Budget GPS Upgrades

Megabuck color mapcomms arent the only game in town. Among mid-priced boxes, UPSATs GX60 remains a value leader.

You cant afford one, you don’t have the panel space or maybe you just don’t want one.

Were talking about the high-dollar GPS navigators that no self-respecting owner would admit not lusting after. These days, the $10,000 upgrade has become so ho-hum that you’ll have to spend three times that much to raise any envy among your fellow hangar dwellers.

Yet for many owners, the upgrade budget tops out at half that figure and for a modest airplane like an older Warrior or Skylane, why spend such an obscene sum?

Although not hot sellers, the GPS navigator market offers good choices in the mid-price range and, we think good values, too. Herewith is a survey for the owner who prefers to squander his treasure beyond the confines of an airplane panel.

Some Criteria
Depending on how and where you fly, IFR GPS is somewhat overrated if you ask us. If youve got decent digital navcomms and a functioning panel mount GPS or loran-approved or not-an IFR navigator brings little to the party.

This is doubly true if you rarely venture into the IFR boondocks, where the occasional GPS approach might get you into some backwater berg on a scuzzy day.

Having GPS IFR enroute capability is undeniably useful but when you add the marginal additional cost of approach approval, it seems silly not to go for it. As explained on page 25, GPS can substitute for DME or ADF, but you certainly neednt spend a Kings ransom to get there. The siren song of high-end GPS is the color moving map, la Garmins 430/530. Nice to look at, for sure, but also an expensive view.

Mono maps-including products from Garmin-do nearly the same job for fewer bucks. If the color bug bites later, you can add a low-cost MFD, such as Bendix/Kings KMD 150.

Going into a mid-range purchase then, you’ll need to decide if you need a comm to go along with that navigator, whether IFR certification is important and whether you want comm and color.

If the latter, youve just sailed through the mid-range into the clutches of the Garmin marketing machine. Not a bad place to be, perhaps, but move some money into checking from your sagging stock portfolio and hang on.

A word about WAAS. Even state-of-the-art color mapcomms have an uncertain upgrade path with regard to the FAAs wide area augmentation system.

The mid-price navigators almost certainly wont be WAAS capable, to which we respond: Who cares? WAAS or not, these navigators will continue to function for the foreseeable future.

A Mono World
With all the glitz and glitter of color mapcomms, the lowly mono moving map has been relegated to the dusty corners. Yet there are some good ones out there that deliver functionally nearly as much as color units costing twice as much.

In our view, Garmin and UPSAT/Apollo own the current market for mid-priced mono navigators. Apollo had good success with its GX-series navigators while Garmin continues to plug away with the GNC 250XL and 300XL and the GPS 150/155XL series. Starting at the bottom, the 150XL evolved from Garmins first pure panel mount, the GPS 150. Its a VFR-only unit, but the XL designation means it has a mono moving map with DSTN LCD display. As mono displays go, we give this one an average rating in daylight and an exceptional rating for night use, thanks to its reverse video capability.

At about $3500 installed, the 150XL is best thought of as a sophisticated portable suitable for panel mounting. It will accept operating voltages between 11 and 33 volts.

Its operating logic is similar to the GPS 155, one of the first IFR-approved GPS navigators, meaning its not as easy to operate as a 430 but is certainly learnable. (Garmin did improve the 150s logic, by the way.)

Weve seen these units installed in Cubs and Huskys and other utility airplanes that don’t need IFR capability. Cram a comm into the same box and you get the GNC 250XL, another VFR-only navigator with the same moving map and operating controls as the 150XL.

In one of the odder pricing structures in the industry, the 250XL retails for only $255 more than the commless 150XL. Since you can hardly get a shop quote for that little money, we think stepping up to the 250XL is worth the additional cost, even if it inches up the installation cost.

Garmins integration of the radio and GPS features has been superb, as is the operability between the two. (Getting the two to play together is no mean feat; other manufacturers have tried and failed.)

One feature that didnt work out was an internal back-up battery that ran the unit in the event of a ships power failure. It was offered in two versions, one internal, one external. The internal worked fairly we’ll but was big and took up needed space so Garmin developed an external back-up to replace it. It didnt perform we’ll and has been discontinued.

Garmin Low-End IFR
The TSOd IFR versions of these two navigators are the 155XL and 300XL, respectively. The 155XL is navigator only, the 300XL combines Garmins 760-channel VHF comm, the same used in the 250XL.

These boxes are quite similar across the board but the 300XL is available only in a 14-volt model while the 155XL accepts 11 to 33 volts.

The GNC 300XL retails for $4795 and allowing for installation and the TSO-required remote annunciator and indicator, figure on about $7000 installed, approved for IFR. Thats about two thirds what youd expect to pay for a GNS 430 install and about half the cost of a GNS 530.

What are you giving up with the 300Xl over the 430? The color map, of course and the combined VOR/LOC/GS capability found in the 430/530. The 300XL doesnt have this. Also, there’s no upgradeablity here; no fancy datalink or weather gizmos, no Stormscope input. What you see is what you get.

But the 300XL has full IFR approach capability, it can substitute for DME and ADF, if necessary. The display is adequate if not exceptional and the operating logic is pre-430, same as the 150XL/155XL.

While the 430 automates approach functions-chiefly hold and OBS-the 300XL doesnt. (It does, however, autoarm.) No fuzzy friendly pull-down menus, either, as with the 430, but rather spare text selection pages. Think of it as utilitarian, not luxurious.

For $6500 or so installed, Garmins GPS 155XL has just the IFR nav capability, no VHF comm. Since the cost delta between these two-the 155XL and 300XL-is $500 or thereabouts, we again tilt toward the 300XL as the better value.

Why? Simply because you’ll never find a comm of this quality for $800. Add another $500 or so in additional install costs to accommodate the comm wiring and its still a bargain.

Before it IPOd and bought Kansas, Garmin was coasting along in 1997 when UPSAT (then IIMorrow) quietly rolled out the GX60. The enthusiastic response to this box surprised Garmin and the market until the GNS 430 caught up and took over.

And with good reason. The GX60 turned out to be what all of us wished the first-generation of IFR GPS navigators wasnt:

A box with a practical, well-thought- out featureset, relatively easy to use and an excellent integrated comm designed to talk to other UPSAT boxes, including the MX20 MFD and SL30/SL70 navcomm and transponder.

The typical GX60 installs for about $6000, making it competitive with Garmins GNC 300XL and with nearly identical capabilities. But like the Garmin mid-price stuff, no upgrade path other than replacement. (That includes no WAAS capability which, as we noted, shouldnt have a bearing on purchase decisions, in our view.)

In our experience, the Apollo IFR interface has been less expensive than Garmins to install because it doesnt require resolver-type indicators. If you need a resolver-type indicator, plan on twice the cost over a unit thatll work with the Apollo. This is a non-issue if you have an HIS.

Further, all IFR navigators require altitude input from the blind encoder. Since the Apollo GPSs accept only serial data, a converter is required to convert gray code to serial. Or buy a serial encoder.

Instead of an LCD screen, Apollos GX series uses a yellow/orange electroluminescent display (no reverse video) that seems equally crisp, day or night. Side-by-side with the Garmin, we find the Garmin displays to be somewhat crisper but the Apollos have a wider viewing angle, tending to blank out less if viewed from less-than-the-ideal position. (This could be a factor if the box has to be mounted at the far right of the panel.)

While Garmins 155/250/300XL boxes use similar operating logic to their original designs, the Apollo GX-series is more of a clean sheet, which was a real must considering how difficult Apollos 2001 navigator was to operate. It was one of the worst, in our view.

By way of improvement, the GX series uses a series of soft menu keys along the bottom edge of the chassis. Clearly labeled and changeable by context, these handle nav set-up and function select chores while a set of dedicated keys take care of nearest airport, map toggling and nav page navigation. Until the Garmin GNS 430 came along, the GX series led the league in simplicity.

Other GXes
We keep saying GX series, of which there are four variants. The GX60 is the top of the line, including IFR-approved GPS with a VHF comm.

Next up-or down, depending on how you look at it-is the GX65. Its essentially identical to the GX60, except the IFR GPS approval is for enroute/terminal only, a so-called A2 box, referring to TSO C129 (A2). At about $5000 installed, it can be upgraded to IFR approach status.

Speaking of upgrades, understand this: A GPS manufactured as a VFR-only box- like the GPS 150XL and GNC250XL-will always be VFR only. No upgrade potential for future TSO C129 (A1 or 2).

Apollo has the right idea for making their boxes upgradeable, in our view. Youd hate to spend a couple of thousand on a VFR-only box only to have to throw it out next year when you get an instrument rating and want GPS approach capability. Many a customer has been hosed by a shop that didnt point this out.

For about $5000 installed, Apollo offers the GX50, which is the GX60 without the comm radio. As with the Garmin products, were not sure we see the sense of buying a navigator of this ilk without the VHF comm.

In the GX-series, the price difference between having the comm and not having it is about $1000. More than the Garmin, to be sure, but still a good value, in our estimation. And weve found the Apollo VHF radios to be excellent performers with lots of cutting-edge features, such as smart tuning and multiple frequency storage.

Rounding out the Apollo GX line is the GX55, another A2-only box designed as a pin-for-pin replacement for the older Apollo Flybuddy and 600 and 800 series Apollo lorans. Installed price is between $2500 and $3500, depending on the loran model being replaced. Unlike the 50, the 55 cant be upgraded to approach status.

As noted, be ready for a shocker when replacing an Apollo loran with the GX55 if you want IFR enroute certification. One owner told us about the great deal he got on a GX55 from a mail order house. By the time the installation quote was totaled, he was spending a couple of thousand more.

IImorrow sold a gazillion lorans, many of which are still in service. Increasingly, however, an owner may wish to bypass the 55 for the 60 and bag both radio and approach capability for not much additional investment.

The Lure of Color
Inevitably, given Garmins success with color displays, color is finding its way into the mid-price range, with Garmin pushing the 400 series downward toward the middle and Bendix/King launching the KLN94 as its state-of-the-art GPS navigator.

Attempting to offer a box for every purpose, Garmin morphed the GNS 430 by creating the GNC 420, which does what the 430 does but lacks onboard VOR/LOC/GS capability. It installs for around $8500 so by our lights, its out of the mid-price range.

And for another $1500, you can get a full-up 430. So although we see the point of this box, we sorta don’t. (Neither do many buyers, at least compared to 430 sales.) The GPS 400 is a GPS navigator only, no comm and no VOR. Again, at $8000 installed, its on the pricey side of mid-range and other than the color, the Apollo GX60 does more for less, in our estimation.

But this box is perfect for airplanes loaded to the gunwales with decent comm radios but in need of upgrading an older GPS navigator, such as a Bendix/King KLN90B, say in an older bizjet or turboprop.

Speaking of Bendix/King, as the KLN90B passes into obsolescence, this company has abandoned the high-end integrated box market in favor of a tilt toward color MFDs across the price board. In the January 2001 issue, we reviewed the new KLN94, a color, pin-for-pin slide-in replacement for the popular KLN89B.

The 89B sold in large numbers and until relatively recently, it was still standard equipment in new Cessnas. For about $5000 for the direct slide-in option-perhaps a little less-the 94 does occupy the middle ground and, in that context, its the cheapest route to a full-featured color navigator.

By comparison, Garmins GPS-only model 400 will push $8000 to install and the two have a comparable featureset.

If you were buying the KLN94 outright-no slide-in swap with the 89B-the installed price would be about $6500, which inches it out of the middle-price range.

We think this is an important consideration because for as much as we like the KLN94, it has no comm option. Apollos GX60, however, gives you the comm option at the expense of no color display, as does the Garmin 300XL.

In the KLN94s favor is a crisp color display and we’ll thought out operating logic thats marginally better than the GX60/Garmin 300XL and on a par with Garmins newer 400/500 series navigators.

Worth mentioning in passing is Northstar. It has dropped the popular M3 approach model and wont be producing the M4. Northstar simply fell behind the technological curve, having once been a leader in avionics.

Still available from the company is the GPS60, a VFR navigator designed for plug and play with the M1 series lorans. you’ll need an antenna change but otherwise, its an easy install.

Cost is about $3200. This might be a sensible choice if you also have in mind installing a color MFD later on. Otherwise, we don’t see much to recommend it over the other choices mentioned here.

There’s no slam-dunk winner among this group of boxes, nor are there any real dogs, in our estimation. Garmin and UPSAT/Apollo learned painful lessons from the bloodbath of complaints they heard about nutty operating logic in the first generation of IFR navigators. The equipment discussed here is the direct beneficiary.

In making a buying decision constrained by budget, the first consideration is the state of your comms. If youve got decent radios modd and up to date-say recent KX 155s, Microlines in good shape or recent Narco digital-a standalone GPS navigator makes sense.

Then again, one of those radios might net some trade-in dollars toward a new GPS so its worth putting a sharp pencil to that equation. If your panel has some old Narco, early Microlines or an aging KX 170 or two, dump that stuff now and get a combined GPS/comm. The new radios have the latest transmit frequency tolerances, better audio and good integration with the nav features. Theyre just better radios and available for only a small incremental price increase.

For IFR-certified boxes, the Garmin GNC 300XL and Apollo GX60 are a virtual toss-up in our view. We think the Garmin has a bit crisper display but the GX60 is easier to operate and has better comm integration. We lean slightly toward the GX60 on some days, toward the Garmin on others.

If IFR certification isn’t an issue but comm radios are, the Garmin GNC 250XL sells for about $3900, installed. But as we said, think hard about the few extra bucks and buy the TSOd 300XL installed as stand alone.

Other than Bendix/Kings low-end KLX 135A, no one else sells a VFR-only GPS mapcomm. You could, of course, install a GX60, skip the IFR cert and save a few bucks. Last, the KLN94. This unit may turn out to be a niche player, the niche being owners who already have an KLN89B and want the color upgrade. As a standalone mid-price option, the KLN94 suffers a bit for not having a comm radio. If your radios could use an upgrade and you cant take advantage of the pin-for-pin slide-in option because you don’t have an 89B, the 94 might not be so attractive, despite its color.

The also rans here are the GPS-only boxes with no color. The Garmin 150/155XL and Apollos GX50 and 55. Once again, niche boxes suitable for owners with unique circumstances, such as recent comm radios and an old 600 or 800 series IIMorrow loran. Not to diss these navigators, but we think the better values are found at the next rung up the food chain.

One last point-out: Garmin has a nice interface with its portable GPSs, allowing you to draw info from the panel mount onto the portables map screen, allowing a hard-wire hookup without a mess of cables. Its a nice choice to have, in our view.

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Budget GPS Upgrade Checklist.
Click here to view the Mid-Price Navigator Guide.
Click here to view “Why You Can’t Dump VOR Entirely.”
Click here to view “…But You Can Substitute Freely.”
Click here to view the Navigator Addresses.

-by Larry Anglisano and Paul Bertorelli
Larry Anglisano is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. He s a consultant and test pilot for Exxel Avionics In Hartford, Connecticut. Paul Bertorelli is editor of Aviation Consumer.