Over the past few years, new portable GPS handhelds have emerged that offered options that are unavailable or unaffordable for many airplane owners, and especially for renters. With the introduction of the latest handheld from Garmin, the landscape has changed.
The 296 might look like a colorized version of the popular 196 gray-scale handheld that Garmin introduced last year, but it's more like a handheld GNS 430 navigator (minus the comm functions, of course). Like the 196, the 296 has silky smooth software-but the new color model packs a wealth of new features.
While, with the exception of the color display, the 296 looks much like the 196 from the outside, the guts of the color model are new. Inside a new, faster processor, operating at 200 MHz, allows for fast panning.
Speaking of which, the screen, a 3.8-inch color TFT, is a thing of beauty. Colors are bright and clear, the sunlight readability is very good and screen refreshes are lightning fast. After using the 196 for more than a year now, I was skeptical about how much color would bring to the table-like everybody else, I've been anticipating a color version from Garmin since the 196's introduction. I'm skeptical no longer. The color screen makes it much easier to quickly recognize details on the map, like special use airspace and obstructions that took longer to discern in shades of gray.
But the killer app for the 296, without a doubt, is terrain. Garmin doesn't call the utility TAWS, the official FAA acronym for terrain awareness and warning system, but many pilots who use it probably will, in part because the symbology used to represent terrain and obstacles on the 296 is so similar to that used on FAA certified, panel-mount TAWS boxes. Yellow colored terrain is from 500 to 1,000 feet below the airplane-altitude is WAAS derived-and red terrain is within 100 feet (an uncomfortably close proximity, if you ask me). In addition to the color-coded terrain on the terrain utility, the 296 also issues visual cautions with pop-up text when the proximity of the terrain or obstacles ahead becomes a looming issue.
Color, terrain and WAAS sound good, but it just gets better. The 296 boasts a laptop-style rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack that will run the unit for up to 15 hours on typical backlight usage and for around eight hours on full backlight. There's also greatly increased memory, allowing users to store more data than ever before on a Garmin handheld, an improved USB-capable computer interface, and more storage for user routes (up to 50) and saved tracks (up to 15 with 700 points apiece).
The 296 also comes with many accessories as standard equipment, including a yoke mount, lighter adapter, PC interface and remote antenna. The 296 also doubles as an extremely capable auto navigator with features that are greatly improved over the very capable 196. Most noteworthy of these is turn-by-turn voice guidance (with the optional auto kit). A third mode, marine, boasts a worldwide marine database and U.S. tide data.
All this comes at a price; the 296 goes for a hefty $1,799; the street prices should be as much as a couple of hundred dollars less. That's still not cheap, but with all of the 296's features, particularly the impressive terrain and auto nav modes, as well as its typically excellent Garmin usability, in my view, the 296 is still a bargain at that price. For more information, visit www.garmin.com.