales. The map also shows Class B and C, plus MOAs and restricted areas. Airspace alarms can be suppressed individually by airspace type and they can be de-cluttered from the map display.
The 12-channel receiver performs as Garmin claims, seemingly sucking in satellite signals from under rocks. Side-by-side with the 90, it finds itself quicker and holds on more tenaciously in marginal conditions, such as when the antenna is shadowed or when driving on a tree-shaded road.
The old single-channel receiver was miserly on power consumption and despite the addition of a 12-channel chip, Garmin says battery life has been improved to 24 hours. (The 90 could squeeze 12-plus hours from four alkalines.) We ran the new 92 at least 18 hours on one set of batteries and it was still going strong.
Garmin merged the 92s database with the GPS 190 mapcom unit, thus it can call up frequencies for nearby FSSs, Centers and so on, using a combination of the go-to and waypoint keys.
As for database coverage, airports and VORs are worldwide, airspace coverage is regional by the Americas, Atlantic and Pacific regions. A single revision costs $125, two revisions are $150 and four over two years sell for $200.
Punches and Jabs
Oh, heres a problem: When the GPS 90 was designed, its button panel was state of the art. But since then, Garmin (and others) have improved control logic with menu-based operating schemes. Better yet, on the newer stuff, map scales can be zoomed in and out with a single key.
Not on the 92. It sports the same hardware as the 90 so theres no zoom key. You have to move the cursor into a data field, hit enter then use the slew button to change scale. That was slick three years ago but weve been spoiled by our Garmin 195, which scales effortlessly. (Yeah fine, so it costs twice as much; we still like the scale button.)
Speaking of map scales, with their small screens, both of these units are fairly useless at scales above 60 or 80 miles, while the 195, with its larger screen, is useful out to 120 miles or a bit more. That matters when youre trying to plan a course around large special use airspace at some distance to avoid precipitous course changes.
In its newer portables, Garmin retained the same single-button page-to-page step through that made the GPS 90 easy to use. There are only five pages; a sat status page, a map, two numerical nav pages and a menu page. Frankly, in a receiver this simple, we dont see the need for more.
Customizing of screens is standard in the premium portables but not in the GPS 92. What you see is what you get. Still, for most pilots, the 92s displays will be more than adequate.
The map page depicts bearing and distance, plus aeronautical points of interest on the map, sans any terrain features, of course. Similarly, the numerical page has more than enough detail to find your way home in the dark but it looks comparatively dated next to Garmins newer gear and the AirMap 100.
Accessory wise, you get only the basics for your $500. A case, antenna cable and power/data cable. The remote antenna is Garmins standard suction cup mount with a thick coaxial cable guaranteed to grow stiff in cold weather.
You get no yoke mount or other goodies. That may be just as well for some buyers, as we suspect that Garmin has discovered that many pilots simply dont use yoke mounts. Given that most are claws from hell seemingly conceived by first-year industrial design students on drugs, we cant blame them.
Lowrance is a big gun in marine and sporting GPS and inch-by-inch, it has been scratching its way into portable aviation GPS, first with the AirMap, then the AirMap 300 and now the new AirMap 100.
Frankly, although weve found the Lowrance products to be competent performers strong on screen legibility, ground mapping and overall features, Garmin has always had slightly better performance and a feature or two that seems to edge out Lowrance by a thin margin.
With the AirMap 100, Lowrance comes into its own in the aviation market. Having introduced the 300 just last spring, we were surprised to see Lowrance roll out another major product so soon. However, a company spokesman told us the 100 has been in development for some time and, is usually the case, it has-or will have-terrestrial and marine counterparts.
The AirMap 100 is identical to the 300, but stuffed into a similar long-and-skinny form factor that made the Apollo Precedus such a success. Its virtually the same size as the GPS 92, but is 1/2 inch thicker, a bit heavier and has a top-mounted on-board antenna rather than the GPS 92s articulating post set-up.
The screen sizes are identical but apart from some unpleasant glare on the screens flat glass lens, we found the display to be the most crisp and readable of the small portables, completely free of the jagginess that sometimes makes the Garmin 92 display hard to read. However, on some of the sub-pages-such as waypoint select pages-the 100s typography is simply too small to read easily. Older pilots may not be able to read these menus at all.
Like the Garmin products, the AirMap 100 has a 12-channel receiver, a Rockwell design. In the AirMap 300, we found that the 12-channel performed noticeably better than the five-channel Lowrance used in the original AirMap and it was definitely on a par with the Garmin 12-channel. Although Lowrance says no significant changes were made in either the GPS engine or the antenna, the AirMap 100 seemed to initialize more quickly than the 300 and definitely holds it own the Garmin receivers.
The two acquired fixes from a cold start within seconds of each other and often, the Garmin would lose lock when positioned under a tree or inside a building while the AirMap 100 would hang on with a 2D fix.
This performance comes at the price of power gluttony. A set of fresh AAs lasted only six hours, although Lowrance claims eight to 10 hours. A battery saver stretches this somewhat but the Garmin is far more power economical.
In the airplane, we noticed little performance difference. Both units continue to navigate, even when antennas are shadowed or in high G turns, although the AirMap rolled over once and found itself in Mexico, where the unit is made. Within a second or so, it came back alive on course. (Lowrance reports no known software bugs so this could have been a fluke.)
The AirMap 100s remote antenna design is much improved over the 300, in our view. It uses a flat-plate antenna connected to the back of the receiver via a jack, not the detachable contraption found on the AirMap 300.
The antenna can simply perch on the glareshield or attach with a small suction-cup bracket to the windshield or sideglass. Although we didnt need to use the suction cups in our Mooney, we would prefer another foot of length on the antenna cable to reach the opposite corner of the glareshield when fishing for satellites.
This brings us to some complaints about the AirMap 100s mechanical design. The receivers two rear-mounted jacks-one for antenna, one for power/data-live under a pair of unattached removable plastic plugs. Might as well just toss both of em; theyll soon vanish into the bowels of the airplane never to be seen again. These should be secured with rubber keepers.
The jacks themselves are somewhat finicky to insert and the pins are rather delicate. Once inserted, both protrude a full inch, making for a somewhat awkward handful of spaghetti.
Finally, the battery compartment could use some work. Its cover has a couple of fingernail-breaking latches and on our production unit, the batteries were a nuisance to install.
Because of the way the clips and springs are arranged, getting the alkalines in place was like loading a jack-in-the-box; they kept popping out until we corralled them with the cover. In a turbulence-jostled cockpit, changing batteries could get sporting. None of these are showstoppers, mind you, but Garmin handles the mechanical details more elegantly. The GPS 92 has a keeper on the power/data socket cover and a right-angle jack to keep the wires tidier, although overall the wires on both units are a hassle to deal with.
Lowrance wins on the yoke mount. For one thing, it has one. For another, it uses a well-thought out plastic cradle thats a considerable improvement over the monstrosities weve come to know and love.
The AirMaps performance is right up there with any portable GPS weve tested. It wakes up quickly and is ready to navigate in about 90 seconds. If you dont fuss with the yoke mount, connecting the remote antenna is relatively simple. Toss the antenna on the glareshield and youre ready to go.
Unlike the GPS 92, the AirMap has all the detail you could ever want on its display, including terrain and cultural features, airports, VORs and so on. It also has the obstruction database that thus far only Magellan and Lowrance offer.
Obstructions are depicted by three levels of icons, each representing a different AGL or MSL elevation. We think this feature is a first-rate idea, especially for pilots who prefer low-and-slow and, dare we say it, the occasional scud run.
Since its an AirMap 300 in a smaller wrapper, the 100 has identical operating logic as its big brother, with seven control keys and four slewing keys. The menus are slightly re-arranged to accommodate the smaller screen but features parallel the 300.
Like the Garmin receivers, the AirMap has a page key to step through various displays. And there are a lot of them: two basic numerical nav displays, one a rudimentary HSI; three map pages with various combinations of numerical data and 10 group pages with yet more combinations of maps and data.
Navigating this labyrinth of pages is not quite so simple as with the Garmin 92 or even Garmins higher-end products, the GPS III Pilot and 195. Pushing the page key requires some slewing through sub-menus to get where youre going. While operating this receiver isnt quite as simple as some, we wouldnt consider onerous, either.
For set-up work, the AirMap 100 has a dedicated menu key which calls up main and sub-menus. For quick scaling, it has zoom-in, zoom-out keys. Weve found that on a screen this small, scaling is a constant chore; the easier it is, the better. Surface map detail is excellent and although small, we had no trouble reading town names, airport identifiers and road shields.
As the map scale increases, the map automatically declutters and the surface detail can be switched off entirely or switched on and off selectively by picking and choosing from the menus. Screen refresh rate is acceptable but hardly blazing fast.
The AirMaps menus are thick with customization and set-up options, such as range rings for the maps, runway centerline extensions, airspace alerts and display options, to name a few. Like the Garmin, the AirMap has stored comm frequencies, which can be accessed via the nearest function.
No dedicated key for that; you press both zoom keys at once to find the closest airport, VOR and so on. (This was omitted from the manual; we remembered it from the AirMap 300.)
Because of Lowrances sport underpinnings, the AirMap 100 can be reconfigured for land or marine navigation, using a serial port set-up with a PC to load new data into the AirMaps 2MB flash memory. To convert back to aviation use, reload the Jeppesen aviation database, which Lowrance includes on a floppy diskette, just in case you need it.
In earlier units, Lowrance sold additional mapping detail on a series of 64 cartridges that plug into the back of the receiver. No room for those in the smaller 100, so Lowrance has a CD-ROM and a program called Map Select that has the additional terrain detail found on the cartridges.
This accessory, which sells for $54.95, allows the user to selectively customize a geographic area with as much or as little detail as desired. In the works, were told, is a more sophisticated map customization program.
Standard database coverage is North America. World coverage is also available. Revisions are $75 each or $795 an annual subscription with 13 revisions.
Increasingly, selecting a portable from the crowded field boils down to price. The manufacturers have well learned that featuresets are so similar that $100 one way or another can make or break a portable in the first months after its introduction.
Scanning the big picture here, we think the Garmin 195 remains the reigning Alpha Dog of portable GPS. It has the richest featureset, best map and display and an operating scheme with few warts. At $1050 to $1100 discounted, its an impressive value.
Then theres everything else for those who dont want to spend a grand. The Lowrance AirMap 100 leads that pack, in our view. Despite its minor foibles and key-punch intensive operating logic, at $599, it comes with a box full of accessories-including a plastic case to carry them in-and delivers excellent performance.
Because of its surface detail, customization, flexibility and accessory list, it bests the Garmin 92, even though the 92 sells for $100 less. Our view is that if youre buying a new portable, better to have the map detail than not. The 92 doesnt have it.
A more apt comparison is the AirMap and Garmin GPS III Pilot, since the GPS III has surface detail and Garmins newer menu-driven operating design, including map zooming.
Again, the AirMap 100 enjoys the edge, since it costs $75 to $100 less and the GPS III is also sold sans accessories. Watch for the GPS IIIs price to sag with competition from the AirMap 100.
The also rans include Lowrances AirMap 300, the Apollo Precedus and the Magellan SkyStar Plus. Value wise, the AirMap 100 beats them all, unless you want the SkyStars FBO and airport services database, which, at the moment, only Magellan has.
For a dirt cheap entry-level portable, Garmin still sells the stripped down GPS 89 with a single-channel receiver and no surface detail. Discounted, it sells for about $399.