04 July 2006

First time GPS Experience with a Garmin GPSMAP76C

I like to investigate my gadget purchases in detail before making them - as I did with my Canon PowerShot S2 IS camera earlier this year. But just before leaving for the Algarve I suddenly decided that it might be quite useful to have a GPS device. After all, we were going somewhere we didn't know that well, and we were intending to do cycle rides all over the place with maps that were less than O/S quality. I really didn't know much about GPS, navigation and the capability of devices so it was hard to even decide what I would like to have in my first device.

A few months ago, I had been toying with the idea of getting a bluetooth GPS receiver for my mobile phone and using software on the phone for navigation. TomTom Mobile seemed to be a potential solution. However, I wasn't even sure that I wanted "navigation" per se. And given the low battery life of the phone, did I want to put all my eggs in one basket? Would it all be a bit of a compromise? And how would it work on a bike with 2 different bits of kit?

So, I lowered my expectations a bit and looked more at dedicated GPS devices for outdoors use. These would tell me where I was and allow me to track a route for instance. They would also tell me my speed, altitude etc, though with my bike computer, I get these anyway. I would probably be able to download and upload tracks and points on my own-devised routes, though I was not intending to do this initially. I then did a bit of searching and came up with one major stumbling block - Mac support. It seems that the vast majority of devices support only Windows computers, and even worse, that they do this using the truly ancient RS232 (serial) connections. USB is supported on such devices only by use of an additional USB-serial converter. For Mac support, I noted a number of third party solutions that would theoretically give me some functionality with many devices ranging from freeware through to the well-reviewed but certainly not free MacGPSPro. So, I felt a bit better about getting my Mac to communicate with whatever device I eventually chose, and decided that at least if I went directly for a device with real USB connections, that would probably be a better bet long term (and not require an additional dongle). I also noted that Garmin had claimed at the start of this year that they would be fully supporting the Mac by the end of 2006, which seemed a good sign. However, just last week they admitted to being behind on this project, so who knows what and when we'll see anything.

I checked a few sites and looked at reviews, and found what appeared to be a great deal - a Garmin GPSMAP76C for £99 all in. This is not just a modern GPS receiver but also has mapping built-in with a colour screen. It was listed on some sites for multiple times this amount, and had retailed for over £350 I believe. Admittedly the basic maps included are indeed basic and couldn't be used for most vehicle navigation, but if I liked it I could always buy other maps - both route and topographic - and upload those into the device (once Garmin actually supports the Mac that is). I was trying to see what the catch was with this, but at that price I couldn't. Just in case, I decided to visit the store directly and see it for myself. In real life I was a bit shocked at the size - it's not really a pocket device for instance. And in the design department its no iPod. But I felt the rest of the features and the almost-no-brainer price meant I could try out a full-featured device cheaply and see which things I would like in a next generation version. Surely I'd be able to sell it on eBay without losing much money (the same device was actually selling at about £200!)? So, I rationalised the decision and went for it!

Experiences so far:

General use in Car and Plane: The device is quite useful in the car in places you don't know because the maps cover the basic road system across Europe (in the UK this includes all motorways, most/all A roads and even some B roads). So it certainly helped us track our route to our villa in the Algarve, but not without the detailed instructions. It also shows even quite small towns which may not even be on the included roads, but this still aids in navigation. On the plane the device wasn't much USE (after all I wasn't the pilot) but it was a lot of FUN! It gave me just about everything I've seen on a Virgin/Emirates screen - under my own control. I suspect the device will only do this for Europe, but it was still good to be seeing which places we were flying over, what our speed was and our height. Note however that you need a window seat to use it and to hold it very close to the window itself!

Bike riding use: I was not able to get the handlebar mount in time, so it sat in a bag on the rear of the bike which lessened it's use. But it helped us several times - indeed even saved our bacon once - again courtesy of the mapping features. On one route, we had chosen a very minor road, which turned unexpectedly into a track. We continued on this for many miles as it traversed its way up a mountain. We'd expected to hit a more major road some time back. I'm not sure why I waited so long, but when I looked at the device, the track it drew on the screen relative to the major road we had been on showed clearly we had taken a different route (though the paper map showed it as a road, not a track). In fact, we were going in the right direction and had made good headway even though it was not the road we'd intended. Of course, I could have checked earlier, and the mapping wasn't vital - it was easy to map lat/long to the map itself. But it certainly cheered us up as things looked to be getting difficult. Otherwise, it also helped several times showing us our direction using the compass and helping us see our altitude. I was even surprised how accurate the speed reading was, though there were some blips that meant the maximum speed would sometimes show as some silly number. But miles covered matched very closely to our speedometer. I have now ordered the handlebar mount, and look forward to using it throughout a ride. Incidentally, the screen is good even in bright daylight. Battery life using rechargeable AA's is about 8-10 hours of full-on use, which seems reasonable. So, I'm a complete convert for this for bike use - why did I wait so long?

Other points: I had some initial problems downloading tracks onto my Mac using some freeware/shareware applications. It turns out this was probably a Garmin firmware version issue which meant that the usb port did not behave properly. Eventually using VPC5 on Mac OS9 on my old Powerbook I was able to install both the mapping software AND to upgrade the firmware (not simple though - drivers for mapping and for other features must be different; Garmin's failure to answer support requests is also not a good sign). Connecting back to my Mac the device was then able to upload and download track data (though not maps). I downloaded the tracks from our Algarve rides, and mapped them onto Google Earth which I was trying for the first time. Cool indeed! An example of one of our routes is found here.

I then decided to purchase a copy of MacGPSPro which is perhaps the only serious application for Macs that allows use of many of the receivers on the market (Garmin, Magellan, etc). I'm still trying to understand all it can do and whether it's worth the $50 fee (no demo version, but a 30-day moneyback offer is included). Although MacGPSPro can do lots of things with maps (paid or free) it can neither read the Garmin maps or upload it's own maps to the Garmin receivers. I know this is more an issue with Garmin's proprietaryness than MacGPSPro, but it does limit the usefulness of the application, and may mean that all I need really is a simple trackloading software combined with GoogleEarth for doing much of what I'd like to do.

I think also the cost of the maps is a real problem to major adoption. It's not that I object to paying, say £150 for the maps, it's that I might pay that once, and have to pay it again if I switched devices. Really, when we buy maps we should be buying the RIGHT to the map in copyright terms with a much smaller amount due if we decide to switch devices or for different formats. This got me thinking about DRM and music again and put the problem in perspective. DRM is a solution to a problem (not a great solution, but one nonetheless). To legislate against the solution is wrong - it's just a technology. The legislation should be about the problem - which is copyright. Let's get this right once and for all. If I buy something copyrighted, my rights to my enjoyment of that copy should be clearly defined, no matter how it's actually enforced. I should be able to swap the technology used to enjoy my copyrighted material simply and cheaply assuming that it can't be universal. I should not have to buy it again. Don't legislate for DRM - legislate about copyrights - for music, writing, works of art, images etc. Anyway, I've got a bit off-topic here. Back to that one on another day!

Anyhow, my conclusion is that I really like having a GPS device (despite its size and design). It was very useful and will be more useful as I learn more about it. Touring cyclists who haven't used GPS yet really should try one and see the benefits such devices can bring. In the end I'm pleased with getting some basic mapping in the device as well, as it certainly aids in understanding where you are relative to other places. At £99 the GPSMAP76C is a pretty damn fine deal from GPS Warehouse (no affiliation), but there aren't many left! Just stock up on batteries!

I'd love to here from people with more knowledge on this subject than me - especially in regards to using such devices for bike touring, or feel free to ask a question if you're interested in some more detail.

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Anonymous said...

Hello! Nice review! I got mine yesterday from GPS Warehouse. Gpsmap 76c cost here in Finland about 550 € and now I got it for 155€ delivered. Good GPS deal I would say and lot of functions.

james m said...

Hi Ian,

I've used a number of Gps units for cycling. My favorite is the combination of a pocket pc (I use a HP hx4700) and bluetooth gps with Memory Map navigator. This gives OS 1:50k scale moving maps and is great for tricky routes. Battery life with an extended battery is 13 hrs for the pocket pc and the battery for the gps lasts about 8 hrs. Plenty for a long day ride.

I also use a Garmin Fortrex 201 normally with a route pre-loaded from the pc which I just follow. The lack of road mapping can be a pain sometimes as you can miss turnings. The other downside of the Fortrex is that it isn't that sensitive and sometimes loses satelite lock in wooded areas, something the latest SiRF III gps units are much better at.


Ian Hobson said...

Hi anonymous,
Thanks for stopping by. Hope you enjoy your unit. Mine came with version 3.5 of firmware. Official version is now 4.1 It seemed to me the USB has problems on the older firmware. So, best to update it via Garmin webupdater as soon as you can.

Hi James,
That's a nice setup you have. If you already have a pocketpc then it makes financial sense. In my case, I don't have one, and wanted to get into this area simply. If I did buy Gamin mapping software for UK it would mean the total would come to around £250 I think - and I could get either topographic UK maps or road maps. I don't think the 76C is SiRF enabled (the 76CX is). Reception seems ok but it does seem to lose accuracy in valleys etc.


Nigel said...

Couple of thoughts:

Batteries. Use NiMH rechargeables rather than disposable. For touring get a Uniross Globe Trotter charger (which is about 70g!). I paid £20 in the UK for the charger, including adaptor plugs for UK and Europe - it has US pins as standard.

Handlebar mounts. This URL is how I have mine fitted to a bar-bag quick. So, the GPS comes off the bike along with the bag (which is where I keep my money, camera, etc). The plug piece is a bit of Delrin (Acetal), though wooden dowel would work. Just drill an offset hole for the bar bag rail, then saw it in half through the centre of the hole. The bag-clamp will hold the two bits together.


If using any form of handlebar mount, then use a lanyard to secure the GPS to the handlebar (to catch it if the GPS jumps off the bracket), BUT be sure the lanyard is short enough that it won't tangle in the front wheel !

Ian Hobson said...

Thanks for stopping by. You make some excellent points.

I am using rechargeable batteries. It takes the same ones as my camera, so I carry a bunch extra with me. This cuts down on cost, though usage is probably more like a full day/day and a half.

The lanyard suggestion is also a good one. My device is quite large, and I had been concerned at this. I still haven't tried it yet, but that seems a good idea.

Your mount is cool too - thanks for the link!