While no single gadget is the perfect tool for everyone, some are well suited to the fat section of the bell curve while others will appeal to the fringes. True Flights Flight Cheetahs 210-S portable GPS navigator falls squarely in the latter category.
The system is really two components: the Flight Cheetah software, which can run on most any Windows-capable computer, and the 210-S hardware, which is a
purpose-built box designed for the cockpit.
Built Like a Tank
The first thing you notice about the 210-S is that its big. Its roughly 8 x 5.5 x 2 inches and weighs 2.7 pounds without a backup battery. The screen is 6.5 inches, which is half an inch smaller than a Garmin 696, and there are several fat-finger buttons on the face for easy control in flight, even with gloves on. The hard drive is solid state, so it works at all altitudes.
The next thing youll notice are all the wires. The Cheetah connects to an external GPS and XM weather receiver (which has its own box and antenna). The optional backup battery is not built into the unit, so thats another box. Add the optional external attitude gyro or Zaon traffic receiver, and you get even more boxes and wires. If you could leave all the accessory gear in the airplane, removing the 210-S and taking it home is a no-brainer. But we wouldnt want to deal with a 210-S if we were renting. True Flight experimented with Bluetooth, but felt the reliability wasnt good enough to count on.
The 210-S could be a great unit for an experimental or light sport aircraft where it could be installed. It can even accept a standard USB keyboard, so a motivated tinkerer could roll his own FMS.
Customization to the Max
What the Cheetah 210-S does well, it does exceptionally well. The screen is fantastic and clearly readable in direct sunlight and at all angles. Text is high-
contrast with critical data like track, next waypoint, speed and time visible in dedicated sections.
We also really liked the altitude display. The Cheetah shows your GPS altitude and your flight plan altitude, which you can enter manually or have the Cheetah pull from its database of instrument procedures. This means youll see plain-English text saying “at or above 2000” for the current leg of the approach. Youll get color-coded alerts if you stray off altitude.
The map display is quite good, especially with its depiction of weather data. The weather graphics detail may even be a cut above what we see on a Garmin 696, although we didnt get to fly them side by side. Terrain mapping in green, yellow and red is excellent. Display options abound, such as showing airport extensions straight out or as a 45-degree entry.
But the real power of the Flight Cheetah display is the layering of information. The system has six customizable map setups. This means you can setup custom maps for IFR approaches, VFR day-hops, travel in busy terminal airspace-whatever you want. Weather is handled similarly. You can scroll through Nexrad, datalink lighting, graphical METARs and more, displayed one at a time on the map, or you can create custom groups of weather data.
The unit can also show a split screen with 3D terrain and highway-in-the-sky guidance as well as the top-down map. This made the display quite crowded, in our opinion, and the performance was not on par with systems like the AV8OR Vision
and Horizon 3D (formerly VistaNav). We did like the option to plug in a stand-alone attitude gyro, which can display a quick horizon for an emergency recovery from an unusual attitude. We tried the option in flight and found it adequate for the emergency recovery.
You have the option to subscribe to not only approach charts (NACO) but also sectional and IFR en route charts for the entire country. A couple of button pushes and you can see your exact position on the chart. You can also purchase satellite imagery to be displayed on the moving map.
Customer support is universally reported as excellent. The product has a dedicated user base in the thousands and continues to develop. An autopilot interface (LSA and experimental only) and audio alerter is scheduled for this summer.
Pilots used to Garmin logic for buttonology and organization may be baffled by the Flight Cheetah at first. Most functions are accessed through the Nav button, including map setup, system settings and building flight plans. Activating flight plans is though the Direct key, however. View the weather with the WX key? No, thats for weather setup. You view the weather with the Enter key. Menus can be several layers deep, so you need to keep track of where you are in the system.
Youll need to spend quality time with the manual to master it.
There is no real nearest airport function. Pushing direct shows a list of nearest airports, but offers no details about runways, approaches or weather until you activate the direct and then push the Info key. This is a big miss, we think, for a unit that serves as a navigation backup.
While the direct-to function works well, we feel the flight plan handling borders on unacceptable. Creating or editing plans requires two or three times the button pushing of competing systems. Its easy to confuse what youre editing (active or stored) and theres no quick “undo” if you make mistakes. In flight, you can advance a flight plan to the next waypoint, but you cant jump several points or back up without a bunch of fiddling. Theres no way to use the flight plan to find information about your destination (such as weather) or see times to flightplan waypoints. True Flight agrees that a rewrite of the flight plan component is needed.
We were also disappointed in the airport information pages, where we both occasionally found frequencies missing (True Flight is currently fixing this) or saw display problems where the airport diagram interfered with the text shown. Some text was cut off in the portrait orientation. Another item we didnt like were thin course lines on a moving map that used Cheetahs own color scheme rather than the now-standard magenta and white.
Sometimes the Cheetahs smarts get in its own way. When you have an approach loaded, pushing Info calls up the approach plate, rather than the airport information page. Thats great, unless you want to see the airport info page for a METAR or Unicom frequency. Getting to that info requires a multi-button work around. When you build a flight plan, it shows a list of nearest airports, but theres no smart logic to limit the options as you start to enter letters, so the list isnt helpful for long trips.
And there is the size of the 210-S. We couldnt find a location in our test airplane that didnt block an instrument or gauge on the pilots side. It was too heavy and bulky for the yoke mount. Some owners we spoke to mount it on the copilots side or between the seats for this reason.
A La Carte Pricing
The basic Flight Cheetah 210-S is $2195 without XM weather or $2790 with it, which is $700 less than a comparable Garmin GPSMAP 695/696. Regular updates for the Cheetahs airport and obstruction database is $199/year. This includes approach charts for the entire CONUS and desktop software to print paper copies as well. En route charts and sectionals are an additional $99/year. Satellite imagery is $149/update and HITS/3D is a one-time fee of $149. Traffic is $1395, or $149 if you already have the Zaon hardware. A digital attitude gyro is $795 and the backup battery $224.
While these prices offer good utility for the dollar, we think a majority of users would be happier with the pricier Garmin 696, or smaller but cheaper 496. For the minority of users who want to invest the time to learn a different system and get a kick out of customizing it, the Flight Cheetah 210-S is a contender.