Magellan GPS 315A

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The tiny, ultra-low-price Magellan 315A is the first new handheld GPS in the aviation marketplace in more than a year, and the first to break the $300 price barrier. AVweb's Mike Busch put the 315A through its paces and found it to possess an interesting contrast of striking strengths and serious shortcomings. Read Mike's in-depth review to learn whether or not this is the right unit for you.

ProductsThe handheld GPS market has been eerily quiet lately. During 1996 and 1997, it seemed as if a new aviation handheld was being announced every few months, as manufacturers jockied for position to out-feature and under-price the competition. But Sun 'n Fun 1998 saw only one new product announcement in this category: the Lowrance AirMap 100. During the year that followed, there was really nothing new to report unless you stretch the definition of "handheld" to include kneeboard-sized units like the SkyForce IIIc and the Magellan EC-20X.

Magellan 315A Handheld GPSFinally, however, there's a new entrant in the aviation handheld field. Magellan just started shipping its new GPS 315A, a tiny, low-end unit that is the first under-$300 unit we've seen that contains an aviation database. My first reaction was "Wow. At that price, this should sell like hotcakes...if it's any good, that is."

After putting the little 315A through its paces, I came away with decidedly mixed feelings. I found the little Magellan to possess a combination of astonishingly good capabilities and fairly serious shortcomings. It's as if Magellan decided to create an aviation version of their GPS 315/320 terrestrial/marine handheld, but stopped before quite finishing the job.

Mighty Slick Hardware

GPS 315A route screenI found the hardware platform of the Magellan GPS 315 quite impressive. At first, the tiny 6.2" x 2.0" x 1.3" size of the unit smallest I've ever seen was off-putting, provoking thoughts like "is this a toy?" and "is this really usable for someone like me with middle-aged eyes and middle-aged fingers?" Its amazingly light weight (7 oz.) reinforced that first impression. But after using it for awhile, I quickly changed my tune.

The display is huge compared to the overall size of the unit. It's razor-sharp, with excellent resolution and good grayscale capability. I had absolutely no problems reading it, and in fact liked it a whole lot better than the far-larger Magellan Skystar.

The keyboard is small but very user-friendly. Frankly, it looks as if the design was copied directly from the Garmin GPS 92, except that Magellan wisely put the keyboard below the display where God intended it. (Garmin insists on putting its keyboards above the display, so that your hand obscures the display when entering data.)

The unit is powered by a pair of AA alkaline batteries. Magellan claims "up to 15 hours" of battery life, and my tests confirmed that this figure is no exaggeration. They could probably achieve even longer times if the unit had a battery-saver mode that reduced the rate of GPS updates, but so far as I could determine the software is hard-coded to a one-second update rate.

Rear view, showing batteriesBut in my view, the most impressive part of the hardware, by far, is its 12-parallel-channel GPS receiver. The tiny Magellan has without doubt the most sensitive GPS engine I've ever tested. It acquires an initial position fix very quickly under unbelievably adverse reception conditions, and then hangs on for dear life.

As I type this article, the 315 is sitting here next to me, locked onto four satellites while inside my computer lab with no decent view of the sky and surrounded by equipment generating horrendous radio-frequency interference. I've never seen another GPS that could do this! During automotive tests, the darn thing never hiccupped when I drove under bridges and freeway overpasses, and would maintain lock even lying on the floor of the car and surrounded by metal on almost all sides.

Folks, I've tested a lot of GPS portables, and the 315's receiver is nothing short of magic!

Do-It-Yourself Database On CD-ROM

DataSend softwareWhen you buy a Magellan GPS 315A (for "aviation"), what you get is a regular GPS 315 terrestrial unit plus a DataSend CD-ROM and a data cable. (More about the cable later.) As it comes from the box, the GPS 315 knows nothing about aviation. But the CD-ROM contains a worldwide Jeppesen aviation database, as well as a North American recreational database. It also contains the DataSend software that runs under Windows 95, 98 or NT 4.0 and allows you to upload a customized set of fixes (Magellan calls them "Points Of Interest" or POIs) into the unit.

Selecting a regionThe DataSend software installs just like any other 32-bit Windows application. Before launching the application, you need to mount the CD-ROM in your drive and connect the GPS 315 to one of the serial ports on your PC by means of the included data cable.

Using the software is a very easy three-step process. First, a world map appears on the screen. Using the "Select Region" tool from the toolbar, you drag a rectangle over the part of the world that you want the GPS to know about (e.g., the western U.S.). Next, using the "Select POIs" button, you open a dialog box that lists the various categories of aviation and non-aviation POIs in the database and check the ones you want to load into the GPS.

POI selection dialogHere's where it gets a little tricky. The GPS 315 has room for about 20,000 POIs. The larger the region you select and the more categories of POIs you ask for within that region, the more of this "POI budget" you consume. At the bottom of the "Select POIs" dialog is a status line that shows you how many POIs you have selected and how many more will still fit before you exceed the maximum size.

I found that if I was willing to forgo intersections, I could easily load all the airports and navaids in North America plus a lot of other stuff like Major Cities, Large Cities, and Small Cities with lots of room to spare. However, there are more than 20,000 intersections in the continental U.S. alone, more than the total capacity of the GPS 315. By trial and error, I determined that I could define a rectangular region consisting of the western two-thirds of the continental U.S. basically everything west of the Mississippi River and include all airports, navaids, intersections and cities within that region while coming in just under the maximum limit. Obviously, all sorts of other regions could be defined to meet the same criterion.

Finally, you click the "Upload" button which transfers your customized database into the GPS 315 via the data cable. This process can take 10 or 15 minutes.

This is actually a pretty good scheme, allowing you to custom-design the database to meet your needs. For example, next week I depart on a long trip from California to Key West, Florida, and then over the top of Cuba to Grand Cayman Island. With the DataSend software, it's a simple matter for me to define a region that includes the southern U.S., Cuba, and the Cayman Islands.

Intuitive User Interface

Whenever I review any new avionics item, my acid test of the user interface is a simple one: Can I figure out how to use all the features without referring to the manual? By that standard, the Magellan GPS 315 gets reasonably high marks.

GPS 315's eight nav screens

As you can see, the unit has a series of eight navigation pages. You sequence from one to the next by depressing the "NAV" key. (You can also back up by pressing the "QUIT" key.) If you don't care to see one or more of these nav pages say, the highway or odometer pages you can configure the unit to remove them from the rotation. The alphanumeric fields on most of the nav pages may be customized; the factory-default layouts are shown above.

It's really small!No attempt has been made to hide the fact that the GPS 315 was originally designed for terrestrial and nautical use, not for aviation. The unit uses decidedly terrestrial/nautical terminology, such as Course Over Ground (COG) and Speed Over Ground (SOG) instead of "track" and "groundspeed." My favorite example is "MOB" (which stands for "Man Overboard") that is used to denote a user waypoint defined at your present position. The highway, speedometer and odometer graphics are also giveaways. But there's nothing here you can't get used to quickly, and the important stuff is configurable: distances in nautical miles, speeds in knots, and directions in magnetic.

Pressing the "MENU" key brings up a context-sensitive menu. For example, if you're on the speedometer/odometer page when you press "MENU," then the menu includes a "Reset Trip Odometer" function. Likewise, if you're on a nav page that includes customizable fields, a "Customize" menu entry appears.

User ManualIt's pretty logical. And, oh, by the way, the GPS 315 user manual is one of the best I've seen.

No matter what page you're on, the menu always contains items for Waypoints, Routes, and Setup. (I'm not sure why they call 'em "waypoints" in the GPS 315 but "POIs" in the DataSend software.)

Waypoints allows you to search for specific waypoints (airports, navaids, etc.) and to retrieve information about those waypoints. For airports, for instance, the database contains lat/long, tower and ATIS frequencies, field elevation, and bearing/distance from your present position. You can create user-defined waypoints by specifying coordinates or a radial and distance from another waypoint.

Routes invokes a rudimentary capability for defining and storing multi-leg routes. The box can store up to 20 routes of 30 legs each. Route fixes may be waypoints of any category. Routes may be edited by appending, inserting or deleting legs or changing waypoints. However, there's no easy way to skip one or more route waypoints, or to start navigating a stored route at some intermediate waypoint.

Setup allows you to initialize the GPS receiver, supress any of the eight predefined nav screens, choose the desired coordinate system, map datum, time format, nav units and north reference (true or magnetic). It also permits you to customize the backlight timer, the beeper, and the serial output format and baud rate, and to put the unit in simulator mode.

In addition, the GPS 315 has a nice "Sun/Moon" feature that calculates sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset times, plus the phase of the moon. That could be useful for night flying. It also has a screen that claims to predict the best times of day for hunting and fishing, but since I do neither, I'll take the Fifth on that one.

So Where's The Beef?

Combined DC/data cableAs you can see, the Magellan GPS 315A offers a very promising foundation for a low-end aviation handheld. Unfortunately, it falls short in several significant respects. Here's a list of the things I found most disappointing:

  • The unit does not display special-use airspace. I'd have to consider this a very serious shortcoming in an aviation GPS, particularly for VFR use.
  • There's no provision for connecting a remote-mounted antenna. For any other handheld, I'd consider that to be a deal-breaker. The GPS 315 has such a hot GPS engine that it's actually useable without a remote antenna, but I still think this is a serious flaw.
  • There's no yoke mount. However, the GPS 315 is so small and light that a couple of strategically-placed Velcro patches would probably be adequate.
  • The DC power cable is a mess. The GPS 315A comes standard with a combination DC power and RS232 data cable, which is essentially a "Y" cable (see photo). If you want to power the unit from aircraft power, you attach one end to the GPS and plug the other end into the plane's cigarette lighter socket. But that still leaves the "third end" with DB9F data connector flopping around the cockpit. I suspect that if I owned one of these, I'd probably wind up buying an extra power/data cable and lopping off the data portion.
  • There are no fancy aviation features. No HSI screen, no runway diagrams, no runway centerline extensions, no approaches, no VNAV, etc. This is very much a terrestrial/marine GPS to which a database of aviation fixes has been added.
  • There is no ground mapping. I don't mean just no highways, rivers or railroad tracks. The map display contains no coastlines, no state or national boundaries nothing but waypoint icons and identifiers. Given the high-resolution grayscale-capable display, that really seems a shame.
  • There is no provision for rechargable batteries. You can certainly use AA-sized NiCd or NiMH batteries in the unit (although they won't last as long as alkalines), but there's no way to recharge them in-flight.

Recommendation

So...is the Magellan GPS 315A worth considering? In my view, that depends on what you plan to do with it.

Magellan GPS 315ATo be honest, I can't imagine buying this unit as my primary GPS navigator. The lack of special-use airspace depiction and remote-mounted antenna support are limitations that I simply could not accept. Sure, the receiver is probably sensitive enough that the built-in antenna would provide adequate reception most of the time. And sure, SUA is depicted on my paper charts. But for another $150 or so, I'd probably opt for a Garmin GPS 92 which has those features, and I might even go $50 more for a Lowrance AirMap 100 and get ground mapping capability, too.

On the other hand, it strikes me that the Magellan GPS 315A might be just the ticket for a the pilot who flies behind a panel-mount GPS and is looking for a low-cost handheld as backup. Such a unit would spend most (ideally all) of its life powered off in your flight bag, glovebox, or seatback pocket waiting for the panel mount GPS or electrical system to croak...something that probably won't happen. Does it make sense to spend $500 on such a backup device when a $300 model will do the trick? As more and more of our aircraft become panel-mount-GPS-equipped, I think there's more and more of a role for a low-cost device like this.

At the same time, it seems to me that it wouldn't be terribly hard for Magellan to address the shortcomings of this unit for aviation use notably, the lack of SUA and a remote antenna jack and turn it into a real contender. If they did that, and kept the price around $300, I imagine the aviation world would beat a path to their door.


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