Garmin GPSMAP 196

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Garmin's top-of-the-line handheld, the GPSMAP 196, takes GPS to a new level, with features that make it usable in the air, on land, and in sea. AVweb's Kevin Lane-Cummings has our review.

Product Review

I've been a fan of Garmin's GPSs ever since I spent several hundred hours teaching people how to fly the Cirrus SR20 and SR22, which have dual Garmin GPSs as standard equipment. But I learned early on that having a super-charged piece of avionics is not all peaches and cream. There's a steep learning curve, and I can't count the number of times I had to tell new Cirrus owners to get their heads out of the cockpit and watch for traffic rather than fiddling with their new toy.

So when I had the chance to try Garmin's handheld GPSMAP 196, I was very curious to see what were its capabilities and complexities. It's not a permanent, IFR-approved GPS to go in your instrument panel, but it has so many features that it can take time to learn how to use all of them. In a sense, it is three times as sophisticated as an ordinary handheld GPS, because it is intended to operate in three different environments.

(Click graphics for larger views)
Garmin GPSMAP 196
Any portable GPS could be used in an airplane, car or boat, or even (if lightweight) while on foot. But try using an aviation GPS to find that $100-hamburger restaurant after you land! An aviation GPS just isn't helpful if it tells you to drive "heading 142 direct to the Diner." Some GPSs have a road database, but if you've never been to that city, it's still hard to find your way.

The GPSMAP 196 was specifically designed to be triphibian. It has three separate operating modes for use in the air, on water, and on land. Selecting a particular mode makes the functions and displays more user-friendly for that form of transport.

Aviator

Screen

Aviation Mode

The essential requirement of any GPS is a good display. The GPSMAP 196 actually has more pixels than Garmin's panel-mounted flagship GNS 530, although the screen itself is slightly smaller and is 12 shades of gray instead of the eight colors of the GNS 530.

The screen is easy to read under a variety of lighting conditions. Of course, high-contrast sun and shade is the real challenge for a screen like this, and it actually performs even better than when overcast. It was easy to read when there was bright sun and shadows, but when I flew under darker rain clouds, I needed to turn on the backlight to a medium level. It became necessary to turn on the backlight to the brightest setting only during twilight; once it got dark outside and my eyes were dark-adapted, I set the backlight back to low. (There are actually 20 different levels of backlighting, so you can pick what works best for a particular situation.) Naturally, using the backlight reduces battery time, but if I were in a situation where I was running for a while with the backlight on, I'd probably be in a vehicle and I could plug into the "power port" (a.k.a. cigarette lighter) and save the batteries. Oh, and one nice feature -- when the backlight is on, the keys glow as well so you can find them. Nice touch!

Garmin claims the fast processor allows the GPSMAP 196 to redraw or scroll the map twice as fast as previous aviation portables. The redraw speed is snappy, and the scrolling speed (used when moving to another part of the map) is wonderfully responsive.

Map

Large-Scale Map

Speaking of the map, it is really well-designed. As you zoom in and out, it adds or subtracts details to keep a good level of clarity. For instance, intersections disappear when the map is more than 30 miles wide, and airports don't show up on any scale wider than 120 miles unless they are part of your programmed flight plan. As with many features, you can change these clarity/detail compromises as you see fit.

Using its 12-channel receiver, the GPSMAP 196 updates your location on the map once per second, which is more than enough for most uses. However, you can set it on "Battery Saver" mode -- which will only update your position once every three seconds -- and stretch the 4 AA alkaline batteries to 16 hours of use.

Basic Navigation

In Aviation Mode, the "Direct To" button has the expected effect: You get course guidance directly from your current position to the location selected either from the map or by dialing in the identifier. The system remembers where you were when you pressed Direct, and shows any deviation from that course, just as if you were following an airway. Other pages of information show the magnetic bearing directly to the destination, ground speed, distance and time to the destination, and much more.

You can navigate directly to any aviation waypoint, because the GPSMAP 196 contains a database with all public-use airports, navaids, and intersections, plus the ability to store up to 1000 waypoints you create yourself.

Panel Page

When training instrument pilots with a new IFR GPS, I spend some time discussing how to use their GPS to assist during partial-panel situations. Traditionally, if we no longer have use of a stable heading reference -- such as a directional gyro or HSI -- we have to revert the good-old whiskey compass, with its inherent errors (the ones we are forced to learn during pilot training and then promptly forget). But a good IFR GPS gets a position update every second or two, and can tell you something even more valuable than your compass heading: It will tell you your ground track. Why is that so important? Think about a partial-panel approach. Whether precision or non-precision, you really don't care what your heading is -- you just want to know whether you're tracking the final approach course or drifting to one side. With a compass bouncing around, you're lucky to stay within 10 degrees of the proper heading, to say nothing of trying to guess the wind correction; but with a GPS giving you the ground track, you can stay right on the final approach course quite easily.

Panel Page

Garmin has taken that idea one step further with the GPSMAP 196's Panel Page, which to my knowledge is unique in the GPS world. This page shows "representations" of instruments -- five of the usual six-pack of primary instruments. There's an altimeter, vertical speed indicator, airspeed indicator, turn coordinator, and HSI, missing only the attitude indicator. Well, at least they look like those five instruments. An understanding of how the GPS gets its data will reveal how realistic is this "panel."

Start with altitude (and, by extension, vertical speed). GPS altitude is much less accurate than GPS horizontal position. I found the GPSMAP 196 showed me 100 to 300 feet off my actual MSL altitude. Some of that could be an incorrect altimeter setting or errors in the aircraft's altimeter, but most of that is inherent in GPS technology at the moment (sans WAAS). However, it could detect changes in my altitude (also known as vertical speed) right away, and relatively accurately. If my static port froze up, broke, or whatever while I was IMC, I would use my GPS altitude immediately, since there isn't any backup on most aircraft instrument panels for the altimeter or VSI.

The "airspeed indicator" isn't. I mean, it isn't showing you airspeed, it's showing you ground speed. If I lost use of my real airspeed indicator in IMC and I used my GPS to help set my approach speed, I might come cruising down final approach at a ground speed readout of, say, 90 kt, forgetting that I was into a 20 kt wind so my actual airspeed is maybe 110. Sure, that makes timing the approach much easier, but I might be surprised when I break out and have to slow a lot more than I was expecting. However, just like the altimeter and VSI, most small planes don't have a backup for the airspeed indicator, and the GPSMAP 196's groundspeed readout is better than nothing.

The HSI is available on many of the GPSMAP 196's information pages in addition to the panel page, and it shows two key things: your position left or right of the course you wanted to fly, and -- no, not your heading, although it is displayed the way heading is -- your ground track. This actually is more helpful than heading, since you've got wind correction already handled. Want to fly a course of 340 degrees? Turn until your ground track is 340 degrees! Most decent aviation GPSs have some form of this, and they're all pretty similar.

Then there is the "turn coordinator," which looks like the turn-and-bank part of a turn coordinator (with the little airplane silhouette). Actually, it is showing the information that the turn needles on older planes shows: rate-of-turn only, not rate-of-bank combined with rate-of-turn. A GPS can only tell where you are now (very, very precisely), and where you were in the last few seconds. But with that information, it can determine your changing ground track. So, if it calculates your ground track as 350 degrees, and the next second your ground track is 347 degrees, it says you're turning 3 degrees per second, or standard rate. It then displays that rate on this "turn coordinator" by banking the little airplane one marking to the left.

The conclusion to this long discussion of the panel page is that Garmin has added a unique way of displaying more information to help the pilot if some of the "steam" instruments on the panel give up the ghost, but it is very important to understand what is different about this information and how reliably it can be used. To be fair, Garmin acknowledges this by putting a big warning sign when you select the panel page, saying, "This information is presented for VFR use only ... These indicators are based upon GPS-derived data and may differ from the instruments in your aircraft." If I still had my real turn coordinator and altimeter during a partial-panel IMC situation, I would use those for maintaining straight and level, but I'd get the GPSMAP 196's panel page up right away to keep me on the right course.

There are dozens more features in the Aviation mode, but most are similar to other GPSs, so I'll save them for a short mention in the "Other Features" section below.

Roadster

Land Mode

When you select the Land Mode, the icon that shows your position changes from an airplane to a dark triangle -- a reminder that you're not in aviation mode. Switching modes takes three button clicks -- easy. Speed and distance are now displayed in statute miles instead of nautical, and the navigation guidance style changes.

Getting ready to drive to a local park, I selected the destination using the Direct To button again. This time, however, the GPSMAP 196 didn't tell me what heading to start driving to get to the park; instead, it asked if I wanted to go the "Faster Route," the "Shorter Distance," or "Off Road." Off road is just like Aviation mode -- direct to the destination regardless of what topography intervenes. No SUV in this household, so I picked Faster Route, and it gave text directions, like "bear left on I-5." I did realize one thing missing that would help a driver use this while traveling solo: It would be nice if the GPSMAP 196 could give directions in a voice. As it was, I had to read the directions to my wife (who was driving) right off the screen, because I did not try to drive the car and navigate with the GPSMAP 196 the first time I used it on the road, and I caution you not to either. Just as you should keep your head out of the cockpit when you're near an airport or taxiing around the ramp, don't try to use a GPS to navigate in moving traffic when you're alone in the car. Stop the car and check what directions come next.

The GPSMAP 196 showed the map, the next turnpoint text directions, and basic data like distance and ETA to the next turnpoint all on one page, and on that big screen I didn't even have to squint.

If you had to, you could even use the GPSMAP 196 on foot. It's not too heavy, even with batteries, and fits in a jacket pocket. However, small, non-aviation GPS units are available from Garmin and others that weigh less than half as much and cost 1/5 the price to replace if you drop one down a mountain trail or on a concrete sidewalk.

The GPSMAP 196 comes standard with a basemap that shows an amazing quantity of information for the driver. In addition to national- and state-level roads, there are many local roads in urban areas, plus lists of services available near every interstate exit (just like those highway signs showing the fast food and hotels at the next exit).

But if you need more road details, as well as the ability to find a particular address, you can buy one of the MapSource CD-ROMs and download various areas into the GPSMAP 196. Actually, you download it into a data card that plugs into the GPSMAP 196 -- that's a great feature, because if you have more than one data card, you can carry several of them, each with the data for a particular city you're going to, and swap out the right one when you arrive. The memory cards are tiny -- about half the size of a matchbook -- and hold a lot of information.

Mariner

Water Mode

The first thing you notice in Water Mode is that, on the map, the land areas turn dark and the water areas turn white, just the opposite of the Aviation and Land Modes. It's much easier to see the position of your boat, and read the accompanying text, when they are black on a white background.

Navigation directions for the "Direct To" are now given in bearing changes -- for instance, the instruction is given as "Turn 014 Left."

The GPSMAP 196 comes standard with a list of hundreds of tide stations, and an ability to calculate the tide at every station for any time in the past or future. It also can give predictions for the best times for hunting or fishing on a particular day at a particular location. I don't do either, so I don't know what algorithms it chooses from, but since this data is shown in the same section as the tides and the sunrise-sunset-moonrise-moonset times, I assume it has something to do with the sun and moon positions.

And, although I didn't test it's ability to float, Garmin says the GPSMAP 196 is waterproof to depth of 1 meter (3 feet or so) for up to 30 minutes, so you needn't worry when it gets a little bow spray on it.

Customizability

Even after you select the mode you want to use, there are a multitude of changes you can make to customize the information presented. And any changes you make to the maps, data fields, or anything else customizable, is saved until you change it again (or until you tell the GPSMAP 196 to reset to factory default settings). The really neat part is that the settings you change are only changed for the mode you are in (e.g., Aviation mode). All the settings in the other modes (e.g., Land and Water) are unchanged -- another advantage of having these separate modes.

As an example, when flying, I like the map page to also show an HSI-like representation of my course and ground track, plus some data fields with groundspeed, distance to next fix, time to the next fix, etc. However, when driving, I didn't like having the dial with a needle that pointed, much like an ADF, to my next turning point, so I configured the Land Mode map without it, and instead had the text telling me the next thing to do ("Turn left on Hwy 99").

Usability

When I teach in an aircraft with an IFR GPS, especially when working on IFR procedures, I try to spend time before the lesson with my student using a software simulator to understand what button-pushing and knob-twisting will be needed to get the GPS configured the way we want it. That time is valuable, and makes the time in the airplane much more productive and safe. I suggest doing the same kind of thing with the Garmin GPSMAP 196, except this time you can use the actual GPS while sitting at home. You can program an extensive flight plan, set up any display pages the way you want, and find shortcuts to do things faster. It's also much easier to look things up in the extensive, 110-page manual, which is also available on Garmin's Web site even if you don't own a Garmin GPSMAP 196. That's what we get for having such a capable GPS -- it requires some practice time first.

Other Features

Routes, a.k.a. Flight Plans

Route Waypoints

Like most GPSs, you can program a set of routes or flight plans with multiple waypoints and then retrieve them whenever needed. They are stored in nonvolatile memory, so even when you change batteries they stay in the memory. (You can get a data cable that plugs into your computer's USB port to upload or download data, including the detailed maps and your personal waypoints and routes that you back up on your PC.)

Even though the GPSMAP 196 is not approved for IFR navigation, it has the waypoints for many instrument approaches. For instance, if you're navigating to another airport and you are cleared on a particular approach, you can load that into your active route in the GPS and all the approach waypoints appear on your flight plan. Or, if you're getting vectors to final, you can tell the GPSMAP 196 that fact and it will draw a line of the final approach course, along with the final approach fix, to give you much better position-awareness as you intercept the approach course. Naturally, due to the inherent nature of a VFR GPS, it is unsafe (and illegal) to use the GPSMAP 196 as your sole source of IFR navigation information, but as a backup and with the map showing your position relative to the approach course, it can make navigating easier and safer.

Aircraft Data and Weight & Balance

The GPSMAP 196 can store information about different aircraft you fly, including weight and balance, fuel burn, etc., so you can do quick calculations before a flight.

Logbook

If you tell the GPSMAP 196 to log each flight, it will record the departure and arrival airports, the flight time, and the aircraft used, and keep a log of every flight. Later, you can download the log to free logbook software.

WAAS

The GPSMAP 196 is WAAS-enabled. Some pilots laugh when they see a GPS advertised that way, given that the FAA has not yet approved WAAS and the system is still being developed (and, therefore, may change). However, WAAS is currently available for recreational and boating uses. The Garmin Web site has many more details, but a summary is that, when the GPSMAP 196 can pick up a signal from one of two special GPS satellites in geostationary orbit over the equator, position accuracy can be less than 10 feet, rather than the usual 50 feet or so.

Extended Runway Centerlines

Extended Runway Centerlines

As you approach your destination airport, the map displays extended runway centerlines emanating from every runway at the airport. They look a little bit like an ILS arrow on an approach chart, although without one side shaded. This is helpful for solving another problem when approaching an unfamiliar towered airport and are told to "make a straight-in" (or right base or whatever) "to Runway 15" and you haven't even spotted the airport yet! With this graphic, you have a better idea when to start turning and lining up.

Once you get on the ground, however, you'll need paper taxi charts to find your way around the airport. Perhaps it can be added, but the default maps of airports do not include taxiways.

Summary

The Garmin GPSMAP 196, while pricey compared to some other aviation handhelds, has extra features and triphibian capabilities that make it, in my opinion, a good value as an all-in-one unit.


For more information, check out Garmin's Web site.