Handheld GPS Roundup

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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.

ProductsThis 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.


Change History:

  • 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. (15-Sep-97)
  • Garmin introduces a new model, the GPS III Pilot. (01-Sep-97)
  • Magellan introduces a new model, the SkyStar, superseding the SkyBlazer line. (01-Sep-97)
  • 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. (18-Nov-96)
  • Bendix-King KLX-100 software update adds SUA, runway diagrams, NDBs, intersections. (07-Oct-96)
  • Lowrance AirMap free software update v1.9 adds SUA look-ahead, VNAV, reduced keystrokes. (07-Oct-96)
  • Garmin says GPSMAP-195 order backlog remains at 6-to-8 weeks. (07-Oct-96)

Magellan GPS 315AGPS Without Ground Mapping

Magellan GPS 315A

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, VNAV, etc.).
  • No ground mapping (not even coastlines or state boundaries).
  • No provision for rechargable batteries.

Garmin GPS-92

Garmin GPS-90Garmin 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.

Magellan SkyStar

Magellan SkyStarThe 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 weight-and-balance information.
  • 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 trip.
  • 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 design.

NOTE: For an in-depth review of the SkyStar, see our companion article Two Mid-Priced GPS Handhelds.

Our Pick...

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.


GPS With Ground Mapping

IIMorrow Precedus

IIMorrow PrecedusPhysically, 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 valuable.

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 this unit.

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 affordable $995.

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 AirMap 100 and 300

Lowrance AirMap 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 (slightly) larger.

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 in-flight.

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 compact.

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 units.

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

Garmin GPSMAP-195

Garmin GPSMAP-195 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 AirMap.

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 GPS III Pilot

GPS III Pilot (Horizontal)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, not entirely.

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.

Our Pick...

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.


GPS/Comm

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 to go.

Bendix/King KLX-100

Bendix/King KLX-100 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't—it'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!

Garmin GPSCOM-190

Garmin GPSCOM-190The 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 extremely similar.

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.

Our Pick...

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.


Recap of Recommendations

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.

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