Monday, April 28, 2008


Many years ago I bought a Garmin GPS76 thinking it would be a vital tool in my kayaking kit. Instead, I found that I rarely used it. The batteries didn't last very long. I found a chart was easier to read and have on deck. I rarely needed to navigate blind. I didn't have the software to download the routes into the computer so I couldn't store them for future use. In the end, the GPS spent a lot of time in the boot of my car. When the battery contact finally corroded to the point of uselessness, after two-three seasons, I didn't bother replacing it.
For the last couple of years, I've gotten along just fine with charts and my deck compass. We don't usually paddle in foggy conditions and I've paddled the Narragansett Bay area enough so that I can largely do it from memory. A GPS seemed like a waste of money and just one more piece of gear to way me down.
Last season, I saw a number of people using GPS units more and more. I've also seen them used in cars more and more. As a gadget freak, my interest was once again piqued. PB has a nice little unit that he tosses in the back hatch of his kayak, so I asked him about it. PB's unit is a Garmin eTrex Vista. He uses it for his car, for kayaking, and for biking. JS uses a GPSMAP76 for kayaking. It is a bit bulkier than the eTrex, but floats. I also did a bunch of online research. I wanted a GPS unit that was in the $300 price range, was not bulky, was rugged enough to be used for outdoor activities like kayaking, could be used as a car navigating system, and was Mac OS X compatible.
It was the OS X compatibility that was the real monkey wrench. There are a number of decent GPS units that are rugged and can do car navigation. The Garmin eTrex series of units are small and light. Garmin also makes larger models that fit the bill. Magellan makes a number of larger models. Last year, no one made OS X compatible software.
This year, however, Garmin finally added OS X maps to its list of offerings. So, I took my REI dividend and purchased a shinny new eTrex Vista HCx. It has a color screen with a decent basement. It takes micro-SD cards to hold extra maps. It supports turn by turn driving directions. It also has an electric compass and a barometer. For the price, it has the best set of features and size for me. The GPSMAP60 was suggested as an alternative, but it was too bulky.
I then purchased the Garmin North America road maps for Mac OS X. The software loaded on the computer without a hitch. Getting the maps authorized was a bit of a chore because I had a hard time locating the serial number for my GPS unit. Once I had the serial number in hand, the authorization was a snap. The software itself is pretty basic. It shows you the areas supported by the package. You select maps to load by state. Then you load it on to the unit. The loading process took longer than I anticipated, but it was not overly long. I loaded the New England states and the Mid-Atlantic states into the unit and used less than 1/4 of the 2gb memory card in the unit.
H and I took the unit with us on a recent trip to Williamsburg, VA and gave the maps a whirl. All in all, it was great. The user interface is not slick, but nor is it hard to use. Searching for food only took a few clicks. The default search was to list all the food places near the unit's current location. You can opt to limit the choices by selecting a category (Cafes & Dinners for Starbucks). You can search by name. You can also change the reference location used as the starting point for the search. You can also search by address. The database appeared to have most of the restaurants. There was one we could not find, but we just used the address.
The directions were good. The unit doesn't speak the directions. It puts the directions on the screen in easily legible letters and includes a countdown timer when you are close to a turn. When you approach a turn, the unit beeps to alert you. If you stray from the original route, the unit will recalculate the route for you. The recalculated route was not just a simple redirect back to the original route. The new route was usually a new route. In testing near home, the unit usually figured out what I was doing when I ignored its directions and took a faster, if less direct, route.
I doubt I'll use it much around home, but when traveling, or going on a rambling bike ride, the GPS will undoubtedly come in handy.

1 comment:

  1. Although I think it is a must to be able to use a chart the GPS is a lot of fun. I have the GPSMAP76CSx. I like the way it collects data that I can see later. I did a race at Deception Pass and it was cool to see that I was able to hit 8knots while paddling, with the help of the current of course. Plus it is a good back up if the weather turns bad.