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Thu, Oct 20, 2005

Aero-News to Test Garmin GPSMAP 396

But Then We Gotta Send It Back... Bummer!

By Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

It was the hottest thing in aviation. Did we want one for testing? Uh, duh, yeah. Then the fun started. Before this GPS got turned on it already had about three thousand miles on it.

You see, Garmin's people sent the 396 to us at our Oshkosh house. UPS recorded it as being dropped off. But we never saw it. This caused all kinds of chaos -- with us, with UPS, and with Garmin alike. I think for a while each of us suspected one of the other two of nicking the thing.

But about two weeks after we were back from the show, the owner of the house we stay in called Jim. The box had been misdelivered to a neighbor, who hadn't been home, and it had sat. And sat.

So the peripatetic Garmin wended its way from Oshkosh to Winter Haven, where Jim looked at the Garmin, looked at his schedule, and called Associate Editor emeritus Juan Jimenez in Puerto Rico. Could Juan do the review? Uh, no. Too busy in his new job. Which is how the unit came to me.

Except, I immediately left on back to back business trips. Finally back at home, I got to open the box of what is probably the most lusted-after handheld GPS in aviation -- and start this review.

There will be a few more snags, as I have bailed out of the FBO business (considerably smarter and about 70 GPSMAP-396-equivalents poorer than I went in) and no longer have planes on tap, but we can work that out. We'll be answering some questions like, is it better than my old Garmin (in my case, an antediluvian GPS 90)? What kind of flying is it good for? Is it really one GPS that can be used on land, sea and air?

What about those neat new options, like XM, which gives you satellite radio, and better still, NEXRAD satellite weather?

Opening the attractive black and white box, you get the impression that Garmin wanted the box-opening consumer experience to be a good one. Everything has a place and is in its place, attractively laid out (photo). When you lift out the cardboard tray, a dismayingly complex jumble of accessories confronts you. Oh dear, I'm gonna have to RTFM to test all this.

The unit is of a manageable size. It's not as small as my old GPS90. There's a comparison photo against normal household items like a floppy disk, a beaten-up E6B, an iPod, and a Gerber fighting knife. (In my house, these are normal household items. Your mileage may vary).

The documentation consists of a flight-log sized wire-bound manual, and a welter of little single-sheets containing such things as your code to install one Jepp update, etc. We'll get back to the sheets, for now, let's dive in to the manual, which begins with the normal inane safety warnings. "This product, its packaging, and its components contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm," the last of which presumable means that if one eats a GPSMAP 396 in California he might sire a baby with two heads. (This may explain a great deal about the high demand for the 396 unit, and the bizarre doings in California -- people in the Golden State are eating them, and their bicephalic offspring are in charge). Since I'm not in California, and not planning to eat the GPSMAP 396 or its packaging or components, I'm probably OK, but we'll be unable to test Garmin's claim that the unit is carcinogenic, mutagenic, and otherwise really bad in California.

Not all the warnings are that ridiculous. One, at least, is deadly serious: "While navigating in an aircraft, use the GPSMAP 396 only as an aid for VFR Navigation." That's worth repeating -- we're starting to see mishaps where somebody uses a non-IFR-certified GPS and invents his own approach, and comes to a sad end in a smoking hole. The very precision and confidence that a GPS gives you in situational awareness can make you overconfident. A related warning is similarly serious: "Use terrain and obstacle data only as an aid to situational awareness." If you've ever seen a work crew erect a cell tower, you know it goes up a lot faster than it can get noted in charts. If that wasn't enough, many telecommunications firms are careless about reporting their new towers.

Additionally, "This product should not be used to determine ground proximity for aircraft navigation." As a long-time user of satellite navigation (I go back to when it was experimental in the military), I am glad to see improvements in accuracy that have come with better units and with the 1990s shut-down of Selective Availability. But I still note that the LEAST reliable information coming out of any conventional GPS is altitude information. There are several reasons for that, but bear in mind that in the GPS "world" elevation information is overlaid on a spheroid, or model of the world's shape, that is necessarily somewhat compromised and inaccurate. The GPS's idea of where the ground is is often off by fifty feet, occasionally by a hundred, and from time to time will have even greater errors.

And finally, Garmin includes a warning about the reliability of map data. Garmin is again speaking gospel truth: even in the USA, map data frequently has errors; when you get out of the USA, it gets scary in its incompleteness. In Afghanistan one bad choice was American-made maps based on a 1940-something survey that were inaccurate about the terrain and missing most cultural features, as well as being too large-scale for ground use. The other bad choice was Russian maps that were forty years newer, detailed, and extremely accurate, but used a foreign grid system, making it difficult to express exact locations.

As the unit is charging up (after I find the illustration which is not on the nonexistent "page X" mentioned in the manual -- it's on Page 1) and I'm pawing through the documentation, I come up with a tentative test plan. We'll try the unit first in a car -- maybe I have one more day of top-down motoring after this rainy weather passes. Maybe let some of my military friends comment on it. Then get it up into an airplane. I won't try the maritime features; boating season is already over here in bleak New England, except for those who ply the most dangerous profession, commercial fishermen.

Finally, you can help. Do you have specific questions, perhaps ones that the other reviews haven't answered? Or do you have one and have a beef with it? Is there something you would like to know about the unit? If we think your question is interesting to the readers in general, it'll get answered in the review (if it isn't of general interest, we might answer it anyway, but no promises, in case you guys bury us in email).

Send email to: Garmin 396 Feedback!

FMI: www.garmin.com

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