Handheld GPS reviews

Finding your way in the world can cost the earth with some of these handheld GPS.
 
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  • Updated:6 Apr 2009
 

01 .Introduction

Hand held GPS

Test results for eight handheld GPS, ranging in price from $150 to $750

An 'adventure' handheld GPS can reveal your position if you're lost, or record every step you take so you can find your way back. Also, if you know the co-ordinates of a destination, anywhere in the world, it will show you how to get there on foot.

Some units are similar in size to a rugged-design mobile phone, with several small buttons and a joystick to control the various settings. Some units are larger, with a bigger screen and wider buttons. They are portable and designed to be carried for extended hikes.

A handheld GPS works by collecting information from a group of at least 24 satellites that constantly orbit the earth. A fix on three satellites is all you need to get a 2D position, with a fourth needed to calculate height.

Unlike some of the latest mobile phones with inbuilt GPS features, handheld GPS units don't need a mobile phone network to work, and unlike a car navigation device, they don't need an electronic map to be useful. A handheld GPS continually monitors its own position and speed, ready to give you information on where you've been while you're carrying it, and where you should go.

CHOICE independence is guaranteed

These independent ratings are only available through membership with CHOICE Online because no one test products like we do. Arm yourself with our unique and exclusive information and make your next purchase with confidence.

Brands tested

Garmin Colorado 300 (A)
Garmin eTrex H (A)
Garmin eTrex Vista HCx (A)
Garmin GPSMAP 60 (A)
Garmin Oregon 400c (A)
Magellan Triton 300 (A)
Magellan Triton 400 (A)
Magellan Triton 500 (A)

(A) Discontinued.

Please note: this information was current as of April 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


 
 

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The following models scored the best results in our test:

What to buy
Brand Price
Garmin Oregon 400c $750
Garmin eTrex Vista HCx $450

Results table

Full results for all models are shown in the table below

PERFORMANCE SPECIFICATIONS
Brand / model (in rank order) Overall score (%) Ease of use score (%) Acquistion score (%) Battery life score (%)* Accuracy score (%) Waterproofing score (%) Average battery life (hh:mm) * PC
software
Connectivity
Garmin Oregon 400c
www.garmin.com.au
82 89 73 75 70 100 17:30 WebUpdater 2.4.1 (download) Mini-B USB/USB 2.0 Type A
Garmin eTrex Vista HCx
www.garmin.com.au
78 81 63 85 75 100 26:30 Mapsource 6.15.3, WebUpdater 2.4.1 Mini-B USB/USB 2.0 Type A
Garmin Colorado 300
www.garmin.com.au
69 77 63 70 70 50 12:00 Mapsource 6.15.3, WebUpdater 2.4.1 Mini-B USB/USB 2.0 Type A
Garmin eTrex H
www.garmin.com.au
68 68 70 75 75 50 18:20 None Proprietary/RS 232 (A)
Garmin GPSMAP 60
www.garmin.com.au
68 78 33 80 70 100 22:00 Mapsource 6.15.3, WebUpdater 2.4.1 Mini-B USB/USB 2.0 Type A and Proprietary/RS 232 (A)
Magellan Triton 500
www.magellan.com.au
51 46 60 70 75 0 15:20 VantagePoint 1.52 (54MB download) Proprietary/USB 2.0 Type A
Magellan Triton 300
www.magellan.com.au
50 46 53 70 75 0 15:20 VantagePoint 1.52 (54MB download) Proprietary/USB 2.0 Type A
Magellan Triton 400
www.magellan.com.au
48 48 50 60 75 0 11:30 VantagePoint 1.52 (54MB download) Proprietary/USB 2.0 Type A
 


 
SPECIFICATIONS
Brand / model (in rank order) Number and
type of batteries
Display
type
Display size
(mm, W x H)
Display resolution
(pixels, W x H)
Weight
(g, with batteries)
Dimensions
(mm, H x W x D)
Price
($)
Garmin Oregon 400c
www.garmin.com.au
2xAA Colour LCD 39 x 64 240 x 400 200 113 x 59 x 35 750
Garmin eTrex Vista HCx
www.garmin.com.au
2xAA Colour LCD 34 x 43 176 x 220 168 106 x 58 x 31 450
Garmin Colorado 300
www.garmin.com.au
2xAA Colour LCD 39 x 64 240 x 400 213 140 x 61 x 34 600
Garmin eTrex H
www.garmin.com.au
2xAA Mono LCD 22 x 53 64 x 128 152 113 x 57 x 30 150
Garmin GPSMAP 60
www.garmin.com.au
2xAA Mono LCD 34 x 52 160 x 240 205 159 x 58 x 42 350
Magellan Triton 500
www.magellan.com.au
2xAA Colour LCD 33 x 45 240 x 320 189 118 x 56 x 31 650
Magellan Triton 300
www.magellan.com.au
2xAA Colour LCD 33 x 45 240 x 320 181 118 x 56 x 31 400
Magellan Triton 400
www.magellan.com.au
2xAA Colour LCD 33 x 45 240 x 320 183 118 x 56 x 31 600
 

Table notes

  • * When tracking tracking satellites only.
  • (A) Optional accessory.

How we test

Ease of use testing is conducted in two stages. Members of the Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad examine each unit, plot a simple route and follow the track log to gauge its accuracy. This is followed by an assessment conducted by CHOICE, which includes starting the unit, logging a waypoint or route, button accessibility and screen readability.

Acquisition Our testers measure how long each unit takes to acquire a satellite fix under a clear sky and then under dense foliage. Three runs of each test are carried out on different days and at different times to provide a variety of satellite constellations.

Battery life Each unit is set up to constantly fix its position, then checked every hour until its batteries run out or the unit shuts down with a low battery indication.

Accuracy is assessed by testing the devices at four survey points and a variety of altitudes. The test is repeated twice at different times of day, when a different constellation of satellites would be within range. No handheld GPS tested had more than 6m average location error, and none had more than 7m average height error.

Waterproofing All models claim to be waterproof to IPX7 Standards; they are submerged to a depth of one metre for 30 minutes. The units are then dried and turned on to obtain a fix.

For CHOICE’s recommendations / overall score:
Models are ranked from best to worst by overall score. Five factors are included in the overall score, weighted as follows:

  • Ease of use: 40%
  • Acquisition: 25%.
  • Battery: 15%.
  • Accuracy: 10%.
  • Waterproofing: 10%

Profiles - What to buy

Garmin Oregon 400c

Price: $750 Garmin Oregon 400c

Good points

  • Highest score for ease of use.
  • Took only 30 seconds to acquire a signal under thick foliage.
  • Passed the water immersion test.
  • Touch screen controls very easy to use.
  • Large, high resolution, colour screen.
  • Has a microSD slot.
  • Wireless connectivity with other compatible handheld GPS.
  • Comes with Australian marine charts.
  • Has a barometer and electronic compass.

Bad points

  • Touch screen may be operated unintentionally.
  • Touch screen may show fingermarks.
  • Relatively heavy and bulky unit.
  • Most expensive model on test.

Garmin eTrex Vista HCx

Price: $450 Garmin eTrex Vista HCx

Good points

  • Longest battery life at 26.5 hours.
  • Passed water immersion test.
  • Has a microSD slot.
  • Most compact unit in test.
  • Has a barometer and electronic compass.

Bad points

  • Nothing to mention.

 

Profiles - the rest

Garmin Colorado 300

Price: $600 Garmin Colorado 300

Good points

  • Passed water immersion test.
  • Large, high resolution, colour screen.
  • Has SD slot.
  • Has external antenna port.
  • Has a barometer and electronic compass.
  • Wireless connectivity with other compatible GPSs.

Bad points

  • Largest measured location error of 6.8m.
  • Relatively heavy and bulky unit.

Garmin eTrex H

Price: $150 Garmin eTrex H

Good points

  • Least expensive unit in test.
  • Lightest unit in test.
  • Passed water immersion test.
  • Smallest measured location error of 2.8m.

Bad points

  • Low resolution, monochrome screen.
  • No supplied cable.

After a bargain? The Garmin eTrex H is worth considering as a budget GPS backup to your compass and map. PC or Mac connectivity is an optional extra, but at only $150, it’s a solid basic performer.

Garmin GPSMAP 60

Price: $350 Garmin GPSMAP 60

Good points

  • Average battery life was 22 hours in our tests.
  • Passed water immersion test.
  • Has external antenna port.

Bad points

  • Does not acquire a signal under thick foliage.
  • Monochrome display.
  • Relatively heavy and bulky unit.

Magellan Triton 500

Price: $650 Magellan Triton 500

Good points

  • High resolution colour screen.
  •  Has SD slot.
  • Has a barometer and electronic compass.

Bad points

  • Only scored 46% for ease of use.
  • Failed water immersion test.

Magellan Triton 300

Price: $400 Magellan Triton 300

Good points

  • High resolution colour screen.
  • Has SD slot.

Bad points

  • Scored only 46% for ease of use.
  • Average battery life was 11.5 hours in our tests.
  • Took almost two minutes to acquire a signal under thick foliage.
  • Failed water immersion test. 

Magellan Triton 400

Price: $600 Magellan Triton 400

Good points

  • High resolution colour screen.
  • Has SD slot.

Bad points

  • Scored only 46% for ease of use.
  • Took almost two minutes to acquire a signal under thick foliage.
  • Failed water immersion test.

When choosing a handheld GPS, these are some of the things you should look for.

  • The screen should be clear and bright enough to see everything you need. Lettering of essential information, such as the numbers in coordinates, should be large enough to read properly. A colour screen makes waypoints and points of interest more noticeable.
  • Size and weight make a difference – the larger the unit, the more difficult it will be to hold. If you have large hands, or are off to a colder climate and plan on using the GPS with gloves on, a larger unit could be a good option.
  • The unit needs to be comfortable in your hand, ideally with well-spaced buttons that allow you to select functions more easily.
  • A battery compartment that accepts standard batteries (AA or AAA) means you can use either rechargeable or normal alkalines in an emergency. All the devices use AA batteries.
  • PC mapping software allows you to select a waypoint or route at home and download it to your GPS to use in the field.
  • A connectivity cable allows your GPS to connect to a PC or Mac to download and upload information. But beware — these cables can be expensive if they use a proprietary connection.
  • Most units also have an alarm to let you know when you've arrived back at the starting position and if you move too far off the saved path.

Desirable features

  • A thumbwheel or joystick can make the device easier to use if the interface is designed well.
  • The control placement makes a big difference in being able to use the device one-handed or not. According to our experts, controls along the top and sides of the GPS are easier to use.
  • PC or Mac software is useful for setting up maps before heading out for a hike or downloading your trip afterwards. All but the Garmin eTrex H have this capability and come with the necessary cable.
  • A topograhical map is useful for seeing contour lines, though none on test come with this feature. Check the maps available for the models on test at the contact websites; you may be able to buy them more cheaply from third party vendors. We found prices starting from $299.
  • Two-in-one GPSs such as the Magellan CrossoverGPS can be used both as a car and hiking GPS, supplying maps for both functions, as well as topographical maps for the handheld GPS function. It’s a little difficult to hold because of its width, and did not score well in acquisition or battery tests. In our recent car GPS report, the CrossoverGPS scored 70% overall.
  • Some Handheld GPS have no mapping capabilities, but have a very good electronic compass and could indicate not only the barometric pressure but also the rate of change effectively giving you a portable weather station. This will probably lower the battery performance compared to other units due to the fact that they will be constantly collecting barometric pressure information, even when turned off.

05.Other GPS functions

 

Caching the geography

A growing number of hikers are becoming interested in “geocaching”, where a handheld GPS is used to “hunt” points of interest either from other hikers or coordinates found online. All that’s required is a PC or Mac connection and relevant software to plug in the coordinates and download them to your GPS – then it’s simply a case of preparing for a hike and following the route to a point of interest.

All the handheld GPS models on test can be used for geocaching, although the Garmin eTrex H requires you to punch in the coordinates manually unless you purchase the cable necessary for PC or Mac connectivity.

Saving a waypoint

Saving a waypoint — such as a river crossing, interesting rock formation or even hard-to-find bookstore — is an ideal way to record any route markers or points of interest when you're out walking (they're called points of interest on car GPS units). Simply press a button or two on the unit. If you want it to record the entire journey, a tracking feature creates a snail-trail that evolves as you move. Once a track is created, you can save it as a route to use later or to guide you back to your original position.

Google tie-in

Google Earth (http://earth.google.com) accepts latitude and longitude figures to zoom straight to any spot on earth. So you can just enter stored waypoints from your handheld GPS to show others spots along your last trek.

Some products provide the option to take the experience further; Google Earth Plus (annual subscription $20) allows you to export tracks from your GPS onto Google Earth, such as a treacherous ravine crossing in Kosciusko National park or a perhaps even more treacherous literary pub crawl in Dublin. Connect your unit to the PC, upload your route information and the complete journey will be shown on a Google Earth map for all to see.

Mapping options

Handheld GPS come with a basic world map, but you can't get a detailed electronic Australian topographic map without paying more.  

  • Some units have the DiscoverAus Topo SD map ($400), which does provide impressive contour details, accurate to 5m.
  • Some units use the Tracks4Australia ($180 with 20m contour intervals).
  • Some units use Topo Plus ($129 with 10m contour intervals).

Electronic topographic maps are contained on a removable flash memory card and provide very good detail on surrounding areas and contours, but the small screens of some units make it difficult to gain a wider view of the area. Higher-resolution screens provide the best readability of the compact units.

Some units claim support for additional marine navigation maps for those with a nautical bent. These give good depth information as well as details of buoys, lighthouses and anchorages.

You can also use a map program on a PC to set waypoints and routes at home before you head out, and if you want to show off what a hardy bushwalker you are, you can upload routes back to a map on a PC to show where you've been. All units we looked at can use mapping software on the PC, but while it's standard on most, it's an optional extra for some. Check before you buy.

Other findings

All the units we looked at performed accurately when getting a fix on the required number of satellites, with differences ranging from around 3m to 12m. A wider range was observed when trying to calculate altitude, with some out by a significant 42m. However, it's generally more important to know where you are than how high you are.

Under a clear sky, you should expect handheld GPS units to take no longer than a minute to locate their position. However, when confronted with dense foliage, they vary in the time taken to get a fix.

While a handheld GPS provides very accurate recordings of individual waypoints and treks, we recommend carrying and learning to use a compass and paper topographical map as backup for anything longer than a short hike.