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Handheld Mapping GPS

High Tech Gadget for Outdoors

July 24, 2012
Bill Waugaman , Ohio Valley Outdoors

GPS units have made substantial improvements in the last several years as technology continually develops. When you drive around, it's quite common to see them mounted on dashes of cars and trucks. They make getting from point A to point B on the roads a lot easier. These technological advances have also been incorporated into handheld GPS units which have even more capabilities than the automotive variety. Handheld GPS units can be divided into two categories, basic and mapping. Basic units are like the automotive variety; they can give you location, compass readings, elevation, directions for traveling roads and some limited interactive functionality. Basic units are designed with a primary function or purpose. Handheld GPS units with mapping capabilities enters a whole new level of versatility. In addition to the functions of a basic unit, mapping GPS units can record your travel on or off road, record locations, identify terrain, plot courses, show global positioning, etc. Mapping GPS units can be enhanced with different types of maps or maps from different geographic areas; these units are even more interactive and can be customized to the user's needs.

If you enjoy outdoors activities, you're probably wondering why a mapping GPS would be useful. For fishing, you can returning to the exact location of a walleye hot spot out on a lake; when hunting, finding your way in or out of an unfamiliar woods in the dark; trappers can mark trap locations while setting up a trapline; boaters can get back to the dock even when they can't see the shoreline; if camping in remote areas, knowing your exact location in case of an emergency; hikers can return to a trail if diverted; knowing the terrain is a big benefit to ATV riders. The more you use a mapping GPS, the more uses you find for it.

-- Choosing a Handheld Mapping GPS

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To keep the review on a level playing field, I chose relatively comparable models, a Garmin eTrex Vista HCx and a DeLorme Earthmate PN-40. Since the DeLorme PN-40 includes TopoUSA and mapping software as part of the package, the Garmin Vista HCx was tested with their Trip & Waypoint Manager software (included) and City Navigator (optional). The Vista HCx and Earthmate PN-40 both have a one year warranty. As compared, the MSRPs were within $50.

The Vista HCx and Earthmate PN-40 have many physical similarities in addition to the small size that allows for one hand operation. Both handhelds have a 256 color, hi-res TFT screen that is 176 x 220 pixels (1.3" x 1.7") with an update rate of 1/second (continuous); both are IPX7 water resistant (can withstand accidental immersion in 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes); both are Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) enabled which improves accuracy and integrity with GPS satellites; both have a wide variety of optional accessories (dash mount, handlebar mount, power cord, etc.) and maps. The Vista HCx and Earthmate PN-40 have a very high sensitivity to satellite signals which gives the user two big benefits, excellent accuracy in reporting position and you don't loose the satellite signals when carried in a pocket or backpack.

Garmin and Delorme have designed their handheld mapping GPS units so they are very user friendly to operate and easy to customize to an individual's needs. For example, both handhelds have the different information screens that can be turned off/on and the sequence changed for the order they appear, background screen coloration can be changed, some screens allow the information fields to be turned on/off or changed, you can choose between driving and hiking for a route to travel, you can do a search by address, both can measure distances between points, both have a Trip Meter, both handhelds have Geocache capability, both have Sun & Moon timetables and Hunting & Fishing forecasts. Best of all, if you changed some settings but can't remember how to reverse the changes, both handhelds can easily revert to original settings with a 'Default Settings' selection. Even the start-up screen on the Vista HCx and Earthmate PN-40 can be personalizeds. The Vista HCx user interface is primarily icon driven while the Earthmate PN-40 user interface is menu selections.

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While they have numerous features in common, there are some physical and operational differences. To see how they compare, check out the following articles:

Garmin eTrex Vista HCx Detailed Description:

DeLorme Earthmate PN-40 Detailed Description:

Bottom Line -- I have an older handheld mapping GPS that has fulfilled my needs for numerous years. These newer models from Garmin and Delorme are far superior. As tested, the Vista HCx with the City Navigator microSD card has the edge with better road and highway capabilities; the Earthmate PN-40 with included maps excels in the off road topographic use. Battery life definitely favors the Vista HCx. The ability to have multiple maps loaded and used at the same time is a big plus for the Earthmate PN-40. If you prefer to make one purchase, the Earthmate PN-40 is the choice you should make since it includes topographic and mapping software. It is also available with a 'travel power kit'. If you prefer to be selective in your purchase, the Vista HCx can be purchased separately with the wide selection of maps and various accessories available individually.

Both the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx and Delorme Earthmate PN-40 are excellent products. Even after six weeks of testing, I continue to find more functions, features and capabilities with both of them. For example, the actual screen shots from these GPS units is another capability (an quick email to ask how to do it, and the response came in a couple hours from both companies; a big A+ for Garmin and Delorme customer service). It would be more of a personal preference on which one best fits your needs. You won't go wrong with either one...

First Published April 2010



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