Trying to evaluate and compare the various handheld aviation GPS receivers is like shooting at a fast-moving target, with new products being introduced like crazy. We've flown with virtually every GPS handheld available, and evaluated them thoroughly.
May 31, 1999
This report summarizes what we know about nine different handheld
aviation GPS receivers that are now available. In an attempt to compare competitive
models, we've divided the field into three subgroups. Our summary and recommendations
appear at the end.
Prices shown are manufacturers' "Minimum Advertised Prices" which is the
price that most mailorder dealers advertise.
- Magellan introduces ultra-low-cost GPS 315A. (31-May-99)
- Lowrance introduces smaller AirMap 100 priced at $599. (20-Apr-98)
- Garmin introduces the GPS 92 priced at $499, and discontinues the GPS 90. (20-Apr-98)
- Lowrance introduces 12-channel AirMap 300 priced at $799, and discontinues the original
5-channel AirMap. (19-Jan-98)
- Magellan drops the price of the SkyStar by $110 to $589. (03-Nov-97)
- Review reorganized into non-ground-mapping, ground-mapping and GPS/comm groupings, and
recommendations revised to reflect new product introductions and price changes.
- Garmin introduces a new model, the GPS III Pilot. (01-Sep-97)
- Magellan introduces a new model, the SkyStar, superseding the SkyBlazer line.
- Garmin drops the price of the GPSCOM-190 by $300. (11-Jul-97)
- Lowrance drops the price of the AirMap and AirMap SE by $200. (15-Jun-97)
- Garmin drops prices of GPS-90 and GPS-89 sharply. (05-May-97)
- Lowrance AirMap software update v2.1 adds obstruction mapping, and introduces the
"SE" model with a rechargable NiMH battery pack for $100 more than the standard
alkaline-powered AirMap. (14-Apr-97)
- IIMorrow Precedus software update v6.1 adds new HSI screen, enhanced pan/zoom
capabilities, and coastlines and political/territorial boundaries to the map display.
- Bendix-King KLX-100 software update adds SUA, runway diagrams, NDBs, intersections.
- Lowrance AirMap free software update v1.9 adds SUA look-ahead, VNAV, reduced keystrokes.
- Garmin says GPSMAP-195 order backlog remains at 6-to-8 weeks. (07-Oct-96)
Magellan introduced it's ultra-low-cost GPS 315A at Sun 'n Fun 1999, and began
deliveries shortly thereafter. Weighing in at just 7 oz. and selling for a "street
price" of $299, this is the smallest and least expensive GPS on the market with a
Jeppesen aviation database.
The display is huge compared to the overall size of the unit. Although still small,
it's razor-sharp with excellent resolution and good grayscale capability. The keyboard is
small but very user-friendly, closely resembling that of the Garmin GPS 92. Power comes
from a pair of AA alkaline batteries, which provide up to 15 hours of use. But the most
impressive aspect of the hardware 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.
When 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. 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 into the unit. Using the software is a very easy
three-step process. First, a world map appears on the screen. 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,
you open a dialog box that lists the various categories of aviation and
non-aviation waypoints in the database and check the ones you want to load into the GPS.
(The GPS 315 has room for about 20,000 waypoints, so you need to make sure your region and
waypoint category selections result in a database that will fit.) Finally, you click a
button that uploads your custom-designed database into the unit via the data cable.
The most serious shortcomings of the GPS 315A are:
- No special-use airspace.
- No provision for connecting a remote-mounted antenna.
- No yoke mount.
- The combined DC power/RS232 data cable is messy in the cockpit.
- No fancy aviation features (HSI, runway diagrams, centerline extensions, approaches,
- No ground mapping (not even coastlines or state boundaries).
- No provision for rechargable batteries.
Garmin introduced its GPS-90 in 1995, and it quickly became the hands-down
best selling handheld on the market, combining excellent performance, small size,
unmatched battery life, and a low price (originally $649, dropped to $549 in May, 1997).
Pilots grabed up GPS-90s as fast as Garmin could make them.
In April 1998, Garmin introduced the GPS 92 and discontinued the GPS 90. The new unit
is basically identical to its predecessor with three differences: it has a 12-channel GPS
engine, a worldwide Jeppesen NavData database, and a even lower price ($499).
The moving map display of the GPS-92 is small but crisp and readable, particularly if
you configure the map to omit unnecessary items from the display, and if you don't run the
range out too far. The small size of the screen is also compensated somewhat by the
GPS-92's unique ability to "pan" the display forward, back, or to either side.
You can configure the map to display navaids, fixes, airports, class B&C airspace,
special-use airspace, your flight planned route line, and your actual track. You won't
want to have all these enabled simultaneously, however, because the display gets too
cluttered to read. At the bottom of the map page, the unit displays the most essential
navigation data: bearing and distance to the next fix, ground track, and groundspeed.
In addition to the map, the GPS-92 offers several alphanumeric navigation information
pages that show your course, track, groundspeed, distance to the next waypoint, course
deviation indication, and so forth.
The huge Jeppesen database can be updated via personal computer via a special data
cable. Updates are distributed on PC diskette, and cost $125 each. That seems pretty
pricey for a $500 receiver, even for Jeppesen NavData. By the way, Garmin's diskettes are
carefully copy-protected to prevent you from letting your aviation buddies update their
GPS-92s from your disk.
Other features of the GPS-92 include memory for up to 250 user-defined waypoints,
flight plan entry, storage of multiple flight plans, vertical navigation,
altitude-sensitive special-use airspace warnings, night lighting of the display (but not
the keypad), and lots more. An "AutoZoom," feature automatically reduces the map
scale as you approach your destination.
Besides its tiny size and low price, another amazing feature of the GPS-92 is its
battery life. It runs 15 hours on a set of four AA alkaline batteries, and up to 24 hours
if you put it in "battery saver mode" which lowers its position update rate (and
its power consumption). The receiver can also be powered from any 12- or 24-volt auto or
aircraft electrical system using the external power cord (included).
It's tough to find fault with a unit as well engineered as the GPS-92, but a few things
could be improved:
- The stick-style helical antenna hangs off the side of the radio like an afterthought.
It's awkward to remote-mount on the windshield or glareshield, and is fussy with respect
to position (it has to be oriented vertically). We like the flat patch-style antennas used
by the Precedus, AirMap, SkyStar and GPSMAP-195 a lot better.
- The placement of the keypad above the display instead of below it seems like a design
error. When the unit is yoke-mounted, your hand tends to obscure the display when you're
pressing keys. Every other handheld GPS we've tried has a low-mounted keypad, and that
seems to make more sense.
- The display, like the unit itself, is quite small. It doesn't have the resolution of
larger displays like those on the SkyStar, Precedus, AirMap, or GPSMAP-195. We found it
easy to read and comfortable to use when mounted at close-range (such as on the yoke), but
more pixels would be an improvement.
- Although the GPS-92 database is readily updated via a PC data cable, its software cannot
be updated in this fashion. The software is stored in read-only memory chips, and the unit
is sealed and nitrogen-filled so it cannot be opened for update or repair. (If you send a
GPS-92 back for warranty repair, Garmin simply throws it in the trash and sends you a new
one!) This means that there's no way to add software enhancements or to correct a software
glitch should one ever become apparent. Fortunately, the GPS-92 software seems very solid.
The SkyStar is Magellan's latest competitor to the Garmin GPS-92
and IIMorrow Precedus, and supersedes the company's earlier SkyBlazer models (a good move,
since we thought the SkyBlazer had the world's worst human interface). With a street price
of $589 (reduced from $699 in November, 1997), the SkyStar is priced $40 above the GPS-90,
but it's a fancier and more capable radio that does just about everything that the Garmin
does plus quite a bit more.
The Magellan SkyStar is a medium-sized handheld: a good deal bigger than a Garmin
GPS-92 or Lowrance AirMap 100, but not as large as a GPSMAP-195 or Lowrance AirMap 300. To
us, the SkyStar's size and shape feels "just right" in the hand, and its sleek
rounded look is a huge improvement over Magellan's earlier boxy handhelds. The unit weighs
in at 14 ounces (including batteries), giving it a comfortable heft but much less than the
22-ounce GPSMAP-195 or AirMap. All in all, this is one of the most attractive packaging
jobs we've seen in a GPS handheld.
The SkyStar has a much larger display than the GPS-92 with resolution comparable to
higher-priced units like the Precedus and AirMap. And its keypad below the display where
it belongs, and backlighted (the GPS-92's isn't). Also, the SkyStar uses a flip-up
patch-style antenna which we like better than the GPS-92's stick-type.
Like the GPS-92, the SkyStar is powered by four AA alkaline batteries (with an optional
regargeable NiMH battery pack available for $39.00 extra), but it gets only about 10 hours
to a set of alkalines (or 8 hours for the rechargeable pack), compared to the GPS-92's 15
to 24 hours. But if you fly with the unit plugged into ship's power like we usually do,
this isn't a big issue, and the rechargeable battery (which can be recharged in-flight) is
a real plus.
The SkyStar's software is considerably more feature-rich than the GPS-92's, and can be
updated in the field along with the database by uploading from a PC via a serial cable, a
very important advantage over the GPS-92's hard-wired ROM-based software in our view.
Unlike earlier Magellan handhelds, the SkyStar has a user-friendly context-sensitive
menu-driven interface that is quite similar to Garmin's.
The SkyStar's eight navigation and map pages are user customizable, something that
higher-priced units offer but the GPS-92 does not. It has all the features you'd expect:
auto-zoom, pan/zoom, route mode (up to 20 routes of 30 fixes each), airport information
and runway diagrams, nearest airport search, vertical navigation, E6B calculations, and so
forth. It also has a nice HSI page (the GPS-92 doesn't), and quite a few features that no
other handheld presently offers:
- The ability to store aircraft performance profiles for up to five different aircraft,
including climb, cruise, descent and glide speeds, rates, fuel flow data, and
- Calculation of estimated flight time and fuel burn for a trip, using these aircraft
performance profiles, and the ability to update these estimates continually as you fly the
- Calculation of weight-and-balance.
- Storage of up to five customizable checklists of up to ten items each, with the ability
to electronically check off the items in-flight.
The SkyStar's GPS "engine" is a two-channel scanning-type receiver that is
capable of tracking all visible satellites. We'd rate it not nearly as good as the
12-channel receivers in the Garmin GPS 92, Lowrance AirMap 300, and Garmin GPSMAP-195.
It's perfectly adequate for in-flight use, by the way. The difference shows up in how fast
it acquires a position fix and how well it does under poor reception conditions.
The only serious shortcoming of the SkyStar is that it offers no ground mapping
capability whatsoever, and that its display lacks the necessary resolution to allow
Magellan to add such capability as future enhancement. While mapping of ground features
such as roads, rivers, lakes and railroad tracks is certainly more of a luxury than a
necessity, we've become so accustomed to this capability after flying tens of thousands of
miles with ground-mapping handhelds like the AirMap and GPSMAP-195 that units without
ground mapping now seem a bit primitive and old-fashioned. For about the same price, you
can get a Lowrance AirMap 100 ($599) with far higher display resolution and very
respectable ground mapping. But in every other respect, the SkyStar is an excellent
NOTE: For an in-depth review of the SkyStar, see our companion article
Two Mid-Priced GPS Handhelds.
If you want an inexpensive handheld primarily to serve as an emergency backup for your
panel-mounted GPS, we'd give the Magellan GPS 315A serious consideration. It's $299 street
price is irresistable, and for use as a backup you can probably live with its limitations
(the most serious of which are lack of special-use airspace and a remote antenna).
On the other hand, if you're buying a GPS for day-to-day navigation, we'd probably pass
on the GPS 315A and choose either the Garmin GPS 92 or the Magellan SkyStar. It's a tough
choice. The Garmin GPS 92 has a superior 12-channel receiver, worldwide Jeppesen database,
and incredible battery life. The Magellan has a larger, higher-resolution display and some
terrific features. We'd have to call it a tie.
Physically, IIMorrow's Precedus is the Lexus or Mercedes S-class
of handheld GPS receivers. It's a tall, slim, handsome unit, reminiscent in appearance to
a cellular phone, with a tall razor-sharp display. The case is aluminum, not the plastic
used by competitive units. The product was originally street-priced at $1,175 but IIMorrow
dropped the price by $180 to $995 in September 1996.
The Precedus uses a little patch-style antenna that mounts flush on the nose of the
unit (rather than sticking out to the side like the stick antennas used by Garmin on the
GPS-90 and GPS III Pilot). The Precedus' antenna detatches easily for remote suction-cup
mounting on the windshield, using a thin flexible antenna cable that is supplied. Just
letting the patch antenna lie on the glareshield seems to work fine, too. It appears to be
far less fussy about orientation than the stick-style antennas.
The Precedus keypad is below the display so you can push the buttons without obscuring
the screen. For night flying, the Precedus' keypad is backlit just like a cell-phone's.
The Jeppesen database in the Precedus includes everything you could possibily want:
airports, VORs, NDBs, intersections, and special-use airspace. The airport information
includes runway information, airport diagrams, and extensive frequency listings.
The Precedus software is feature-rich and the navigation and map pages are highly
user-customizable. The moving map is on a par with the SkyStar, but resolution isn't
as good as the designed-for-ground-mapping models (AirMap, GPSMAP-195, GPS III Pilot) with
their grayscale-capable displays.
For the IFR pilot, perhaps the most important advantage of the Precedus over most other
handhelds is its so-called "Approach Monitor" capability. What this means,
simply, is that the Precedus' database contains the data for all GPS overlay and
stand-alone approaches. For runways not served by a GPS approach, it also includes an
"extended centerline" pseudo-approach that starts from an imaginary fix on
4-mile final. (The only other handheld with this feature is the Garmin GPSMAP-195, and the
Garmin doesn't offer the extended centerline feature.)
Keep in mind that no handheld GPS is FAA-approved for flying approaches, nor is it
likely that one will ever be. Nevertheless, if you fly IFR (or VFR at night), a GPS-driven
moving map can be an invaluable aid for maintaining positional awareness. IIMorrow was
reportedly under pressure from the FAA not to include the Approach Monitor feature in
their handheld GPS, because of FAA concern that pilots might be tempted to use them to fly
GPS approaches. IIMorrow included the feature anyway, and we consider it extremely
The most amazing thing about the Precedus software is that even with its incredible
multiplicity of features, IIMorrow has managed to keep the user interface simple and
friendly. No other handheld we evaluated passes the "closed book" learning test
as well. Take the Precedus out of the box, play around with it for an hour, and you'll
have it mastered. Kudos to the IIMorrow software engineers for coming up with such a clean
and intuitive design.
The Precedus comes standard with a rechargable battery pack (actually, a standard NEC
cellular phone battery). The standard NiCd pack that comes with the Precedus is good for
about 4 hours on a charge. (We actually did a bit better than this in our tests.) You can
also purchase extended-time NiMH packs that last longer. Extra battery packs are available
from IIMorrow, or you can pick them up at your local phone store. If you power the
Precedus off your aircraft (or auto) electrical system (as most users do), the battery
pack automatically recharges at the same time. IIMorrow includes a cigarette lighter power
cord as standard equipment with the Precedus (it's an extra-cost option with many other
handhelds), and also includes a wall-transformer-type AC charger.
To our way of thinking, a rechargeable battery makes more sense than alkalines for
day-to-day use, just as it does for a cellular phone. On the other hand, an alkaline
battery pack would be nice for emergencies. IIMorrow now offers an optional $15 alkaline
battery pack for the Precedus. But unfortunately, you can't use standard AA alkalines with
The Precedus GPS receiver is an eight-channel parallel design that continuously tracks
up to eight satellites simultaneously. We found it marginally better (quicker to acquire a
fix, and more reluctant to lose it) than the switching receivers used in the GPS-90 and
SkyStar, but certainly not as good as the red-hot 12-channel engine in the Garmin
GPSMAP-195 and GPS III Pilot.
The Precedus pioneered the concept of software that can be updated in the field, using
the same data cable used for database updates. IIMorrow has been superb at providing a
continuous stream of software upgrades and new features for this unit. All of the other
handheld manufacturers have followed suit, and at this point only the "ancient"
Garmin GPS-90 still has ROM-based non-updatable software.
The Precedus was originally introduced without any ground mapping capabilities, but in
July 1996 IIMorrow released an upgraded version of the unit that included mapping of
highways, cities, coastlines and territorial/political boundaries, and made this
capability available to all previous Precedus owners. However, the display of the Precedus
does not have grayscale capability, so its ground mapping is not on a par with more recent
designs like the Lowrance AirMap and Garmin GPSMAP-195 and GPS III Pilot that were
designed for ground mapping from the outset. Other features that the Precedus originally
lacked but were added in subsequent software updates include an HSI page and
greatly-improved pan/zoom capabilities.
Until recently the Precedus was one of the most expensive GPS handhelds, but in
September IIMorrow slashed its "street price" from $1,175 to a much more
In short, we think the Precedus is a first-rate, highly refined GPS that does almost
everything well except ground mapping. Its sleek, slim cellphone-like styling,
high-contrast display and large oval keys make it a real pleasure to use while handheld or
yoke-mounted. We really like its approach monitor feature, its easy-to-use interface, and
its rechargeable cellphone battery. Its primary deficiency is the lack of a grayscale
display for ground mapping.
NOTE: For an in-depth review of the Prededus, see our companion
article Three Ground Mapping GPS Handhelds.
Lowrance stood the aviation GPS market on its ear at
Sun 'n Fun in April 1996 when it introduced the AirMap, the first handheld aviation GPS
with built-in ground-mapping capability. Production units started shipping to customers in
late May, and we got an early one. We've had the chance to fly with it on several long IFR
cross-country trips (more than 10,000 miles in all) and really put it through its paces.
While Lowrance was an unfamiliar name to most pilots in 1996, it's a household name to
anyone who owns a boat. The company has long been the leading manufacturer of marine
sonars and GPS navigators. Lowrance pioneered the use of large, high-resolution, backlit
LCD display panels, detailed ground mapping, and multi-channel GPS receivers in marine
applications. Since company president Darell Lowrance is a pilot and aircraft owner (he
flies a Cessna TR182), the company's move into avionics was a natural one.
At first, we were enormously skeptical about the merits of ground mapping in an
aviation GPS handheld. But a long IFR cross-country trip with the AirMap changed our
opinion. We found that the AirMap's display was not excessively cluttered or hard to read,
despite the presence of ground mapping features. The AirMap's high-resolution display
(with its 25,600 pixels capable of not only black and white but also gray) and its clever
de-cluttering software (which automatically drops less-important map features as you zoom
out to longer-range views) kept the display easy to interpret. And the ground features,
although certainly not necessary for IFR navigation, made the flight much more enjoyable.
Once you get accustomed to the ground feature depiction of the AirMap (with its highways,
rivers, lakes, cities, coastlines, state boundaries, and so forth), other aviation moving
maps that lack this capability seem crude by comparison.
The AirMap is a large unit with a very sharp high-resolution display, a bottom-mounted
keypad, and a patch-style antenna (the kind we prefer) that also cleverly serves as a
display cover when the unit isn't in operation. Physically, it's considerably wider than
the Precedus (and a monster compared with the GPS-90). The large size is necessary to
accomodate the AirMap's big 2-1/4" square display and its massive battery pack which
holds six AA alkalines. The AirMap is about the same height and thickness as the Precedus
but about half again as wide pretty large for a handheld. Only the Garmin GPSMAP-195 is
The AirMap 300 hardware is extremely impressive. The display has outstanding resolution
and clarity, and the keyboard is well laid-out and easy to use. The five-channel GPS
receiver in the original AirMap acquired fairly quickly after power-up and continued
tracking fairly well under adverse conditions, but was not quite up to par with the
superb12-channel receivers in the Garmin GPSMAP-195 and GPS III Pilot. But in January
1998, Lowrance rectified that shortcoming by releasing an upgraded AirMap 300 model with a
12-channel GPS engine. We've tested the AirMap 300
side-by-side with the Garmin and its receiver seems every bit as good.
The early AirMaps had some significant software shortcomings, but Lowrance has been
extremely good about providing a continuous stream of software upgrades that have resolved
almost all of the known deficiencies and added some exciting new features like airspace
look-ahead, VNAV, E6-B features, obstruction mapping and runway centerline extensions.
Most of these upgrades have been made available to AirMap owners free-of-charge.
Updating the AirMap software is easier than with any other model we've seen. You don't
need a PC or a special data cable. You simply plug a software update cartridge into the
back of the AirMap, turn it on, and the new software is automatically loaded into the
AirMap's flash ROM. Then you return the update cartridge to Lowrance in the postage-paid
mailer enclosed. We think all handhelds should use a system like this.
Lowrance has also been very good about correcting a few hardware problems in the early
AirMaps: a difficult-to-remove antenna and problems with the battery pack contacts and DC
power cord. All of these problems have been corrected by Lowrance, and retrofits made
available to all owners of earlier AirMap units. We have to give Lowrance high marks for
customer support. (Unfortunately, there's no way to upgrade a 5-channel AirMap to the
latest 12-channel AirMap 300 configuration.)
While the AirMap still lacks a few features found in other units (notably the approach
monitor capability of the Precedus and GPSMAP-195), it has a bunch of unique features of
its own. One very strong area is user customization of nav displays. The AirMap provides
more customizable pages than any other competitor (nearly 20), including some really
interesting possibilities such as a split-screen map in which the two halves can be
independently zoomed and panned.
The AirMap has a built-in "world-wide background map" database which shows
major lakes, rivers, and highways. Optionally, you can purchase very detailed regional
ground mapping cartridges that take over from the built-in background map when you zoom in
to a short-range view. It takes 64 different "IMS SmartMap" cartridges to cover
the conterminous 48 states. The AirMap has slots for two cartridges, so you can plug the
Jeppesen database into one of them and an IMS SmartMap cartridge into the other.
("IMS" stands for "Inland Mapping System".) But we've found that the
cartridges are mostly useful for terrestrial and marine applications, not aviation use.
The additional detail contained in the cartridges only shows up when the map display is
zoomed in to a width of 8 miles or less, and such close-in ranges are seldom used
The AirMap 300 has the most flexible power system of any handheld on the market. It
comes standard with two battery packs: an alkaline pack that takes six AA-size
batteries, and a rechargeable NiMH (nickel metal hydride) pack with a built-in smart
charger. The NiMH battery is immune from the "memory effect" that plagues
ni-cads, can be recharged in-flight while the GPS is in use, assuring that it'll be fully
charged in the event of an electrical failure. (An AC charger is not included, but is
available for an extra $30.) The unit can also be run off aircraft power with the battery
pack removed, reducing the size of the unit by nearly half and making it extremely
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Lowrance AirMap 300 is its low price: $799
on the street, including all the usual accessories (yoke mount, remote antenna suction-cup
mount, DC power cord). This puts it $100 below the Garmin GPS III Pilot, $200 below the
Precedus, and $400 below the Garmin GPSMAP-195. We think it's a worthy competitor to those
units, and offers by far the best "bang for the buck" of all ground-mapping
NOTE: For an in-depth review of the AirMap 300, see our companion
articles Three Ground Mapping GPS Handhelds and Lowrance AirMap 300: What's New?
In April 1998, Lowrance introduced its smaller, lower-priced AirMap 100 model,
presumably to compete directly with the Garmin GPS III Pilot. The AirMap 100 is priced at
$599, and has essentially the same features and capabilities as the AirMap 300, but in a
package that's only half as large and with a display that's two-thirds as large.
NOTE: For an in-depth comparison of the AirMap 100 with the AirMap
300, see our companion article Lowrance AirMap 100: Good
Things Come in Small Packages
The first production units of Garmin's long-awaited
ground-mapping handheld finally became available at Oshkosh '96. But it was a very small
batch (about 100 units, we estimate) and sold out immediately, so most would-be buyers
went home from Oshkosh empty-handed. We were lucky enough to borrow one for the 1800-mile
flight home to California, and frankly we were blown away. Garmin did almost everything
right with this one!
The GPSMAP-195 is very big roughly the height and width of the AirMap but a lot
thicker. And it has the biggest and highest-resolution display ever seen on a handheld:
the same width as the AirMap's but half-again as tall and with 50% more pixels. The
display is also capable of four levels of grayscale, compared with three levels for the
The ground mapping capability of the -195 is easily the best on the market, thanks to
its extraordinary four-level grayscale display plus exceptional attention to detail in its
mapping software. Its map display looks astonishingly like a black-and-white version of a
sectional chart. It has many other innovative features, and a red-hot 12-channel GPS
receiver...the most capable in any aviation handheld. It also has the highest price of any
handheld we've reviewed: $1,199 on the street.
It's hard to find fault with this unit (other than the fact that it's expensive). Our
biggest gripes with the -195 are its brick-like size (it barely qualifies as a handheld in
our book), its top-mounted keypad and bottom-mounted display (bass-ackwards for
yoke-mounted use to our way of thinking), and its slower response to zoom and pan requests
than the AirMap. But these are small blemishes on an absolutely superb product.
NOTE: For an in-depth review of the GPSMAP-195, see our companion
article Three Ground Mapping GPS Handhelds.
Garmin's latest offering, the oddly-named GPS III Pilot, is
basically a GPSMAP-195 in a smaller, less expensive package. And given our very high
regard for the -195, you'd think we'd be gushing with enthusiasm for this $699 unit. Well,
While the GPS III Pilot has a superb GPS receiver, superb software, and a superb
display (albeit much smaller than the -195's) with excellent ground mapping capability,
it's readily apparent that the hardware was designed for motor vehicle use, not aviation.
The keypad is so tiny that using it is not particularly easy even sitting in an easy
chair, and trying to do so in the cockpit during light-to-moderate chop borders on the
impossible. While the GPSMAP-195 is a bit larger than we'd like, the GPS III Pilot is
definitely too small (at least in the keyboard department).
Another disappointment is that the GPS III Pilot comes with none of the basic
accessories that are standard equipment on virtually every other aviation handheld. No
yoke mount, no remote-mount antenna or antenna cable, no DC power cord, no carrying case.
By the time you add these essentials, you've added a bit over $200 to the purchase price
of the GPS III Pilot. So instead of a $699 street price, you're looking $900 and change.
Except for its too-tiny keyboard and lack of essential accessories, the GPS III Pilot
is otherwise superb. It has virtually all the software features of its big brother
GPSMAP-195 with the exception of approach monitor capability (the -195 has approaches, the
III does not), the same beautiful high-resolution grayscale display (albeit a smaller
one), and the same red-hot 12-channel GPS engine (best of any handheld we've tested).
But the GPS III Pilot isn't $500 cheaper than the GPSMAP-195 it's only $300 cheaper
when you take into account the essential accessories that don't come standard with the GPS
III Pilot. And for that $300 savings, you get a display with about half the resolution, a
tiny keypad that's difficult to use in-flight, and no approach monitoring capability.
NOTE: For an in-depth review of the GPS III Pilot, see our companion
article Two Mid-Priced GPS Handhelds.
It's hard to go wrong with any of these models they all do a great job. If you want
the best ground mapping available and money is no object, the $1,199 Garmin GPSMAP-195 is
your obvious choice. If you're on a tight budget, the Lowrance AirMap 100 and 300 ($599
and $799, respectively) are excellent radios at unbeatable prices. The $995 Precedus is
still a superb GPS, but it's getting a bit long in the tooth compared to its newer
competitors. Our in-depth comparison of these three handhelds
is probably the most comprehensive ever written.
The Garmin GPS III Pilot is even more compact, and offers most of the capabilities of
the superb GPSMAP-195 into a tiny package that's one-third the size. It has a red-hot GPS
engine and a beautiful high-resolution display. But unless you truly need a unit as small
as this, it seems to us that the GPS III Pilot's diminutive size is its greatest
liability...particularly the small size of its keypad. If you can afford it, we'd suggest
spending the extra three hundred bucks and buy the GPSMAP-195. Or if $1,199 is more than
your budget can tolerate, the $599 Lowrance AirMap 100 has to given serious consideration:
it's $300 less than the GPS III Pilot (if you compare apples with apples), has a much
better keyboard, and does a credible job of ground mapping.
We might as well say right up front that we're not crazy about the whole concept of a
GPS navigator and a VHF communications transceiver packaged into a single unit. Here are
some of our reasons:
- It's very difficult to package a GPS receiver and a VHF comm transceiver in the same
handheld without the VHF circuitry interfering with the GPS reception.
- To our way of thinking, a GPS handheld belongs on a yoke mount and remains in the
airplane (if you own it, anyway), while a handheld comm transceiver is something you carry
around in your flight bag.
- The GPS and VHF portions of a combo handheld require separate antennas, and that's
awkward with a yoke-mounted unit.
- If you yoke-mount your GPS and then want to use it for comm, you either have to remove
it from the yoke mount and hold it up to your mouth, or you have to hook up a headset
adapter (also awkward with a yoke-mounted unit).
- In an emergency (e.g., electrical failure), the GPS and comm compete for the same
battery capacity. Do you dare talk to ATC with the comm transmitter, knowing that you're
draining the batteries that are essential for navigation?
- Perhaps most importantly, GPS technology is changing so fast that today's hottest
handheld GPS are sure to be obsolete in a year or so, while VHF is a mature technology and
a handheld comm might well be useful for ten years or more. Why be forced to retire a
perfectly good comm just to upgrade the nav?
In short, we're not sure it makes sense to combine a GPS and a comm transceiver into a
single handheld unit. The way we see it, it's something like trying to produce a
combination hair dryer and electric toothbrush. We think separate units are the best way
Our reaction to the KLX-100 is decidedly mixed: we found it to
have some extremely nifty features but also some disappointing shortcomings.
Upon first unboxing the KLX-100, we were struck at once by its size. It's HUGE! About
3" x 8" x 2". Bigger than a Garmin GPSMAP-195 (which we consider too big).
Much bigger than a Precedus, perhaps twice the size of a GPS-90. Visualize a brick and
you'll have the picture. In fact, when you pick up the KLX-100, you expect it to weigh a
ton. It doesn'tit's actually surprisingly lightweight for its size. But it's a real
handful, that's for sure. Particularly in the depth (thickness) dimension.
Will something this big actually fit on a yoke mount? Well yes, it will. But what a
yoke mount...it's a monster! We found it to be so big that it sometimes obscured our view
of certain instruments, and frequently poked us in the thighs when we turned the yoke.
After getting over the shock of its bulk, we focused on its construction. The KLX-100
has a nice, tall, high-resolution display quite reminiscent of the Precedus. The keyboard,
however, is very different from any other handheld GPS we looked at. It has twenty (count
'em!) tiny little "chicklet" keys (compared to the 9 to 12 keys on most
handhelds). The lower sixteen keys comprise a four-by-four touchtone-style keypad similar
to that on most VHF handhelds. The top four keys (which are very small) are "soft
keys" whose functions change according to legends displayed on the bottom of the
screen. In addition to those, the unit has several switches along the left side: a big
push-to-talk bar and two rocker switches that control volume and squelch of the VHF comm.
The software of the KLX-100 is a marvel, obviously derived from the Bendix/King KLN-88,
KLN-89 and KLN-90 panel mount radios. It offers a vast array of functions, controlled by a
very logical menu-driven user interface. The interface isn't quite as intuitive as that of
the Precedus, but is more so than the AirMap or GPSMAP-195. And unlike any of the others,
the KLX-100 includes a huge volume of "on-line context-sensitive help" that can
be retrieved and perused simply by pressing the lower-right "help" key on the
keypad. With the benefit of the help pages, the KLX-100 passes our "closed-book
test" with flying colors.
Although the GPS and VHF functions of the KLX-100 are largely separate, the unit has
two unique and appealing features that integrates the two. The first is called
"QuickTune" which allows you to pull up a page of frequencies for the nearest
airport or ATC facility and tune the comm to any of those frequencies with a couple of
keystrokes. The second feature is called "SOS Beacon" if you press two
designated keys simultaneously, the KLX-100 automatically starts transmitting a
pre-recorded distress message on 121.5 and includes a voice-synthesized report of your GPS
coordinates. QuickTune and SOS Beacon are both very clever features, and we were
impressed. (We accidentally activated this SOS feature on the ground, and when we quickly
phoned the folks in the control tower to tell them it was a false alarm, they said the
broadcast really got their attention!)
Battery life isn't as bad as we feared. The KLX-100 contains an astonishing EIGHT
AA alkaline batteries (no wonder it's so big!) that provide up to 18 hours of operation in
the GPS-only mode. If the VHF side is enabled, however, battery life drops to between 2
and 5 hours, depending on how much transmitting you do.
The first KLX-100 we evaluated had a very limited database, with no special-use
airspace or intersections or NDBs or airport runway diagrams. We found this totally
unacceptable. In October 1996, however, Bendix/King released a free software upgrade to
all owners that added this capability, making the KLX-100 a viable radio for both IFR
pilots (who need intersections) and VFR pilots (who need SUA).
In talking to KLX-100 owners, we found the ones who were happiest with the unit were
those who already have a panel-mount GPS (and perhaps even a panel-mount moving map), and
who purchased the KLX-100 as an emergency backup unit in case of an electrical or avionics
failure. As a backup unit (or in an aircraft without an electrical system, such as an
ultralight or sailplane), the GPS/Comm concept does seem to have some real advantages.
But for users who intend to use a handheld as their primary GPS and map, the KLX-100
wouldn't be our first choice. For such users, we think that separate GPS and VHF handhelds
make more sense. For the $1,400 that a KLX-100 costs, you can buy a Magellan SkyStar
($699) and an ICOM IC-A3 ($429) and have change left over!
The GPSCOM-190 looks rather like a GPS-90 on steroids, and in
fact it's more or less a GPS-90 that's packaged in the same enclosure with a VHF
transceiver. Its display is actually identical to the GPS-90, and its user interface is
The GPSCOM-190 does have the much-improved 12-channel GPS receiver of the GPSMAP-195,
rather than the single-channel receiver of the GPS-90, and it uses the nice patch-style
antenna of the -195 rather than the stick-type of the -90. It also has a lot more comm
frequency information in its database, including approach and departure frequencies,
center frequencies, and FSS frequencies.
The comm section includes a 760-channel transceiver with scanning capabilities, plus
receive-only capabilities on the 10 NWS weather channels. Power comes from a rechargeable
ni-cad battery pack an alkaline pack is an extra-cost option. The radio comes with all
the accessories you're likely to need: yoke mount, wall charger, external GPS antenna,
cigarette lighter adapter, headset/microphone adapter, and carrying case.
While not quite as feature-rich as the KLX-100, it's a lot more user-friendly and
considerably more compact..
Our biggest beef with this unit is the same as with the other Garmin handhelds: the
screen is at the bottom and the keyboard at the top, which we find exactly backwards for
yoke-mounted use. And of course, we have the same misgivings about the very notion of
packaging a GPS and comm transceiver together in one handheld unit.
But if your set on a combined GPS/comm, the we think the GPSCOM-190's smaller size and
red-hot GPS engine (compared to the KLX-100) tips the scales in the Garmin's favor.
The GPSCOM-190 is street-priced at $999.
While the KLX-100 is a high-quality unit with some unique features, but we're inclined
to like the Garmin GPSCOM-190 better it has all the capabilities of Garmin's excellent
GPS-90, and it's more compact (or at least less huge) than the Bendix/King unit. Not to
mention the fact that the GPSCOM-190 is priced way lower than the KLX-100.
If you have a good reason for wanting a combined GPS/comm, we'd have to give our nod to
the Garmin by a wide margin. But we think most pilots would do better to buy separate GPS
and VHF handhelds.
The Magellan SkyStar ($589) and Garmin GPS-92 are tied as our top pick for a low-cost,
non-ground-mapping GPS handheld. The Magellan has a larger, higher resolution display and
tons of neat features, while the GPS-92 has a superior 12-channel receiver, a worldwide
Jepp database, and incredible battery life. Take your pick.
In the ground-mapping group, the Garmin GPSMAP-195 ($1,199) offers the best ground
mapping display we've ever seen, plus a superlative 12-channel GPS engine and an excellent
software interface. The Lowrance AirMap 300 ($799) offers the next-best ground mapping at
an absolutely unbeatable price, does everything that the Garmin does except approach
monitoring, and easily takes our "best bang for the buck" award among all the
handhelds we've reviewed. The AirMap 100 ($599) offers essentially the same features in a
smaller package. The Precedus ($995) was the best handheld money could buy in 1995,
but its smallish, non-grayscale display simply doesn't lend itself to ground mapping and
it's probably about time for IIMorrow to come out with a new design. The new Garmin GPS
III Pilot ($699 plus $200 in accessories) stuffs most of the capabilities of the
GPSMAP-195 (except approaches) in a much smaller physical package, but it strikes us that
the tiny size (particularly of its keypad) is more of a liability than an asset in
an aviation GPS.
We think that combined GPS/comm designs are best suited for pilots who are looking for
an emergency backup to their panel-mounted GPS equipment, or those who fly aircraft with
no electrical system. The Bendix/King KLX-100 ($1400) is a beautiful, high-quality radio,
but it's physically huge and its 20-key keypad is hard to use in flight. We prefer the
Garmin GPSCOM-190 ($999) because it's smaller and friendlier, not to mention less
expensive. But frankly, we think most pilots would be better off buying separate GPS and
VHF units rather than either of these combos.
NOTE: Several AVweb sponsors sell a variety
of GPS handhelds and accessories at discounted prices. Your patronage of these firms
helps support continued free access to AVweb and
AVflash (including in-depth product review articles like this one). So if you plan
to purchase a handheld GPS, we'd sure appreciate your patronage.
Other AVweb product reviews that you may find useful in
choosing which handheld GPS to buy: