In this age of iPads and Androids and apps, is a dedicated portable device still relevant? That’s the question that some might be asking with the unveiling by Garmin of its latest flagship portable, the Garmin 796, which at this writing was top-secret. I have in my hands the only model not located behind lock and key in Olathe, Kansas.
Like many Flying readers, I’ve been using Garmin navigators for many years, and while I’ve tested and liked a number of other handhelds and portables from other manufacturers, when I was done trying them out, I’d always go back to a Garmin. In fact, it wasn’t until just last year that I started using any other electronic flight bag on a regular basis. It was, of course, an iPad. I’ve now flown with this new device for nearly a hundred hours while using a number of navigation and chart reader apps designed specifically for Apple’s tablet (which is, of course, how it works). Do I like the iPad? You bet I do. Who could help but love the big bright screen, long battery life and feathery light platform? On the other hand, the apps, while having a lot of upside, still have a ways to go.
So the question is, after spending a lot of quality time with the latest shiny thing, how would I like the latest model from Garmin that has single-handedly defined the aviation handheld with a number of breakthrough models over the years? Perhaps a better question is, has the aviation-specific portable been left behind or has it leapfrogged the iPad? Or do you need one of each?
The Garmin 796 is a dedicated portable in the vein of Garmin’s popular GPSMap 696 but making use of all new hardware, including a new touch screen and software designed to take advantage of it. You’ll notice the 796 has many fewer buttons than the 696. Garmin’s newest portable, in fact, has fewer buttons than the iPad, which has just three or four. The Garmin 796 has but one.
While the Garmin 796 fills the same role as the 696, it is more akin in spirit to Garmin’s Aera 560, the small, form-factor, touch-screen handheld the company introduced a couple of years ago. If you know the Aera software, you’ll feel right at home with the 796. Like the 560, the 796 features a home screen from which you launch a desired application. And there’s a lot to launch. More on that in a second.
The 796, I discovered, is a substantial piece of hardware, though it can be stored in its remarkably compact, zip-up, padded carry case. The unit has a bit of heft to it, weighing in on our scale at 1 pound 12 ounces. The styling is gorgeous, with rounded edges, a backlit dedicated key panel at the bottom of the unit and cooling vents around the edge interspersed with inputs galore, including ones for for USB, XM and GPS antennas, and memory cards. The back of the 796 is rubberized, so when you set it on the panel, there it will stay. The on/off button, which took me a few seconds to find, is placed at the beveled top edge of the unit, making it nearly impossible to accidentally turn off.