Magellans GPS 315A

A bargain basement portable with a do-it-yourself database. Nice try but far short of the mark in our view.

Been to a camping store lately? don’t go. Or if you do, stay away from the gadget case containing the handheld GPS navigators that are even more popular with hikers than they are with pilots. The prices will only depress you.

The so-called sport and terrestrial portables look astonishingly like aviation units but they cost half or even a quarter as much. There’s a reason for that and we’ll get to it later.

Meanwhile, you may think that with Garmin shipping boxcar loads of 195s, every pilot in the known universe already owns a portable GPS. In fact, some buyers are still shopping. A recent survey by our sister publication, IFR, revealed that only 61 percent of readers said they had a portable GPS.

That means there’s market share out there. But where? Magellan thinks its at the bottom of the price range, in the murky sediment where the truly parsimonious prowl for bargains. These are guys that shop for replacement parts in flea markets and are still waiting for the price of loran to come down another $100.

Other manufacturers have feared to tread in the low-price zone. But Magellan obviously thinks otherwise and they didnt ask us so…the GPS 315A.

Tail Wags Dog
Some pilots are shocked to learn that the portable GPS units they love owe their existence to campers and boaters. Thats where the volume sales are and what drives most consumer GPS development. Aviation is secondary market recovery; an afterthought.

Thats exactly where the Magellan 315A comes from. The 315A is really an outdoors GPS (the A designation is for aviation). By outdoors, we mean fishing, hunting and other bad smelling activities.

This is immediately obvious from the 315As size and weight. Its tiny and with its molded-in antenna, obviously meant to slip into a jacket or shirt pocket. The receiver has a 12-channel chip and a decent antenna; we were able to get a good enough signal to initialize it inside a house.

At a mere seven ounces, this unit is feather light. For $299 retail, you get the GPS unit, mounting attachment, cigarette power/data adapter (with a wide 7 to 35 VDC capability) and the DataSend CD package. (More on that later.)

Two AA batteries make the unit completely portable and it appears quite rugged and is also waterproof. We found the manual easy to follow and, frankly, more we’ll thought out than the product itself.

One thing you’ll notice during initialization is that the 315A will prompt for marine or land. Wait a second, surely there must be some mistake. No aviation option? Nope. Since boats use nautical miles and knots, select marine. Close enough? We didnt think so.

As far as operating logic goes, the 315A is about what weve come to expect. Nine keys allow complete access to all features: Power, menu, GOTO, enter, quit, NAV, mark, backlight and an arrows button. Press the NAV button and you can scroll through the nine NAV pages available: Status, position, compass, speed and time to name a few. Customization of all these pages is easy enough and again, what weve come to expect in portable GPS. Customization and set-up is menu driven. You can also customize the data elements displayed on each page. A nit we did find was an inability to change the mileage scale at which landmarks are displayed. This is important, since thats one way users can declutter a busy moving map page. And believe us, this one gets very busy.

Are They Biting?
One item you don’t find on most aviation GPS menus is Fish/Hunt. The idea here is that the Magellan unit this thing is based on-the 315-is really meant for making notes of the times and places the fish were biting so you can find the spot again. Since Magellan evidently didnt go overboard in converting the 315 into an aviation variant, what the heck, they left that stuff in.

Naturally, since its for outdoors use, the 315A doesnt have an aviation database but built-in waypoints called points of interest that consist of more than 19,000 cities of various population densities.

Realizing that these are but of passing interest to most pilots, Magellan includes a PC package called DataSend, which augments the 315A and increase its usefulness. Its a standard accessory for the 315A but an option with the plain-vanilla 315 for the campers and fisherman.

The DataSend program and its data comes on a single CD that installs on Windows 9x and NT systems. The idea here is that you load the data, then dump it into the GPS receiver through a serial port cable, which is provided. Cleverly, that cable doubles as an external power cable and has a cigarette light accessory plug. We were disappointed to learn that the program doesnt obey Microsoft installation standards. For instance, inserting the CD doesnt autorun the installation process.

You have to open the CD icon and click on Setup (or follow the installation instructions and run Setup using the Run command from the Start menu). No big deal, right? Depends on how computer literate the thrifty shoppers who might buy this navigator happen to be. Our view is that they may need all the help they can get.

The program and data take a hefty 60MB of hard disk when a typical installation is selected, as recommended by the installation and the manual. You can also choose compact or custom. Regardless, you need the CD loaded in a drive when running the program.

Once you select the region youre interested in, you select your points of interest. POIs are what pilots think of as potential waypoints. You can select various aviation waypoints which Magellan sources through Jeppesen.

Some of the POIs are really informational rather than a specific point on earth. For example, airport comm is a POI category that provides you with some access to an airports communications frequencies.

Forget nearest FSS or Center frequencies; this is bare bones stuff. For some reason, airport names and IDs are considered separate POI categories. Most of the POIs are meant for either car or boat, although we guess you could buzz the nearest ATM, since theyre also listed.

Were not sure that the effort put into this program-and that doesnt appear to be much-was worth it. First, the drawing of various geographic regions is amateurish at best. It was interesting to note that the program didnt draw Long Island or New York City, just the POIs. Zooming in on states produced bizarre shapes; we didnt know that New Jersey was as wide as Texas, for example.

We selected the metropolitan New York area with all possible aviation POIs. Transferring the POIs is simple: Connect one end of the cable into a comm port and the other end to the receiver. Power up the 315A and click Transfer POIs. The download took less than a minute. Of course, this could be a major pain if you want to go to an area you didnt download when you were doing the initial set-up. While user waypoints are always retained, the built-in waypoints are deleted when you load your new POIs. So with the 315A, its better to load too much than too little.

Flying Around
Give Magellan credit for one thing: The mounting attachment is specific to the receiver and is probably one of the best weve seen. It fits the receiver like a glove and can be rotated in any orientation direction on a flexible stalk. Why didnt someone think of this sooner?

In an airplane, you’ll most likely mount the unit on the pilots side window, using the attached suction cups and then rotating the unit sideways so you can view it. We mounted the unit low on the pilots side window and it worked we’ll in that position.The 315A has a GOTO button which pops up a small waypoints category page asking which type of waypoint you want (Airports, VORs, etc). We selected Airport IDs. The GPS responded by sorting the airports in a completely ambiguous fashion that looked a lot like random order. Massaging the arrow keys eventually loaded the desired waypoint.

Flip through most of the 315As navigation pages and its marine antecedence is obvious. SOG and COG-speed over ground and course over ground-are foreign terms to pilots, even if we can eventually figure out that theyre the same as groundspeed and track.

Boats don’t travel very fast so a plot (thats the moving map page) scale of a couple of miles is fine. In an airplane, the moving map display is unusable at this small scale, in our view. Further, we found the crude geographical renderings disconcerting at the least and annoying at worst. Frankly, the standard in moving maps has graduated beyond this level. Attempting to increase the scale clutters the screen beyond any conceivable utility. The 20-mile range yielded an almost opaque display. The Plot set-up page does allow you to disable display of information that you don’t want but we found this distracting to do while flying.

Several of the NAV pages also show an icon for the destination as we’ll as the sun/moon position in the sky. Given the press coverage of a certain accident last summer, moon phase might be of some use for pilots. Then again, on a cloudy day, that information is useless.

The compass page provides bearing information and a compass rose. Youre expected to steer the boat (oops, airplane) to match the course of the destination icon. The only left or right of course youre given is the position of the icon. In our view, seen against super navigators such as the Garmin GPS III Pilot or Lowrance 100, this is a bit silly.

The 315A does provide the ability to create and store routes. Routes consist of one or more waypoints. According to the manual, your routes are deleted when you upload new POIs to the unit. Huh? Its tedious enough putting this stuff in once, let alone twice.

Back in 1992, consumer electronic giant Sony burst onto the aviation scene with the Pyxis, a GPS receiver which we deemed one of the worst products we had ever encountered, with a voracious appetite for batteries and an operating system only a Unix geek could love.

Stung by market rejection, Sony retooled and introduced the Pyxis IPS-760, which actually had a sizeable moving map. But the likes of Garmin, IIMorrow and Trimble were already in the game with well-designed, easy-to-use portable navigators. Son of Pyxis sunk without a trace.

Whats that got to do with the 315A? If this were 1992, Magellan would have a killer product at a great price. But its 1999 and the world is flush with highly capable handheld GPS navigators at bargain prices. Unfortunately, the 315A is not one of them, in our estimation.

Pilots who are also fisher folk might find it marginally useful, perhaps doing double duty in a pinch. But we doubt the asking price of $299 over the $149 for the plain, non-aviation 315 is worth it.

As we enter the next millennium, pilots expect more functionality in aviation moving map GPS. Unfortunately the 315A doesnt deliver it and we recommend passing on this one, in favor of spending a few more bucks for something more capable.

Magellan Corporation
471 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95050-4300

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Magellan GPS 315A Checklist.
Click here to view “It’s Just Not Fair.”

-by Ben Rosenberg
Ben Rosenberg is a Mooney owner and computer executive. Hes based at Caldwell, New Jersey.