The screen, of course, is the thing, and the 796’s 7-inch-diagonal LCD is bright and its touch screen is responsive in just the right way, knowing, seemingly, exactly what your intentions were, where you meant to touch and whether the contact was an accidental brush or a real command. One of the big selling points of the iPad is its great screen, and while the 796 can’t compete in terms of sheer size, it fits beautifully in the cockpit, better in some instances than the iPad, which can be a handful in tight spaces.
The Garmin 796 is meant to be wired, so a permanent placement in the cockpit is best, though it takes only a few moments to plug and place if you’re in a rented or shared airplane, as I was when I tested mine. The battery life is good enough for a long cross-country leg, but not good enough to go without the power cord in most cases. You’ll also be plugging in the XM antenna. The GPS antenna, at least in the Cirrus, was completely unnecessary. The built-in antenna worked flawlessly. Still, with a semi-permanent installation, you can route wires behind panels and use cord clips to keep things uncluttered.
The 796 isn’t really a handheld, but in a pinch you could use it as one. It can be mounted to the side window, which I did in the Cirrus, or worn on a kneeboard, which I didn’t try. The back of the unit is contoured, so it will sit quite nicely on one knee. Simply put the unit into the portrait view mode, and you’ve got a next-generation kneeboard. Many pilots will mount the unit to the yoke, which is what I would do if the Cirrus had a yoke. In portrait mode, which I greatly preferred, the 7-inch screen is absolutely perfect. Even the approach charts, which I thought would look too small on the 796’s screen, were just right.
Being a dedicated unit, the Garmin 796 has one advantage over the iPad: dedicated keys. Along the bottom of the screen, or to the side, depending on which way you have the unit configured, there are big backlit keys for escape (to go back a screen), menu, direct to, and nearest. I found myself using some keys, like menu and escape, a lot and the direct to and nearest keys very little. I’m curious to hear how other pilots do it.
In terms of software, the killer app on the 796 is synthetic vision, which Garmin, for its portable products, refers to as 3-D vision. Arrayed around a sharp and smooth synthetic vision window are an airspeed tape (groundspeed, actually), an altitude tape (again, GPS altitude) and, along the top, a heading (track) indicator reference. While pilots flying steam gauge airplanes might be tempted to rely on the 796 for attitude, they are cautioned against doing that. It is not an attitude-based system; it derives its position information from GPS. If steam gauges are your thing, there’s also Garmin’s already well-known “panel page,” which shows a cluster of virtual flight instruments with its information derived, again, from GPS. There is, as with other Garmin portables, great terrain awareness, with obstacles, TAWS-like color-coding of terrain and GPS altitude readouts.
You can even connect the 796 to TIS traffic, to give it yet another handy safety feature that displays on the 3-D vision, very much as it does on Garmin’s panel-mount hardware. Indeed, connectivity is a strong suit of the 796. Many owners of Experimental airplanes will mount the Garmin 796 in the panel and connect it to a traffic sensor.
There are a lot of things the 796 can do, though most of those features are available on the iPad through one app or another, though not in a form as easy to use or as elegant as on the 796. Most of them, in fact, can be found in Garmin’s own iPad app, Pilot My-Cast.