Fessing up here, we never thought the day would arrive when we would admit that paying $15,000 for a single piece of avionics could actually make sense or might even be a good value under the right circumstances.
The mere thought of actually recommending such a thing causes tearing of the eyes and involuntary facial ticks.
Yet as Garmin tidies up the certification details on its mega color map GNS 530, it may be just the thing, at least for some owners, and a good deal at that. Given the high price of entry, the 530 will likely be most appropriate for high-end singles-read new-and cabin class twins in the $175,000 and above club.
However, depending on how many remote sensors you might have in mind-such as weather avoidance, traffic alerting and air data-a single 530 might make sense in a lesser airplane, even if theres little question that installing one with all the options could easily push the bottom line to half the value of the airplane.
In our view, thats not a good investment but if youre looking for smart things to do with your money, you wouldnt own an airplane in the first place.
Where It Fits
Essentially, the GNS 540 is a tarted up, larger version of Garmins top-selling GNS 430, the first practical panel-mounted color moving map to hit the market. The 430 continues to sell at a blazing pace and has become the box to beat.
Pricewise, the 520 is at the top of a heap composed of devices generally known as MFDs or multi-function displays. In broad terms, these are of two types: Displays that incorporate their own nav and comm functions-the Garmin approach-or large color screens that accept output from other sources, such as Stormscopes, TCAD and the like.
Two years ago, while both manufacturers and buyers were dithering about which design philosophy to adopt, Garmin opted for fully integrated units and hasnt looked back since. If they took a wrong turn, the road to hell sure is paved with a boatload of sales.
Meanwhile, Avidyne has achieved some success with its PC-based flight situation displays, UPSAT/Apollo is shortly to roll out its MX-20 color MFD and Bendix/King (aka Honeywell, aka AlliedSignal) has introduced the KMD 150, a display-only color unit based on technology developed by SkyForce, a British company it bought a couple of years ago as a quick entry into color MFD market.
In the near term, it will be introducing two more color MFDs, also loosely based on the SkyForce designs. There are a handful of lesser players in this market but none have embraced Garmins integrated onboard navcomm approach.
Unfortunately for Garmins competitors, it has attempted to blunt every conceivable entry in the panel-mount navcomm/color map market with a host of variants based on either the GNS 430 or 530. The GNS 400, for example, is a GPS-only version of the 430 while the 420 is a GPS color mapcomm sans the VOR/LOC/GS section. We dont doubt Garmin will follow a similar strategy with the 530, spinning off so many models that even the marketing people cant keep them straight.
The 530, at a glance, seems to be a follow-on product to the 430 but the two came off the drawing board within months of each other. Thanks to a push from New Piper, which wants the 530 for its Meridian turboprop, the larger box has been undergoing an accelerated development cycle with certification and initial shipments expected by June or July. (Thats avionics marketing speak for sometime in the fall although one shop we talked to told us they were assured deliveries in May.)
A 430 owner-or any pilot with even passing GPS experience- would have no trouble operating the 530. Although there are subtle operating differences, the featureset is essentially identical to the smaller box. Up front, the major difference between the two is overall size.
The 530 is a much larger box, measuring 4.6 inches high with a standard rack width of 6.2 inches. The 430 is the same width but 2.65 inches high. Both are 11 inches deep, meaning theyre shallow enough to present few installation dead ends, although the overall size may still cause problems in smallish panels.
At 4 1/8 X 3 inches, the 530s screen is more than twice the area of the 430-but it also uses different display technology. The 430 has a DSTN color LCD while the 530 sports TFT or thin-film transistor technology, which allows faster screen refresh rates and sharper, more vivid color at relatively the same power consumption.
Side-by-side with the 430, the color difference in normal room lighting is dramatic in our view, although its far less noticeable in a sunlight-illuminated cockpit. On the main map screen, for example, the 430s black background field has an ever-so-slight whitish cast and soft contrast while the 530s background is dense, razor sharp and textureless, nearly like a printed magazine page.
Similarly, the 530s blues, greens and magentas are more color saturated than the 430s. We hesitate to say it, but side-by-side, the 530 makes the 430 look…might as well say it; slummy. Not quite so much that were suffering buyers remorse for having installed a 430 last summer, but enough to wonder if we could exchange that DSTN display for a TFT model. Admittedly, in daylight, the 430s screen performance shortfall probably wont matter that much, although we suspect it would be noticeable at night. (We werent able to fly the 530 at night.)
Examining the 430 out of its mounting tray, we noted that its not just one big box but of modular construction, with the GPS/comm in one separate and removable section and the VOR/LOC/GS in second section.
The 530 is similarly constructed and not-too-surprisingly, this isnt by happenstance. In both units, modular construction makes what are essentially densely packed boxes easier to service and it allows for future upgrades and mods, of which the 530 will likely have many.
Room to Upgrade
And therein lies the second principle difference between the 430 and the 530. It has more room to grow as new applications-some not even dreamed up yet, probably-become available. Most of the 530s essential guts are contained in the upper third of the box, leaving a good deal of the lower third open for future expansion.
Where the 430 has four RS 232 ports, the 530 has six, plus a couple of ARINC ports for peripherals which use this protocol, as many bizjet systems do.
Although Garmin sees the 430 as having some expandability, physically, its close to being maxed out. It will easily accommodate the external sensors already on the market or foreseen in the short term but we doubt if it has much headroom beyond that.
The current list of working external sensors include BFGoodrichs WX-500 Stormscope and the Skywatch traffic avoidance system, Ryans TCAD collision avoidance system, air data input from the Shadin ADC 2000 and, when the hardware hits the street, satellite downlinked data from EchoFlight, which Garmin recently partnered with.
Not on the current list of external sensors for either the 430 or the 530 is airborne radar display. Frankly, Garmin has been somewhat cagey about this, insisting that its possible but not promising if it will happen or not. In view of how aggressively Garmin has pursued every flyspeck of the avionics market, our guess is that radar will eventually be available on the 530 if not the 430 and its variants. If radar is a must for you, we recommend waiting until this is sorted out for the 530.
In any case, the 430s smaller screen looks a tad too stingy to readily accommodate a radar display without obliterating critical map and navigation detail. The same applies to traffic and datalink text information.
Because it does so much on such a little screen, the 430s display gets cluttered at times. But all that information-radar, datalink and nav info-will fit with room to spare on the larger 530 screen, which is exactly what Garmin figured out even as they were perfecting the 430.
As weve noted before, one alternative-albeit an expensive one-is to install a pair of 430s and dedicate one to traffic, weather and datalink and the other to navigation. As we see it, thats the strongest argument for a pair of 430s. But if youre going to sink most of 20 grand into a pair of mapcomms, would it make more sense to consider a single 530 and have a radar/storm display that you dont have to squint to see? It might. And not for nothing has Garmin priced the 530 at a point just under what it costs to install a pair of 430s.
Subdivided Real Estate
The 530s screen and menu logic is virtually identical to the 430, with a couple of exceptions, one of which we consider significant. In both units, the lead off screen is called the navigation page. In the 430, this is strictly numerical data; bearing, track, ETE, groundspeed and so on. But in the 530, its a combination numerical/map/course vector/weather display that rivals anything found in the cockpit of Gulfstream V.
At the top of this screen is an azimuth arc view representing aircraft heading, with the selected course line projected in magenta from an airplane symbol at the bottom of the screen. Numerical data such as course, bearing and groundspeed are shown in the corners of the display and theres a green desired-course carat that shows turn direction toward the programmed course.
Most of these fields are customizable through the same kind of menu system used in the 430 so if you want to substitute vertical speed required in place of bearing or delete groundspeed in favor of ETA, you can do so with the flick of menu key and a couple of knob twists. In airplanes equipped with external storm and traffic sensors, lightning strike data and traffic symbols are projected on the display relative to course and aircraft position.
Presumably, when the EchoFlight datalink is available, ground-based weather radar will also be projected relative to aircraft position and course, along with the lightning overlay.
With an airdata source installed, the 530 will also project a standing wind vector symbol, continually showing wind direction and speed. Thats useful for approaches and amounts to a poor mans windshear indicator if monitored carefully.
Traffic symbols from the Skywatch include relative altitude information so you can tell whether to look above or below your altitude to spot the traffic visually. Like TCAS systems, the BFGoodrich Skywatch alarms aurally, at which point the 530 automatically projects a near full-screen overlay of the traffic picture at the expense of navigation and storm information. You can suppress this with a single button push if you consider holding the approach centerline more important than merging metal with a Cessna 150 turning base to final.
This FMS-style combined display addresses one of the 430s few display weaknesses, that being that the numerical display is so bland as to hardly benefit from color and the map display-which does benefit from color-has only four numerical fields which tend to crowd the map against the nav and comm frequency windows.
One thing we dont like about the 430 design is that the navcomm frequency windows cant be moved, customized or suppressed and they consume a quarter of the 430s limited display area.
Since the 530 display is both wider and taller than the 430s, it has some extra room under the frequency windows. At the pilots discretion, this can be used to display a thumbnail of the traffic display or, possibly, a DVOR which shows radial/distance from a selected VOR, after decoding and displaying the Morse identifier. (The beta software we flew had this feature but Garmin says its not sure if it will be included in the final version, due to certification concerns.)
Buttons, Keys, Knobs
The controls and buttons on the 530 are identical to the 430, except for the addition of a VNAV button which instantaneously pulls up the vertical navigation functions. Were not sure if this is a good idea or not. We dont use the 430s vertical nav feature so often as to need a dedicated button.
If anything, we would prefer to have a button devoted to toggling weather and traffic displays in the 530s thumbnail window or perhaps surpressing those pesky frequency windows.
As currently designed, lightning is projected on both the 530s combined navigation/arc view display and the moving map display. Devoting the full screen to lightning is an option and its done by stepping through a menu from the auxiliary pages.
The full-page traffic alert view is accessible as one of the standing navigation pages, by rotating the inner knob. In full-screen view, the traffic display goes from the ridiculous-the thumbnail-to the sublime. We almost long for a Windows-style multiple pane display that would allow customized sizing of these displays. Having used the 430 for six months, weve found little to complain about with regard to its control logic. Its easy to navigate through the various pages with the concentric knobs and both radio and nav functions are easily tunable.
One feature we like-but often forget to use-is the option of automatically inserting nav and comm frequencies from the database pages into the navcomm standby frequency windows.
If we had a choice, we would like to have the option of customizing or removing the standing frequency windows on the left side of the screen. The 430s display is hardly expansive and these windows-especially the rarely used VOR freqs-often consume space we would rather devote to the moving map. (Perhaps that VNAV key could be used for this sort of toggling.)
On the 530s larger screen, the frequency windows are less intrusive and theres no sense that the numbers are crowding the map. Even with the addition of the traffic thumbnail or the DVOR, the display isnt overly cluttered. Of course, if you pay this much for a large display, you sort of expect that sort of thing.
Despite its relative complexity, the 430 has not proven to be a difficult install. Garmin has earned kudos from shops for providing complete and well-illustrated installation manuals for working out any problems that shops do encounter.
For the time being, the biggest gripe we hear is the lack of 14-volt version of the GNS 430, meaning aircraft without 28-volt systems require a step-up converter. The 14-volt version is promised by this spring. The 530 will be available initially in 28-volt models with 14-volt to follow.
The 530s larger size is bound to cause problems in some panels due more to the placement of existing equipment rather than its sheer size. We suspect any determined owner can find a spot for it but it may take some major surgery to do so. Moving boxes halfway across the airplane invariably adds to installation costs so at this point, we can only guess what the typical installed cost of a 530 will be.
Allowing for discounts, a typical 430 installation has rounded out to about $10,000, about $1000 higher than the $9250 retail asking price. Were told that some hungry shops have done them for as little as $8500 but with brisk demand, we dont see such cutthroat pricing anymore.
With that in mind, our guess is that 530s will cost about $16,000 to install, plus incremental premiums for add-on gizmos such as remote Stormscopes, TCAD and airdata links.
For ballpark planning purposes, add $6000 for a remote Stormscope, $20,000 for traffic avoidance of some kind and another $2000 for airdata input, bringing the grand total to at least $45,000 if you wish to maximize the 530s external input capabilities. Put all that stuff in your mid-80s Cessna Skyhawk and the avionics will be worth one third the value of the airframe. Eeeeeeek!
Weve argued that installing two GNS 430s doesnt make much sense unless your checking account is leaking excess funds or you plan to capitalize on its ability to display data from external sensors.
If you already have a late-model WX-950 with a generous 3 1/4 -inch display, why dump another $6000 into a WX-500 remote only to squeeze down the strike display to the 430s relatively chintzy postage-stamp display?
The same logic applies in considering a GNS 530. In some airplanes-expensive rides with lots of panel space and tired avionics in need of a big dollar upgrade-a 530 might be a cost-effective solution. True, with a second mapcom, such as a GNS 430, the upgrade would cost at least $25,000, even before adding the externals.
But if you can replace an older radar indicator with a 530, youd be getting significantly more capability for the investment, assuming that Garmin will make radar display an option.
At the moment, Avidyne has the radar display replacement market aced with its FlightMax products. As we reported in the February 2000 issue, the Avidyne units are highly capable moving maps with plenty of smarts to talk to external sensors but the products have two significant shortcomings: Theyre expensive ($10,000 to start for the down market FlightMax 440) and all require external nav input to work at all. In other words, its in no way a standalone system, which the GNS 430/530 series certainly are.
Against that backdrop, the Avidyne displays may be a cost-effective choice only if the aircraft could use a new radar indicator and already has a recent vintage approach-approved GPS, say a Bendix/King KLN 90B or perhaps a Northstar M3, both of which are capable boxes that will benefit from a moving map as sophisticated as the Avidyne.
One thing the Avidyne has that the 530 doesnt is detailed mapping capability, with digitized visual and instrument charts and presumably future capability to display approach plates. Until Avidyne or someone else develops vector-based visual charts, were not convinced that the chart option is especially useful.
The numbers are hardly compelling in the Avidynes favor even if radar is rolled into the equation. In round figures, youll spend $15,000 for either the Avidyne or the GNS 530 but the 530 is a more versatile device and given its unused internal volume, it may have as much future upgradeability as any of the color MFDs, the Avidyne included.
Other products in this market include Apollos just-certified MX-20, a largish color display thats strong on ground mapping capability-especially terrain depiction-and the KMD series (150/550/850) of MFDs from Bendix/King.
Again, all of these devices are display units only, with no onboard navigation or communication capabilities included in the standard package, although some may have GPS as an option.
At about $6000, the MX-20 may turn out to be the strongest competitor to the GNS 530 for owners who already have GPS but want enhanced mapping.
If all this makes it sound like the GNS 530 is another slam dunk for Garmin, that may indeed be the case, although sales through the remainder of the year will tell the tale. From the number of should-I-wait-for-this-thing calls weve heard directed at the 530, we know the interest in this box is high.
Even if it installs for about $15,000, its a pricey navigator that many owners wont even consider, given how much competition there is across the price board, not the least of which is Garmins own GNS 430 plus a host of downmarket monochrome mapcomms. (Even Garmins GNC 300 mono map, once a marvel, is looking a little threadbare.)
And frankly, for any airplane worth less than $75,000, the GNS 530 may be like parking a Lexus in the projects, not that such considerations have fazed gadget-crazed owners in the past. But we would buy a better airplane before installing a 530 in a dog airframe.
In our view, any owner who is considering an upgrade that might include two GNS 430 should at least consider a single GNS 530 instead. The map is larger, crisper and more flexible and on a dollar-for-dollar basis, we think its significantly superior to a pair of 430s.
Youre buying two things: A larger screen with better color and greater upgradability than the 430 has. (If you just sunk $20,000 into two 430s we recommend not torturing yourself by looking too closely at the 530 display. Youll just get an ulcer.)
Any owner interested in an upgrade on the cheap need not apply. Fortunately, there are plenty of mid-priced boxes out there-including used gear-to satisfy the low end of the market.
And who knows? There could be a lot of used GNS 430s hitting the market. Stranger things have happened.
Garmin International, Inc.
1200 E. 151st Street
Olathe, KS 66062
913-397-8200 or 800-800-1020
-by Paul Bertorelli