Last year at Oshkosh, Garmin dropped the weather bomb on pilot nerds with the GPSMAP396, the first integrated, portable navigator with XM weather and music capabilities. Built on the 296 platform, it was faster, more capable and so feature rich that you might get through War and Peace before finishing the user's manual. Now comes the 496, again built on a familiar platform -- it is pin-for-pin compatible with the 296/396 models, and is in the same waterproof plastic case -- with a faster update rate and a host of new features and seemingly innocuous (but ultimately useful) system refinements. Kitplanes editor Mark Cook shares his thoughts on the new wonderbox -- and insights after a first flight...
Before the actual launch, rumors were flying that Garmin would adopt a new case with a larger display, but it instead chose to update the familiar hardware with a long list of new features and improved software; it's perhaps a conservative move, but, hey, Garmin already owns the market...
This early evaluation took place on a flight from Southern California to Oshkosh comparing it directly with an up-to-date 396. While the 496's long feature set makes for good reading, there's nothing like a couple of days in the saddle, watching both units crunch and compute simultaneously, to get a feel for the true worth of the updates.
In a nutshell, the $2995 navigator features a dramatically larger database that includes a standard City Navigator NT street maps (including turn-by-turn navigation and important points of interest) and an electronic version of the AOPA Airport Directory (offering FBO and local-interest information as well as detailed airport info). The auto-based navigation features could be loaded into the 396 but the database itself, which, along with the $249 auto kit that comes in the 496 box, accounts for a good $400 of the price differential to the 396.
Other programming upgrades range from the minor to the entirely useful. For example, the decoded TAFs and METARs you get when you sign up for the XM weather feature--the $49.95 full package is fully worth the money, in our view, as is the $12.95/month charge for the full range of XM music--are now presented in two text colors, which seems like nothing but really helps legibility. Moreover, special-use airspace is now depicted by something called Smart Airspace. If airspace on your current flight path is at or near your altitude, it is shown as a dark, solid line. When that airspace is not at your current or projected altitude, it is shown lighter; this way it's painfully easy to tell if that bit of Class B airspace ahead is of any concern. Nice touch.
Pilots who are more afraid of the taxi to the runway than the flight itself will find the 496's SafeTaxi feature useful. For certain larger airports, a taxi map is available at the tightest screen ranges that accurately place you on indicated taxiways and help you find the active without going the wrong way. We found it utterly accurate from our departure in Chino, California, and at Oshkosh. Our fuel stop at Double Eagle II near Albuquerque showed that not all airports have this depiction just yet.
Between the taxi out from the departure to backing into the hangar at home, you'll appreciate the 496's improved aviation database, which is said to have 10 times as much terrain and obstacle data as the 396. In addition, the database used to create the sectional-like screen background is more detailed. The terrain warnings can now be customized to warn sooner or later of impending contact with terra firma.
Flying with the 496 and the 396 in the same airplane at the same time was illuminating. At first blush, the 496 isn't a lot different. The operating system works just as intuitively as the 396's, with good logic and a minimum of fussiness getting to all the new features. Creating flight plans, activating routes, configuring screens to your liking...all the things the 296 and 396 did so well are retained on the 496. As ever, Garmin's human interface is nicely and intelligently done. (And owners of Experimental aircraft also fitted with a Garmin SL30 nav/comm can appreciate the automatic transferral of database frequencies to the standby window.)
Garmin says the screen update rate is significantly improved, but in practice it's a noticeable but not night-and-day difference. More like adding more RAM to your computer than upgrading to a massively faster machine. The "panel" screen operates more smoothly and would be easier to fly as sole reference--in an emergency only, please--than the 396's by dint of the speedier redraw.
Both our units were being fed XM weather and showed exactly the same thing, as you'd expect, but the 496 was noticeably fleeter footed when working with a screen full of waypoints, airspace and weather; again, not a massive update, but faster is always better than slower. And while the puck-style antenna retains the footprint and brains of the XM section--meaning that when you power down all the weather data is lost--Garmin at least removed the controversial magnet in its base. All the other accessories, including the stubby case-mount GPS antenna, remote GPS antenna, power and data cords are the same as on the 396. If you already have one, or a 296, for that matter, upgrading is an easy task. Plug and play.
Ultimately, the 496 is a clever upgrade of the 396 but is more of a line-drive double than an over-the-fence home run in terms of features and capabilities. How much the upgrade is worth will largely depend, we think, on how often you'll use the box in your car and need the detailed street maps and points of interest. (Geeks who take their 396s everywhere can line up on the left.) Pilots who already own a 396 might not be tempted to upgrade right away, but if you've not yet jumped on the in-the-cockpit weather bandwagon -- and we strongly recommend you don't fly with this feature unless you're ready to make the swap, it's that good -- the 496 is a fine place to hop on.