Technology

Garmin's Latest is One Sturdy Travel Companion


Garmin_gpsmap60cx_110x100
Editor's Rating: star rating

Though not as tidy as its peers, this GPS system provides navigation expertise in a tradtionally handsome package

To keep pace with competitors, tech gadgets are generally supposed to get sleeker and smaller with each revision. Garmin's (GRMN) GPSMAP 60Cx handheld GPS navigation device bucks that trend, wholeheartedly adopting a chunky, rough-and-tumble look and feel.

Undoubtedly, in a crowd of miniaturized, high-fashion personal GPS devices, the 60Cx— which goes for about $430—would make for a bulky, rubbery outcast. Luckily it's intended to help one navigate the great outdoors, where a robust constitution is a virtue, not a fashion faux pas.

Given its looks and intended market—backpackers and outdoorsy types—the 60Cx is, in many ways, a throwback to GPS's earlier days as heavy-duty, military-grade hardware. Yet that doesn't mean Garmin hasn't packed the device with the newest technology, including USB connectivity, expandable memory, and accompanying PC-based map software.

Brawn and Brains

Still, the star of this show is the SiRFStarIII GPS receiver chipset, widely acknowledged among the best—i.e., the most sensitive to satellite signals—currently available. Those brains are matched to a massive antenna that, admittedly, gives the unit a more than passing resemblance to a satellite phone. Welcome to the world of hardcore GPS devices, where chipsets and antennas gets consumers amped up.

The robust hardware translates into exceptionally strong performance. I tested the unit through a series of long hikes, in varying conditions including heavy tree cover and rain. None of these proved much trouble for the 60Cx, which tracked movements faithfully, even under heavy foliage cover.

To help customers get their 400 bucks worth, Garmin has made the unit compatible with boating, biking, and car travel. Thanks to the unit's shape, it can be a bit awkward to use in your car, but its directions are spot-on. Lacking a boat, I wasn't able to test nautical navigation, but reports from owners on GPS-enthusiast Web sites are positive.

I didn't take the unit out for more than six hours at a time. But given the battery drain during those trips, I would guess Garmin's estimate of 18 hours per set of batteries isn't too optimistic. Of course, as with laptop power, longevity in this gizmo depends largely on use. In other words, your juice may vary. Still, performance is impressive from two AA batteries.

Bells and Whistles

There are lots of nice little touches that only become apparent through extended use. For instance, as on many cell phones, you can customize the welcome screen with either your favorite Hemingway quote or Jon Krakauer passage. The user interface adopts a Palm-esque icon set that's easy on the eyes and easy to use.

The 60Cx's construction is so tough, a Lewis or a Clark couldn't help but love it. At 7.5 oz. with batteries, it feels sturdy in hand and, consumer-friendly software notwithstanding, has a military-grade quality to it.

Better yet, the battery compartment is sealed with a thick rubber gasket. The device is thus waterproof so that it can be submerged in three feet of water for about 30 minutes without damage.

One of the more modern touches is the microSD (secure digital) expansion slot. This allows you to store maps on the device or multiple cards if you wish. The unit comes with a 64 megabyte card. Annoyingly, the card slot is located under the batteries, making it inconvenient to switch out memory.

Garmin provides PC-based mapping software that allows you to transfer maps from your computer to the unit's memory card via USB or serial port. It's an intuitive process, very much like using iTunes to sync music to an iPod.

All in all, the Garmin 60Cx is one of the best GPS devices I've ever tested—and it should be. That's because this unit is intended for trips where navigation is a potentially crucial function, rather than mere convenience or entertainment.

I wouldn't go on any long camping or backcountry trips without backup paper maps and a good old compass. But the GPSMAP 60Cx is robust enough that you'll likely tote those analog backups at the very bottom of your pack.

Matt Vella is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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