With the portable GPS market maturing, Lowrance and Magellan trot out improved models.

As competition grows fiercer in what is slowly becoming a glutted market, GPS pricing has taken on the quality of corn quotes on the morning ag report, changing a buck here or a buck there in response to the vagaries of consumer demand.

As we go press this month, the prices are in flux again and Lowrance and Magellan have announced incremental improvements in the AirMap and the SkyStar, both of which compete against Garmins popular GPS 195 and the recently introduced GPS III pilot.

With no major new portables on the horizon-at least that we know about-the current crop looks relatively stable to us. If youve put off buying a portable or upgrading because of worries about the next model rendering your new toy obsolete, well walk to the end of the plank and declare that now is as good a time as any to purchase a portable.

Improved AirMap
Lowrances AirMap, introduced two years ago, was the first portable to feature a moving map with terrain detail and its high resolution screen proved easy to see in all light conditions. At $899 initially, we thought it a fair value and in the months leading to the introduction of the Garmin 195, the AirMap was a hit.

But buyers are fickle and, in portable GPS, product loyalty lasts only until the next issue of Trade-A-Plane arrives. A year out of the blocks, the AirMap was looking a tad dated and when Garmins GPS III arrived this summer, it looked positively ancient.

Lowrance first responded with the AirMap SE, whose database added obstructions to the map and this month, its introducing the AirMap 300, a re-designed receiver with a new 12-channel Rockwell GPS engine, a metal hydride power pack option, plus some cosmetic and minor software changes.

GPS advertising occasionally crows loudly about the number of channels the receivers engine has. Weve always advised buyers to ignore such hype since long ago Garmin proved that its modest single-channel fast multiplexing chip could hold its own against the best five and eight channel designs of the day. But that was three years ago.

The newest generation of 12-channel receivers from Garmin and from Rockwell, as found in the AirMap 300, are substantially better performers than the GPS engines of even two or three years ago. This is most noticeable in shortened time to first fix and weve found that the 12-channel chips will sometimes fix position from inside buildings through windows and skylights. They rarely lose lock during normal aircraft maneuvering, even when shadowed by wings or interior structure.

For a comparison, weve flown our trusty Garmin 90 side-by-side with both the AirMap 300 and Garmin 195, both of which have 12-channels. Weve found that the 12-channels initialize three to five times faster than the 90s single-channel receiver and where the 90 occasionally loses lock, the 195 and AirMap do not.

AirMap Improvements
The AirMap 300 has been released with a short list of improvements, including the 12-channel receiver, an improved quick release antenna, better backlighting for the screen and runway extended centerlines similar to those pioneered by IIMorrow in the Precedus three years ago. These arent the equivalent of approaches, but theyll probably prove helpful in low-visibility VFR conditions.

The basic menu-driven operating logic was carried over from the earlier AirMap model. Although its relatively easy to use, it does require more key tickling than do other receivers to accomplish simple tasks such as direct-to navigation or toggling from display to display, thanks in part to the AirMaps large number of nav pages. If you like flipping through all these displays, the AirMap will keep you pleasantly busy otherwise, youll probably settle on one or two favorite screens and ignore the rest.

We do like Lowrances handling of the obstruction database, with each tower or building assigned its own symbol according to three height classifications. The actual AGL or MSL height is also provided. We would like to see all the GPS makers add this option.

Performance wise, the Rockwell 12-channel is an improvement over the previous five-channel, which was slow getting to first fix and tended to dither and drop out. However, the Rockwell isnt quite up to the standards of Garmins 12-channel, which, in our experience, almost always fixes faster and holds on more tenaciously. We noted that the Garmin 195 hangs in when placed on the seat, out of direct satellite view, while the AirMap fix tends to come and go.

Overall, although the AirMaps improvements are noticeable, were not sure theyre worth an additional $200 on the asking price.

SkyStar Plus
When the Magellan SkyStar was introduced last summer, it came to the market late and at distinct disadvantage with its relatively small screen and lack of surface detail on the moving map. However, to its credit, we found that the SkyStars windows-style operating logic is quicker if not easier to use than the AirMap and is comparable to the Garmin receivers. Further, the SkyStar is strong on E6B functions and allows storing of aircraft performance profiles, which none of the other receivers can do.

The new SkyStar plus uses the same hardware as the earlier model, but with the addition of another 16MB of flash memory, thus making room for an obstruction database and the AOPA airport and services database.

As with the AirMap 300, the obstruction data comes from the governments NOS files and these appear as tiny tower-type symbols on the moving map. To keep the map from becoming too cluttered, only obstructions greater than 500 feet AGL are depicted and listed in the database. Natural obstructions- hills and mountains-are not displayed unless they have a 500-foot or greater man-made obstruction.

Using the receivers panning feature, you can place the cursor over the depicted obstruction to read its MSL elevation. Toggle into the obstruction database and you can determine the towers distance and bearing from present position, its AGL height, lat/long and whether its lighted. Similarly, using the NEAR key, the bearing and distance to the 10 closest obstructions, plus the MSL elevation, can be quickly displayed.

While we think the addition of the obstruction database is a good idea-especially for helicopter operators-caution is advised. NOS data is notoriously inaccurate and we can easily imagine that towers could pop up like tulips without finding their way into the database quickly, if at all. Further, if you want accurate obstruction data, youll have to buy database revisions as frequently as practical. (They cost $139 each.)

By far, the SkyStar Pluss strongest addition is the AOPA Airport Directory database. AOPAs Airport Directory (formerly Aviation USA) has established itself as the be-all, end-all source of airport and FBO data but the 600-page plus phonebook-size directory is usually buried in the baggage compartment when you need it most, if its in the airplane at all.

With the additional flash memory, Magellan has stuffed the critical airport data into the SkyStar Plus, although obviously not the entire entry found in the book. For each airport, the SkyStar lists FBOs, taxis, rental cars, restaurants and hotels; in short, just the essentials.

This information is easily accessed by selecting an airport, then punching the menu key. A sub-menu then displays the five airport information categories. The FBO category is further divided into individual businesses, with subpages on services available.

Checking a few local entries for Danbury, Connecticut, we found that the FBO list was reasonably up to date but the restaurant list proved stale. Two of the three eateries listed no longer exist; only one was current and accurate, having bought the other two businesses. In fairness, this is typical of most airport guides, since airport businesses-especially restaurants-come and go faster than any guide could hope to track. Two other local airports we checked were accurate and up to date, with current phone numbers and names.

In short, even though the data may be somewhat off kilter, there are enough numbers and names to track down what you need on the airport, thus we think the airport directory is a worthy addition which no one else has, at least for the time being.

Pricewise, the SkyStar Plus will retail for $649 so expect to see it discounted to about $599 or so. If you already own an earlier SkyStar model, Magellan will upgrade it for $149. Periodic database revisions will cost $139 each and, at present, theyre available only as one-time revisions, not on a subscription basis.

As we noted earlier, the portable GPS market has reverted to commodity pricing, with minor tweaks and features accounting for new phrases in the add copy but no world-changing performance gains. Frankly, all of the receivers perform so well at price points so close that were hard pressed to pick a resounding winner.

The AirMap 300s 12-channel receiver is a noticeable improvement over the previous five-channel but, as we noted, it doesnt perform as well as Garmins 12-channel, even though the difference is not operationally significant. At $799, were just not seeing an additional $200 worth of improved performance over the previous AirMap version.

In our view, the Garmin 195 easily edges out the AirMap in screen size, operating ease, database content (it has approaches), HSI capability, E6B functions and GPS engine performance. The AirMap wins for its slightly crisper screen, obstruction database, less obtrusive yoke mount and larger selection of screens. The two are essentially identical in customization. Overall, we think the 195 is the better value.

At $679 discounted, Garmins GPS III Pilot is a stripped down, diminutive version of the 195, lacking the large screen and approaches. Its also shipped with no accessories, except for a small bracket suitable for glareshield mounting. Add on the $120 or so accessory package if you want a yoke mount and remote antenna and the price creeps up to $800, same as the AirMap. Pay your money and take your choice; theyre about equal values, in our estimation. If size is a factor, go with the Garmin. If its not, the AirMap will certainly deliver.

In this fray, the SkyBlazer Plus is still at a distinct disadvantage. Without ground mapping, its competing with the ancient Garmin GPS 90, but at a higher price. True, its stronger on trip planning functions than the others and is unique in offering the airport services database. If those features are important, at $649 list, we think its priced about right. Discount price wasnt available at press time but if it drops below $600, the SkyStar Plus will stir up some interest.

For buyers not interested in fancy ground mapping, Garmin still sells the stripped down GPS 89 for $399 discounted and the GPS 90 for $529 discounted. Either will find the airport just as well as the others and leave you with a few hundred bucks in change that you can apply to a new panel mount.

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Moving Map GPS Comparison.
Click here to view “New IFR Maps From Garmin (And Yes, They’re Cheaper).”
Click here to view the Moving Map GPS Addresses & Contacts.