In addition to terminal charts, the 796 features both high and low en route instrument charts as well as scanned sectionals. On those map pages, the panning and zooming on the 796 is lightning fast. You can do the pinch-and-stretch thing with it, but the little zoom icons, displayed prominently but not intrusively on the map screen, worked more accurately for me. There’s Garmin’s SafeTaxi utility, which is a fabulously useful tool for keeping aware of just where you are on the airport surface. There’s the XM Weather utility, which you can superimpose on any of the map screens. The XM, of course, makes use of an add-on receiver and antenna, which Garmin includes in the purchase price, and requires an XM subscription. Along with all of that, you also get a document reader, on which I plan to put the operating manual and all my checklists for the Cirrus, the usual calculators and databases and more, including an airport information directory.
The flight planning function, which I use every time I go flying, is very well executed. You can enter waypoints by typing them into the flight plan — it’s easier than ever, thanks to the pop-up virtual keypad and smart logic borrowed from Garmin’s panel-mount touch screen. Want to change a flight plan waypoint? Simply press on the given waypoint and a pop-up menu appears asking you what you want to do. Touch that selection and you’re done. It makes the GNS 430 interface look positively antique. While there’s no graphical touch-screen flight planning yet, I’d be surprised not to see it offered as a free upgrade before long, though Garmin has made no such announcement.
There are still a lot of things you can’t do on the Garmin 796. There’s no Wi-Fi. You can’t use it to e-mail the office during a layover, and there’s, alas, no Angry Birds. The beauty of the iPad is that it makes a great backup. Since many pilots have an iPad to begin with, and since many iPad apps are very affordable, you can have the Apple product handy in case you need to pull up a chart or check on fuel prices.
What you do get from the 796 is a unit that’s ready to run from the time you take it out of the box, that is optimized to do exactly what you want it to do, utilizing mature software that’s easy to use and designed from the ground up for pilots. For my money, there’s also a certain amount of peace of mind associated with a known quantity. And when it comes to portable navigators, Garmin is that known quantity.
Many customers are sure to look not only at the purchase price but at ongoing subscription costs. At $2,499 street price, the Garmin 796 costs a lot more than an iPad and the apps you’ll need to make it an aviation device. (The non-XM-capable 795 model goes for a street price of $2,199.) The 796 comes, however, with a lot of accessories, including an excellent suction mount, a very useful desktop docking center, an XM receiver and cables, as well as a full data set. Going forward, the annual one-up cost for subscriptions is $499 per year. That includes Jeppesen nav data, geo-referenced approach charts, SafeTaxi and VFR and IFR en route charts. The XM Weather subscription costs $35 a month and up.
For mounting in the airplane and keeping it there, the Garmin 796 is the best portable I’ve seen. And even though the cost is higher than the competition’s, what you get with the 796 is a rugged and reliable aviation-specific product that does exactly what pilots want it to do because that’s what it was built to do in the first place.
And that is worth a lot.