Garmin iQue

Garmins aviation-specific PDA performs well but its missing wireless capabilty and access to XM-based weather.

by Paul Bertorelli

In a lasting testament to Garmin engineers, we cant remember that last portable GPS that couldnt be stoked full of batteries and operated right out of the box, sans instructions. However, to paraphrase a crude country joke, the new iQue 3600a aint that way. Its not that its difficult to operate or demon-possessed, its just that it reminds us a little of a Heathkit.

But thats what happens when you try to re-engineer a basic Palm-type PDA into an aviation-specific gadget. Its not quite Frankenstein meets Snow White but the genetics are similar even if the results are better than one might expect.

Dedicated portables from Garmin have proven durable, with stable software and logical operating logic and despite the Palms shortcomings, Garmin has managed to keep those positive attributes more or less intact in the iQue 3600a. But why buy it instead of a dedicated portable or a third-party PDA?Good question. Short answer: you probably wouldnt, unless youre a PDA geek in the first place or unless street navigation is on your agenda.

The Hardware
The iQue 3600a is a Palm-type PDA based on Garmins initial foray into the consumer electronics world with a 200-Mhz ARM-type processor and a 320 by 480 pixel color display. It has no wireless capability. In the world of rapidly evolving PDAs where $500 buys a lot, the iQue is well off the leading edge.So how do they figure to get away with selling it for $1099? Mainly, its the gadgets.

While aviation PDA purveyors have chipped away at the fundamental problem with the hardware-the tangle of wiring and irritating stylus input-Garmin has come as close to solving it as anyone. Specifically, the PDA snaps into a device called an aviation cradle which transfers control of primary functions such as direct-to, nearest, menu and rocker input from the PDA to large, easy-to-manipulate mechanical buttons.

When the PDA is snapped into the cradle, it automatically reverts to aviation mode. The box is full of a lot of other stuff to make this work, hence our Heathkit wisecrack. Theres a battery charger that links to a USB cradle for connection to a desktop, an external antenna-not really needed-and a yoke mount with a ships power plug. And dont forget the software with ActiveSync to get the Palm talking to your desktop.

Mounted on the yoke, the iQue 3600a is as unobtrusive as any other portable weve used. The wiring hassle is minimal, since the GPS antenna is a snap-up flap on the top of the PDA that easily locked onto the GPS signal without need for an external antenna. The iQue will run three or four hours on battery alone but after that, ships power is the only option; it has an internal lithium-ion cell so carrying spares isnt an option. One thing we liked about the iQue is that the only external cabling-the power cord-exits the top of the unit, not the bottom, so theres no tender plug to fuss with.

As far as the iQues nav functions go, think Garmin 296 with a broadly similar operating logic. Theres a basic map page with surface and aviation detail, a terrain page with warnings, an HSI page, including GPS-derived attitude, and an active route/flight planning page. In short, all standard stuff, most of which can be accessed and manipulated with the buttons and/or rocker keys, without picking up the stylus. (Good thing, because youre sure to drop and lose it eventually.)

Despite not being up to the standards of the latest PPCs, the display is sharp, crisp and vibrant. It washes slightly in direct sunlight but remains readable. We found that screen glare is quite noticeable, especially when viewing the display at an angle. Otherwise, the typography is readable and the fields can be easily customized along the lines of the Garmin portables.

For an additional $219, you can buy an auto navigation kit which includes another cradle and power set-up, plus Garmins City Select mapping software.Once again, the iQue automatically switches to automotive mode when its snapped into the cradle; it will calculate routes and issue voice driving instructions.

Other goodies: extensive E6B capabilities, a built-in logging program, a weight-and-balance calculator function, track storage and a range of basic Palm applications, such as address book, calculator, datebook and solunar tables. It also has an onboard MP3 player.

PDA or Portable?
The decision to buy the iQue 3600a instead of a portable or a competing PDA may hinge on what you want the PDA for in the first place and what the iQue wont do, specifically XM or any other weather datalink. If you have no compelling need for Palm-type functions-including the software weve reviewed here and in the February 2005 issue-the iQue is certainly no better at navigation than the best aviation portables.

But it is cheaper than some. By a lot. The iQue is essentially the navigation equivalent of the GPS296, Garmins top-of-the line color portable. The 296 retails discounted for about $1700. Add another $300 for the car navigation accessories and the total comes to $2000. The iQue will perform the same duties for a total of about $1300; thats a $700 price Delta, a hardly trivial sum. If any of the Palm-type software appeals to you, thats icing on the cake.

Lowrances new 2000C color GPS portable retails for a bargain price of $1000, a good value. But it lacks Garmins terrain features and wont do turn-by-turn land navigation.

Compared to other PDA offerings, the iQue has some plusses and minuses.AirGator, for example, sells an iPAQ-based PDA bundle that delivers sophisticated navigation for $1250. The iPAQ has a better display and a more powerful processor than the iQue. Control Vision sells a similar package for $1095, to include a Bluetooth remote GPS receiver, which is capability the iQue doesnt have. Control Vision and AirGator offer third-party street navigation software, but we havent tested these.

A significant shortcoming of the iQue, in our view, is its inability to accept portable weather datalink, specifically the WxWorx XM-based product.Accessing weather cheaply may be the single best reason to buy a PDA over a dedicated portable. The weather option, in our view, significantly offsets a PDAs other shortcomings. Garmin recently introduced a new line of Windows Mobile PDAs-the iQue M5-thats Bluetooth capable and GPS equipped. Our guess is that it might someday accept XM-based weather, but Garmin isnt saying as much.

Confused yet? With regard to relative value and capability of the various PDAs, well admit to a lack of clarity. So much depends on what else you plan to do with the PDA and less on its aviation-specific capabilities.

As for the iQue 3600a, its a typically competent Garmin product, but also with the aforementioned shortcomings. Garmin engineers did a first-rate job of marrying their simple, stable software to the Palm operating system. The iQue is cheaper than the equivalent aviation-dedicated portable but also not as mechanically robust nor quite as easy to use in the cockpit.

Given its specialized battery, its probably not a good choice to carry in your flightbag as the doomsday back-up. For that, we suggest the Garmin 196, which operates on AA batteries and still has Garmins nifty GPS-derived attitude capability. The iQue 3600as chief attribute is probably its dual-threat capability as both an aviation and street navigator. It does both superbly well and at a price cheaper than any other Garmin product.

Contact – Garmin International, 800-800-1020,

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