Lowrance AirMap 300 GPS: So What’s New?

In January 1998, Lowrance Avionics introduced an improved model of their AirMap handheld GPS. The AirMap 300 is identical in size, shape and function to its predecessor, but uses a 12-channel Rockwell GPS engine instead of the 5-channel chip used in previous AirMaps. We took both new and old AirMap units flying (plus a Garmin GPSMAP-195 as a benchmark) and here is our detailed evaluation ... plus lots of photos.


ProductsLet me state right up front that I’ve been a big fan ofthe Lowrance AirMap since its introduction in 1996. I wouldn’t rate it as the besthandheld aviation GPS on the market…I’d have to award that distinction to the GarminGPSMAP-195. But the AirMap is a very close runner-up to the Garmin and costs a lot less(like $400 to $500 less), making it easily the “best bang for the buck” amongall aviation handhelds.

As an AirMap fan, I started getting worried a few months ago when I started hearingrumors from various dealers that Lowrance was about to discontinue the AirMap andintroduce a new model to replace it. The rumor mill said that the new Lowrance would be amuch smaller unit, similar in size to the diminutive Garmin GPS III Pilot, and would sporta new 12-channel GPS receiver (like the Garmins) instead of the 5-channel engine in theAirMap. This concerned me because I don’t care for the little Garmin III at all – I findits display and especially its keypad much too small for cockpit use – and didn’t want tosee Lowrance follow in those footsteps. It was also rumored that the new Lowrance unit wasan all-new clean-sheet design, and that its software was plagued with glitches (much likethe AirMap’s was when it first appeared on the market). It sounded to me as if Lowrancewas about to shoot itself in the foot.

I needn’t have worried. As so often happens, the rumor mill was wrong.

Evolution, not revolution (thank heavens)

AirMap 300 and original AirMapLowrance’s newaviation handheld is called the “AirMap 300” and, very simply, it’s almostidentical to its predecessor except that it uses a new Rockwell GPS engine with 12parallel channels instead of the 5-channel Rockwell chip set used in the original AirMap.But that’s the only thing that the rumor mill got right. Other than the new 12-channelreceiver, not much has changed at all.

In fact, it’s hard to tell the newer and older models apart just by looking at them.The biggest physical difference is in the keypad, where the keys have changed from white(AirMap) to black (AirMap 300). The flip-top antenna is marked “AIRMAP 300″ and”12-Channel Receiver.” That’s about it.

Quick-release antennaMy AirMap is a very early unit, so I also noticed anumber of other incremental improvements that Lowrance has made to the product since Ibought mine. The original awkward-to-remove thumbwheel-type antenna was replaced by amuch-improved quick-release antenna. The cigarette lighter power cord was redesigned tomake more reliable contact. The operating software has been upgraded many times in thepast two years, correcting bugs, improving the user interface, and adding numerous usefulfeatures such as vertical navigation, runway centerline extensions, moveable presentposition and map center, and map depiction of obstructions. And the owner’s manual hasbeen rewritten and much improved. But none of these hardware and software improvements areunique to the AirMap 300, and all are available to owners of older AirMaps like mine.

Satellite Info screensWhen I first got my hands on the AirMap 300, I quicklyexplored the various screens and menus to see what software changes had been made. Theonly change I could find was the one I expected: the “Satellite Info” screen wasredesigned to make room for 12 channels worth of satellite information (instead of just5), and the graphic satellite position display and fix quality statistics were moved to anew screen. Except for that, I was unable to find any differences between the AirMap 300software and the latest software update for the 5-channel AirMap.

Nor could I find any “bugs” in the AirMap 300 software. Its performance wassolid as a rock, both in my ground testing and in the air.

Flying testbed

Flying testbedOf course, the proof of any aviation GPS is in theflying, so I decided to do a side-by-side in-flight test of the new 12-channel AirMap 300with its 5-channel predecessor. I set up my Cessna T310R with dual yoke-mountedAirMaps…the new AirMap 300 on the left yoke and my venerable 5-channel AirMap on theright. Both were set up with their antennas detached and suction-cup mounted to the topcorners of the windshield in as symmetrical a fashion as I could manage.

AirMap yoke mountWhile setting up the airplane, I was reminded of one of my fewremaining gripes with the AirMap: its yoke mount. The mount is well-made and very sturdy,but it relies on Velcro to attach the receiver to the mount. Unfortunately, the AirMap istoo big and heavy for the Velcro to hold it securely, at least when the battery pack isattached. In my opinion, the mount really needs some kind of mechanical clamp to hold thereceiver…or else twice as much Velcro surface area. This is one change I would haveliked to see made with the introduction of the AirMap 300, but it wasn’t. Oh well.

Yoke-mounted AirMapYoke mounting works a lot better if the unit ispowered from the airplane’s electrical system and the battery pack is not attached to thebottom of the receiver. The AirMap-minus-battery makes a lightweight, compact package thatfits just perfectly on the yoke, and is held quite snugly by the Velcro mount. I purchasedan extra DC power cord from Lowrance, snipped off the cigarette lighter plug, and wired itpermanently into the electrical system of my airplane. With this reliable source of power,I generally run the AirMap sans battery, and find it makes a very nice setup.

I invited my friend Chris along to fly right seat and monitor the 5-channel GPS while Imonitored the 12-channel unit. Chris brought along his Garmin GPSMAP-195 and held it onhis lap, with the remote-mount antenna in the center of the windshield. The Garmin alsohas a 12-channel receiver and has until now set the standard of excellence in handheld GPSreceiver performance, so we thought it would make a good benchmark with which to comparethe two Lowrance units.

With two experienced pilots and three ground-mapping GPS receivers aboard (not tomention a panel full of radios), we decided we didn’t have any excuse for getting lost!

Timing and torture tests

Remote antenna mountingAfter starting engines but before taxiing out, Chrisand I ran some preliminary comparison tests of the three GPS receivers. To begin with, wepowered them up exactly simultaneously and timed how long they took to acquire a fix froma cold start. The AirMap 300 and Garmin -195 repeatedly acquired a position fix in lessthan 15 seconds, while the older 5-channel AirMap typically took 25 seconds to lock on.While this was interesting, it’s not clear that it was significant, because I can’t recallever managing to to complete a taxi-out and runup in less than 25 seconds.

We also tried simulating a loss-of-signal situation by disconnecting the antenna cablefrom the two AirMaps, then reconnecting them simultaneously and seeing how long it tookfor the receivers to reacquire position. The AirMap 300 consistently did so in 5 secondsor so, while the older AirMap took up to twice as long. Again, interesting but notnecessarily relevant to actual in-flight performance.

Flight testing frustratingly inconclusive

AirMap 300We proceeded to make a two-hour test flight from my home base ofSanta Maria, Calif., to Watsonville and return. The SMX-WVI leg was made in daylightconditions, VFR at very low altitude mostly 600′ MSL overwater, hugging the picturesquecentral California coastline with the cliffs of Big Sur towering above us at three o’clock(and obscuring satnav reception in that direction). The return flight was night IFR at9,000′ in clouds, light rain and brief rime icing conditions. We even tried somesteep-banked low-level maneuvering. But much to our chagrin, all three GPS receiversperformed flawlessly and never lost position lock during the entire test flight.

We did have the opportunity to evaluate all three ground-mapping displays in a widevariety of lighting conditions, including extensive use of the backlighting on the nightreturn flight. Chris and I agreed that the Garmin GPSMAP-195 display is somewhat easier toread under difficult lighting conditions, partly because the Garmin’s display ishalf-again as large as the AirMap’s, and partly because Garmin’s mapping software depictsfeatures in bolder strokes and larger text. Kudos to Garmin’s graphics programmers for asuperb job.

But the primary objective of the test flight was to compare the 5- and 12-channel GPSengines, to try to get the 5-channel unit to lose lock in-flight, and to see if the12-channel units would do better. So it was somewhat frustrating that none of the threereceivers hiccuped even once.

Every indication is that the 12-channel Rockwell engine in the AirMap 300 is every bitas good as the 12-channel receiver in the Garmin -195. At one point during the returnflight from Watsonville, Chris and I compared the satellite info displays of the two12-channel receivers. The Garmin was tracking 8 satellites simultaneously, using awindshield-mounted antenna. The AirMap 300 was tracking 9.

So…are 12 channels really better than 5?

Actually, yes. Although the 5-channel AirMap performed perfectly during our controlledtest flight, I’ve had it lose position in-flight at least a dozen times in the course ofnearly two years and 20,000 NM of flying with the unit. In my experience, the problemoccurs mostly during turns, often while maneuvering for landing or to intercept aninstrument final approach course. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

Antenna viewsIf I were using an externally-mounted GPS antenna, 5channels would probably be plenty. After all, only 4 satellites need to be tracked for thereceiver to calculate a 3D position fix. In fact, the receiver can continue to trackposition with only 3 satellites in view…it does this by assuming the aircraft’s altitudehasn’t changed and computing a 2D fix. So a 5-channel receiver can track all thesatellites necessary for a 3D fix, plus a “spare” to provide uninterruptednavigation when a satellite disappears below the horizon (or in a turn).

But using an inside antenna suction-cupped to the windshield (as I have been doing) orlying on the glareshield (even worse) is a different story. A windshield-mounted antennahas its view partially masked by the cabin roof (at least in an aluminum spam can like myairplane), preventing it from “seeing” satellites located aft of the aircraft.This usually isn’t a problem, because there are still usually plenty of satellites visibleto the front and sides of the aircraft. After all, we only need to see four, and can makedo with just three in a pinch.

But suppose we make a 90-degree turn to the right. After we roll out of the turn, theGPS can probably still “see” enough satellites to calculate a fix. But here’sthe rub: they probably are not the same satellites as the ones the receiver was trackingbefore the turn! In other words, several of the satellites that were being tracked priorto the turn may drop out of sight, and several new satellites may come into view after theturn. Since it can take 15 to 30 seconds for a receiver to start tracking a new satellite,it becomes quite possible that the receiver will lose lock briefly before it startstracking enough satellites to reestablish a good position fix.

The bottom line is that if you use a good external antenna, almost any GPS receiverwill do a fine job. If you use an inside antenna whose view of the sky is partiallyblocked by the airplane’s structure, the extra channels will provide a noticeable extramargin of performance, particularly during maneuvering flight. This may be particularlyimportant to renter-pilots for whom an external GPS antenna is often not an option.

AirMap 300 Pricing and Packaging

AirMap 300 carrying caseLowrance has been extremely aggressive with itspricing of the AirMap. When first introduced in spring of 1996, the price was $899, andwas considered a spectacular bargain at the time. A year later, they introduced a”Special Edition” model equipped with the rechargeable NiMH pack and priced at$999. Since then, Lowrance has dropped the price twice, ending up at $599 for the basic5-channel AirMap and about $100 extra for the NiMH battery.

With the introduction of the 12-channel AirMap 300, Lowrance has done something a bitunusual: they’ve included both the alkaline and NiMH batteries with the AirMap 300as standard equipment, and priced the package at $799. This works out to be an effective$100 price increase for the 12-channel model over the 5-channel one, since the bundledNiMH battery used to be a $100 extra-cost option with the 5-channel AirMap.

Even at the higher price, the AirMap 300 remains far-and-away the bestprice/performance value in the handheld aviation GPS market. The Garmin GPSMAP-195 isarguably better in some respects (larger display, better mapping software, better yokemount), but it costs half again as much as the AirMap 300.

Lowrance says it will start shipping the AirMap 300 in quantity in late January, andwill no longer manufacture the 5-channel AirMap. There may be a short period of timeduring which some dealers may be offering both units (although most dealers I spoke withare already sold out of the older AirMap). But certainly by mid-February, the only kind ofAirMap you’ll be able to buy will be the 12-channel model.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that I like the AirMap 300?

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