Lowrance AirMap 100 GPS: Good Things Come in Small Packages

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In April 1998, just three months after introducing its improved 12-channel AirMap 300, Lowrance Avionics has started shipping a brand new, smaller-size, lower-cost handheld GPS, the AirMap 100. AVweb's Mike Busch just returned from a 4,000 NM IFR cross-country that afforded an excellent opportunity to wring out the new unit. Here's his evaluation, complete with photos.

AirMap 100ProductsFor nearly a year now, I've been hearing rumors of a smaller-sized aviation GPS from Lowrance Avionics to supersede the rather hefty AirMap that they introduced in 1996. I was concerned that Lowrance might be following the lead of the Garmin GPS III Pilot, a unit that I don't care for one bit. When Lowrance introduced their 12-channel AirMap 300 in January 1998, I told you that I was very relieved to see that the rumors were wrong, and that the new Lowrance AirMap was basically just like the old one but with its 5-channel GPS engine replaced by a 12-channel one.

AirMap 100 & 300Well, it turns out that the rumors weren't completely wrong after all. Lowrance just introduced its long-rumored smaller-sized handheld: the AirMap 100. It's half the size of the larger model 300, and costs $200 less ($599 vs $799, "street price").

I was lucky enough to get my hands on an early pre-production prototype in time to take it on an IFR X-C from California to Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, and back to California. The 4,000 NM trip turned out to be a particularly interesting one, involving lots of unanticipated weather deviations and in-flight replanning...the kind where a moving-map GPS can be worth its weight in gold. Just to make things more interesting, there were three experienced instrument pilots aboard my Cessna T310R and three different GPS handhelds: the AirMap 100, an AirMap 300, and a Garmin GPSMAP-195. Each of us had the opportunity to use all three units and compare notes. You simply couldn't ask for a better test scenario.

AirMap 100 battery compartmentThe rumors turned out to be wrong in one very important respect, though: Lowrance has no intention for the AirMap 100 to supersede the AirMap 300. The company says that it plans to offer both models for the foreseeable future. Presumably the AirMap 100 is intended to compete with the Garmin GPS III Pilot, while the AirMap 300 competes with the Garmin GPSMAP-195.

Clean-sheet hardware design

AirMap 100 & 300The hardware platform of the AirMap 100 is a completely new hardware design. New packaging, new display, new power supply...pretty much new everything. It's a compact package: roughly half the size and weight of the AirMap 300, and a very attractive one, too it fits in the hand very comfortably (unlike its chunkier sibling) and is the nicest-looking aviation handheld since the II Morrow Precedus. The AirMap 100 is a bit larger than the Garmin GPS III Pilot same width and depth, but an inch and a half longer although the comparison is a bit misleading since the AirMap 100 has a built-in antenna while the GPS III Pilot doesn't).

The physical layout of the AirMap 100 is much more "conventional" than that of the AirMap 300. No flip-top antenna. No detachable battery pack. And (a big surprise) no provision for plug-in cartridges. Database updates for the AirMap 100 are accomplished via upload from your PC via a serial data cable, just like Brand G.

The display of the AirMap 100 is almost exactly the same size as the one on the Garmin GPS III Pilot. Pixel-wise, it's the same height and two-thirds the width of the AirMap 300. I found the display razor-sharp and for the most part easy to read in-flight (with some exceptions I'll discuss later), and the backlighting very pleasant during night use.

AirMap 100 & 300 screensUnlike the screen on the AirMap 300 (which is recessed), the AirMap 100 screen is flush with the rest of the case, making it rather vulnerable to scratching if you casually toss the unit in your flight bag (as I found out the hard way). The AirMap 100 comes with a protective slip case (unfortunately, the pre-production unit I evaluated didn't), and it's a good idea to use it to guard against scratches when toting the unit around.

The keypad of the AirMap 100 uses the same user-friendly 12-key layout as the AirMap 300. Although the 100's keypad is somewhat narrower, the keys themselves aren't significantly smaller. I found the 100's keypad to be very easy to use in-flight, even in turbulence, and vastly better than those awful buttons on the Garmin GPS III Pilot.

Familiar software

My pre-production AirMap didn't come with a manual, but that was okay. Actually, I make it a point to avoid reading the manual in the initial stages of evaluating any new piece of avionics. My theory is that if the unit has a well-designed user interface, then I should be able to figure out how to use it without the manual...and if it doesn't, I want to include that fact in my product review.

For anyone familiar with the user interface of the original AirMap or the AirMap 300, using the AirMap 100 is a piece of cake. The function menus, page selection, and other features are very similar to those used on other Lowrance handhelds.

There are a few obvious differences. The AirMap 100 has fewer items on the main menu and more second-level menus. The menus are displayed in a double-sized font that actually makes them easier to read than those on the larger AirMaps. The satellite status display has been split out from the "group" pages and automatically appears whenever the AirMap 100 is first powered up until the unit acquires a nav solution...a welcome feature.

A few features have "moved" to different locations. For example, to request that the AirMap 100 display a runway centerline extension (a feature I find extremely useful when executing visual approaches), you press the "Menu" key, then select "Map Setup" and "Air Map Options." On the original AirMap and AirMap 300, the same function is invoked by pressing the "Wpt" key, then selecting "Runway Extensions" on the destination airport's waypoint page. I found these differences mildly perplexing when switching back and forth between the 100 and 300 during my trip.

The AirMap 100 software has all the features of the 300, plus a few neat new features of its own. One new addition is the sun/moon calculator that gives you the time of local sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, and the phase of the moon. Very useful for night flying (or for avoiding same if you're not night-current).

Another nifty new feature is the "view destination" option which allows you to lock a moving map on your destination airport instead of on your present position. An especially useful way to use this feature is to display a split-screen dual-map display (a unique AirMap feature) with one map centered on the aircraft's present position and the other centered on the destination airport. I like to set both maps to "track up" mode and zoom the airport map in to the 5-mile scale so I can see the runway configuration clearly, while the aircraft map is typically in auto-zoom mode. This makes it easy to visualize the runway orientation and configuration at the destination airport while you're still some distance away...extremely useful for circling approaches and marginal VFR.

Improved mapping

AirMap 100 & 300 screensLike the AirMap and AirMap 300, the new AirMap 100 contains a built-in worldwide "base map" ROM that includes national and state boundaries, coastlines, cities, lakes, rivers, and highways. The base map in the 100 is even better than the one in the 300, with more roads and marine features, and improved depiction of many features. You can see some of the improvements in the side-by-side photo of the 100 and 300 displays.

Also like the other AirMaps, the 100 includes a Jeppesen NavData database plus a database of man-made obstructions (tall buildings, TV antennas, etc.). But unlike the AirMap and AirMap 300 (for which the Jepp database comes in plug-in cartridge form), the database for the 100 comes on a diskette and is uploaded into the unit via a PC and serial data cable. Lowrance's GPS Data Manager software runs under Windows 3.1, 95/98, or NT 3.51 or 4. (Mac users are presumably out of luck.)

When the AirMap first came out in 1996, there was a great deal of confusion over the optional "IMS SmartMap" cartridges that can be plugged into the unit. Lowrance has divided the continental U.S. into 64 regions, and offers a highly-detailed SmartMap cartridge for each region. Many pilots (and some aviation press reviews) shuddered at the thought of having to fly around with dozens of these cartridges and switching cartridges every few hundred miles.

These concerns were all misplaced, as I pointed out in my 1996 review of the original AirMap. The additional ground mapping detail offered by the SmartMap cartridges appears only when the map is zoomed in to the 8 NM scale or less. Consequently, the cartridges are of very little consequence for in-flight use, during which the map is hardly ever zoomed in that tightly. On the other hand, the cartridges can be extremely useful for terrestrial use (auto, boat, hiking, etc.).

MapSelect CDROMThe AirMap 100 is also designed to accommodate these supplementary detailed maps, but in a completely different fashion. Instead of all those cartridges, the AirMap 100 owner may purchase an optional "MapSelect" CDROM which contains all 64 IMS SmartMaps covering the continental U.S., plus all 35 IMS WorldMaps covering other countries of the world, plus a database of coastal navaids for boaters. The GPS Data Manager software on this CDROM allows you to load any of these supplementary maps into flash memory on the AirMap 100 via the data cable. Best of all, the entire MapSelect CDROM costs just $49.95, and subsequent updates cost just $29.95. That's a whole lot cheaper than a sack full of cartridges!

But here's the rub: the 2 megabyte flash memory of the AirMap 100 is big enough to contain either the Jeppesen NavData aviation database or one of the detailed SmartMaps or WorldMaps, but not both. So if you upload a SmartMap for terrestrial use, you'll need to upload the Jepp database again before you take your AirMap 100 flying again.

In contrast, the AirMap and AirMap 300 have two cartridge slots, so they can accommodate both the Jeppesen NavData cartridge and one IMS SmartMap cartridge simultaneously.

Is the smaller display a problem?

The 50% larger display of the AirMap 300 is unquestionably easier to read in-flight, and the still larger display of the Garmin GPSMAP-195 is even easier to read. Nevertheless, I found the AirMap 100's smaller 1.5"-by-2.25" display to be adequate for in-flight use...with a couple of exceptions.

I had some difficulty with data entry on the waypoint page when selecting a particular airport or navaid by identifier. The font size is quite small, and the cursor causes the character being entered to appear in reverse video. I found this rather difficult to read at yoke-mount distance, and sometimes found myself removing the AirMap 100 from its yoke mount and holding it close to my eyes while entering fixes. I've discussed this problem with the software gurus at Lowrance, and they've promised to change to a larger font in a forthcoming software update.

The other problem I had with the AirMap 100 was that it does not display enough flight parameters simultaneously on the moving map pages for my liking. To my way of thinking, a pilot needs seven data items alongside the moving map:

  1. identifier of next fix
  2. magnetic bearing to next fix
  3. magnetic track of aircraft
  4. distance to next fix
  5. groundspeed of aircraft
  6. estimated time to next fix
  7. course deviation indicator (CDI)

The Garmin GPSMAP-195 can display all seven of these items in the upper one-third of its moving map page, while the lower two-thirds displays the moving map. The AirMap and AirMap 300 can display all seven items on the right half of the screen and a moving map on the left half ("Group C" page), and can also display the first six items (but no CDI) on the right one-third of the screen and a moving map on the left two-thirds ("Map 3" page).

AirMap 100 & 300In contrast, the best the AirMap 100 can do presently is to display four of the seven items on the lower half of the screen while displaying a moving map on the upper half ("Group B-C-D" pages), or to display three of the seven items on the lower sixth of the screen while displaying a moving map on the upper five-sixths ("Map 2-3" pages). As a result, I found myself having to navigate from one page to another much more frequently with the AirMap 100 than with the other handhelds...a significant inconvenience in my view. Once again, I've discussed this shortcoming with the software folks at Lowrance and they've promised to come up with a revised screen layout that displays all seven items plus a moving map on a single page.

I hasten to add that Lowrance has established an excellent track record of making such incremental improvements to the AirMap software, and making those improvements available to all AirMap owners either free or at nominal cost. When the original AirMap first came out in 1996, I submitted a long laundry list of software squawks to Lowrance. Much to their credit, Lowrance has upgraded the software repeatedly since then, addressed every single one of my complaints, and added a whole bunch of additional improvements that I didn't even think to ask for! So I have no doubt whatsoever that they'll deal with these few problems in the AirMap 100 software pronto.

Nothing extra to buy (well, almost)

AirMap 100 with accessoriesWhen Garmin introduced the GPS III Pilot with a "street price" (MAP) of $699, I criticized them sharply for failing to include the "accessories" that almost every pilot needs: a yoke mount, a cigarette lighter power cord, provisions for remote-mounting the antenna on the windshield or glareshield, and a data cable for uploading database updates and software upgrades. Garmin elected to sell all these items as extra-cost options, making the "true" price of the GPS III Pilot at least $200 higher. I considered this to be deceptive marketing, and said so in my product review.

AirMap 100 yoke mountI'm pleased to see that Lowrance has bent over backwards to include almost everything that an airman could want as standard equipment in the $599 "street price" of the AirMap 100. The basic package includes a yoke mount, power cord, data cable, remote-mount antenna with suction cups, protective slip case, Jeppesen NavData diskette with GPS Data Manager software, user's manual, and even four AA-size Duracell batteries. (Battery life is easily 10 hours, by the way.)

Speaking of accessories, I was delighted to discover that Lowrance has finally moved away from that simply horrid Velcro yoke mount that comes with the AirMap and AirMap 300, and is furnishing a really first-rate yoke mount for the AirMap 100 that holds the unit securely yet permits very easy insertion and removal. The new remote-mounting suction-cup antenna is also excellent. (I sure hope that they come up with a similar new-and-improved mount and antenna for the larger AirMaps, too.)

Basically, there are only two extra-cost options that an AirMap 100 purchaser might want to consider:

  • A $99.95 rechargeable battery kit (part number BR-1B) that includes a rechargeable nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack, an intelligent quick charger that will fully recharge the battery in two hours, and an AC wall-transformer power supply. The charger will also operate on 9-28 VDC, and can recharge the battery in-flight while the AirMap 100 is in use. For in-flight use, however, the AirMap 100 is more cumbersome than the AirMap 300 because the 100 requires a separate charger module while the 300's charger is built right into the NiMH battery pack.
  • The $49.95 MapSelect CDROM that contains all 64 IMS SmartMaps, all 35 IMS WorldMaps, a coastal navaid database (for boaters), and the GPS Data Manager software. Updates to this CDROM cost $29.95. (As explained earlier, the AirMap 100's flash memory can accomodate either the Jeppesen NavData database or a SmartMap or WorldMap, but not both.)

Recommendations

AirMap 100I was prepared to dislike the AirMap 100, based on my disappointment with the similar-sized Garmin GPS III Pilot. But surprisingly, I found the AirMap 100 to be an excellent new design with only a few easily-fixable software shortcomings that may well be history by the time you read this. At its $599 price which is $100 to $300 less than the GPS III, depending on whether you count the essential accessories that Lowrance includes but Garmin leaves out the AirMap 100 surely represents the best cost/performance deal in today's aviation handheld market. The only lower-priced unit is the new Garmin GPS 92 ($499 MAP), which has a low-resolution display and no ground mapping capabilities at all.

AirMap 100 & 300In my view, the only serious competition for the AirMap 100 is its bigger brother, the AirMap 300. Frankly, it's a tough choice. I like the 300's half-again-larger display, but dislike its chunky size (at least with the battery pack attached), its Velcro yoke mount, and its not-quite-adequate suction-cup antenna bracket. The 300's software, database and supplementary map updates via cartridge are more convenient than the 100's updates via PC and serial cable, but the 100's updates are more economical (especially if you need a lot of SmartMap regions). The 300's built-in worldwide base map is very good, but the 100's is even better. Both units have 12-channel GPS receivers, very similar features, and a nearly identical user interface. Given the fact that the AirMap 100's price of $599 does not include the NiMH rechargeable battery while the AirMap 300's price of $799 does, even the price difference is not all that compelling one way or the other.

The Garmin GPSMAP-195 still sets the benchmark as the best ground-mapping aviation handheld GPS on the market, but its $1,199 price is 50% higher than the AirMap 300 and 100% higher than the AirMap 100. If money is no object (lucky you!) and you can tolerate its brick-like size, I'd opt for the big Garmin. If you're on a budget, both AirMap models represent simply outstanding value. I guarantee you won't be unhappy with any of these three terrific handhelds.


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