Garmin is now delivering its latest portable do-everything device, the clean-sheet design GPSMap 696. If you've seen the ads or heard word of mouth on it, I'd guess that despite the $3,295 price tag you probably want one. Listen to that instinct.
You won't be alone in that desire, that's for sure. Garmin succeeded in having the 696 ready to ship and in stock in good numbers before it launched it at the AOPA Convention in November. Despite that hard work, orders were so hot that after a couple of days at the show, Garmin dealers were selling out, evidence that the portable has hit a sweet spot with aviation consumers. And this is at a time when sales of high-ticket electronic items everywhere else are taking a monumental dive.
It was almost nine months ago that I first got the chance to try out the GPSMap 696 when I was invited to the company's Olathe, Kansas, headquarters under cover of darkness -- well, I did have to promise to keep it hush-hush.
I wasn't disappointed, and it was hard to keep the promise and keep my mouth shut, not because I can't keep a secret but because I wanted to share the news. It's not every day that you get a sneak peak at something special, and this one's definitely a groundbreaking product.
Portable? Handheld? EFB? Panel in a Box?
Even though the GPSMap 696 is another step in a long lineup of successful portable devices from Garmin, it is in some important ways fundamentally different than anything the company has built before.
For starters, it's a lot bigger than any Garmin aviation portable before it. It is, in fact, exactly as big as the primary flight display in the Cessna SkyCatcher LSA. And the glass is beautiful, about the best I've seen in an aviation product, panel mount or otherwise. It's bright and sharp, even in the glare of a sunny 10,000-foot cockpit, and the colors and shading and contrast are so stunning that it's hard not to just sit there and admire it. And while it's not directly related to the display itself, the high resolution and crispness of the screen is useful only because the processors behind it are so fast. When you pan or zoom with the 696, it updates very quickly, especially in the map mode, where you want fast response times the most.
Unlike previous Garmin portables, it's also a product that gives you some regulatory relief. It qualifies as a Class I or Class II Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). As such, you Part 91 pilots can use the unit to display approach charts without having to bring paper charts along at all. To do that, however, you need to keep your e-charts updated, no ifs, ands or buts. Using the built-in USB port, that is a quick and painless process.
The 696 ships with built-in approach charts, Garmin's well-done FliteCharts, which are based on the government's terminal procedures charts. The chart display on the 696 isn't quite as big as an actual paper chart, but the zoom and pan functions are very fast and easy to use. The tradeoff for the more manageable size of the 696 is a slightly smaller viewable chart size. I'll take that trade.
Jeppesen electronic charts, which you can get on the G1000, are even better, but they're not available on the 696, though Garmin hasn't stated conclusively that they won't be at some time in the future.
The 696 comes preloaded with the charts, but you do need to keep them current or they automatically become unavailable for use on the unit. The subscription costs $395 a year and is available from Garmin's greatly simplified website, fly.garmin.com. The EFB value is notable not only because you won't have to carry binders on your trips, but in terms of cash, too. With the 696 you don't need the paper charts, so you can stash that dough away. In that way the 696 will pay for itself in the course of a few years.
In addition to displaying approach procedures, the 696 is also an excellent instrument navigator, to a point.
Just as with the GNS 430 or 530 or the G1000, you can select an instrument procedure and add it the flight plan. A couple of button pushes -- the paper chart is automatically loaded for you when you add it to the flight plan -- and you can pull up the FliteChart for the procedure.
Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, Garmin only puts the final approach course into the flight plan, so if you want the outer points, perhaps on a T-style GPS approach, you'll have to manually add them. I'm sure it's a way of Garmin reminding pilots that the 696 isn't an approved IFR navigator, which I guess is a good reason, but I'm pretty sure users are aware of that fact going in.
There are a few other shortcomings, though they're equally intentional. You need to remember that, unlike some EFBs, this isn't a notebook or tablet computer with Garmin software on it. It's a dedicated aviation unit, which, in my mind, is a great reason to buy it. I, along with every other pilot I know, already have a laptop. What I want is a portable aviation device. This one does that job very well and leaves music playing to Apple, Microsoft Word to Compaq and automotive mapping to ... well, to Garmin, I guess.
Easy to Use
The list of features on the 696 is long, which raises a big design challenge. Namely, how do you make a very feature-rich product easy to use?