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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Which Brand of Handheld GPS is Best, a Real Boxing Barnburner

Lets get ready to rumble!

You can feel the tension in the crowd of this jam packed arena which extends from the rafters all the way down to the center ring. This epic match that has been building for years with the outcome determining the best brand for handheld GPS units. GPS which stands for Global Positioning System is a fancy way of saying, “You Are Here” on a map that exists in the GPS handheld device itself. When you move, the pointer keeps track of where you are and the map underneath digitally moves when you do. That way you can always know exactly where you are on the planet. Now back to the match as the units get ready to show their stuff.

The announcer grabs the mike hanging ring center.

“In this corner, wearing black with blue trim. We give you brand Magellan.”

Magellan is a very popular brand that has been around as other companies since 1994 and did not take it's current name until around 2001. It is extremely well known and boasts the creation of the first commercial handheld GPS receiver.

“In the opposite corner wearing black with white and blue trim. We give you brand Garmin.” The favorite for this evening Garmin has it's origins around 1989 and sold it's first panel mounted GPS for around $2500.00. How things have changed. When discussions turn to GPS devices you will most likely hear the brands of Magellan and Garmin.

“Finally in corner three (hey, it's my article and I want three opponents) wearing blue with white trim. We give you brand Delorme.” Now the possible underdog in this fight has it's roots going all the way back to 1976. Though the majority of it's efforts appear to be more into digital map making rather than the hardware making of GPS units. It's first handheld did not come to market until 2007.

The referee walks up to the three bruisers of the GPS world to set up the match and give the rules.

“Okay we want a clean fight. There is to be no smoke and mirrors on functionality which means what we see is what you've got. No promises of premier Customer Support that actually wouldn't know a way point from a sundial. Finally, In case of a low battery or memory card full condition go to your respective corners and wait for further instruction.” .
Now you can see on their displays that Garmin and Magellan have been around for quite some time and this is not their first time in the ring. Delorme on the other hand is trying to remain calm but you can see his pointer is shaking a bit. Lets find out how the new kid stands up to the top two GPS titan brands. The match begins..

All boxing puns aside, all the information today was provided by experienced Geocachers who take their caching equipment very seriously. Geocachers not only look for the accuracy, dependability and durability of their GPS units but also it's ease of use in the field and more importantly how it interacts with computers and third party software that load all that information in and out of the GPS. You can have the most impressive handheld in the world but if you always have to manually insert multiple waypoints, what good is it? I correlated all of the data from two of my favorite Geocaching site forums. Also included was a question poll asking straight out which brand was best.

Here is what I found out:

Magellan has it's Triton Series of handhelds which range from $129.00 to $500.00 depending on the unit of choice. Surprising to me I found Magellan to be the least liked and had the most defectors from the once very popular brand. The customer support was commented as not being up to par and lacking. Initially they had a very good string of constant upgrades and improvements but over time has dwindled. Several posts voiced their disappointment by stating the Triton Series was not ready to go out into the wild but Magellan decided to sell them anyways. This created a host of very unhappy customers. Out of the three brands discussed here I have to say Magellan is buns up on the canvas this year.

Delorme even though initially thought to be the underdog of the match is showing some true grit. I noticed a growing want to convert over to the PN series but there are some major hurdles keeping them from doing it. The PN-20 and PN-40 range from $250.00 to +$500.00 in price which makes them on the high end of the scale. Let me say right from the start that Delorme is the king of high density and amazingly crisp maps. You can't own 44% of the CD mapping market and not be very good at what you do. One cacher zoomed into a geocache on the map and saw by the placement that it was under a lamp pole; it's that clear. On the flip side the biggest drawback is the learning curve to get the GPS unit itself working. Over a period of three days I personally have seen three very experienced cachers almost in tears trying to get their individual units running as expected. Now Delorme's customer support is being very responsive but since they have only had these devices out on the market for only a year they appear to be scrambling to flesh out all the bugs. I also read several comments that the Delormes were off on accuracy about 30 feet on a consistent basis. It does not sound like much but if you are out trying to find a pinky sized bison tube in a pine tree you want to be sure you are actually looking in the right pine tree. Final note, kudos for the paperless features of the PN series there were many positive comments for that. So what do you end up with? A brilliantly crisp set of graphic and aerial image maps in a unit that has a very high learning curve attached and very low compatibility with existing computer applications which is responsible for loading key information into the unit itself. Looks like for this year at least Delorme has the makings of a top notch GPS handheld but it has some serious issues to address before they will draw a good user base.

According to our user poll Garmin is three out of four the most used GPS unit out in the wild. The pricing spreads nicely across the board and depending on your budget you should be able to find a good one in your price range. For example the Etrex series which is several years dated is still a very common site on the trail. But if you want to experience the true workhorse of GPS handhelds you have to own the 60CSX. It has great accuracy, durability, reliability and compatibility which will fill almost every need you will ever have. The interesting issue with the 60CSX is it too is dated and Garmin is trying to push the fancy new bells and whistles of the higher end units. Unfortunately in this case newer does not constitute better. Case and point Garmin's Colorado which being a high end price tag item has been consistently been compared to, well, doggie-poop. Big steaming piles of poop, in fact I could not find a single compliment in any of the posts. My advice, stay away from this one. The Oregon had many nice statements about the touchscreen, the screen size and the paperless functionality. The drawbacks was the dimness of the screen when outside and the lack of being able to customize it like some of Garmin's older models. So is the grief of making it your own worth the large price tag?

Well the ring judges have sent in their tallies and the winner of this match and the best brand for this year is Garmin. I will be very excited to see next year if some of the lesser known brands can be good enough to enter the ring or will the powerhouse brands of this year get their acts together and put them down for the ten count.


tonka_boy said...

Great article. Thanks for the info.

Just John said...

I love my Colorado. I too read several bad "reviews" on the forums, but found that the majority of them didn't hold much water, or were complaints about issues that went away with firmware updates.

Either way, I love it, and it outperforms my old 60 series unit.

I strongly suspect that personal taste has a lot to do with opinions on which unit is king.

P.J. said...

I love my Garmin. And will stay with Garmin I believe. Eventually I'd like the Oregon, but until whereigo gets bigger, my 60CSX will be perfect for me for some time to come!

A 'lil HooHaa

BumSupport said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BumSupport said...

You need to check out the Paperless geocaching feature's on the Delorme PN-40 with TOPO 8. It's amazing !

Unknown said...

I hear Magelan is coming out with a new model that will give the Oregon a run for it's money