Not to be outdone by its success at the high end of the market with its $1,795-GPSMap 296 color moving map handheld with terrain advisories, at Oshkosh, Garmin introduced a pair of new handhelds. The GPSMap 96 and 96C are budget-priced handhelds that replace the incredibly popular but by now long-in-the-tooth GPS III Pilot. The new gray-scale and color screen handhelds sell for $499 and $699 respectively and are available from Garmin dealers now.
It's not a fair fight to pit the 96-series handhelds against the III Pilot, as the current generation boasts features borrowed from several years of development of both handheld and panel-mount navigators.
For starters, there's WAAS, so accuracy, down to 30 feet or so, is a given. The units also have a safety-of-flight feature that pilots have been asking about for years: obstacles, such as towers and tall buildings. The 96 has a comprehensive database of obstacles, to help low-flying pilots steer clear of TV towers, and they go that one better by giving visual and audio alerts as the airplane nears an obstacle. (While a fancy addition, the audio alerts are of questionable value; unless you fly a sailplane, you won't be able to hear them in the cockpit.) More practical, so long as you keep the handheld within view, is the flashing red to white "obstacle" warning.
The units also benefit from much faster processors than their predecessors, and more memory-both units have 23 megabytes of internal memory. It shows. Pan ahead on the 96, and you can head out across the county or across the country at near-warp speed. Whereas with older, less powerful handhelds, you need to wait much too long every time the unit redraws the screen and reloads the map data, on the 96 there's barely a hitch as you pan ahead. At an 80-nm map range, I panned across the continent in a matter of seconds, something that was quite impossible on older units. Also, you can now zoom in and out seamlessly, so going in for a little more detail or back out for a little more situational awareness is effortless.
The displays are generally good, but for pilots who are struggling to read the fine print (that is, most of us), they're not very big, about one-and-a-half inches wide by two-and-a-quarter high. And the color 96C could be brighter. In a brightly lit cockpit, the display, while perfectly readable, doesn't jump out at you like the color display in the much more expensive and expansive 296. While the 96s run forever on a pair of AA batteries (40 hours for the color and 20 hours for the gray-scale at typical usage profiles), I'd plug in the unit, turn the backlighting up to high and leave it there.
That said, the detail you'll find on both displays is very good. Zoom in tight on an airport and see the runway layout, complete with runway numbers. If there are instrument approaches to the airport, you can see them, as well, and fly them too, though the data shown, obviously, is for guidance only. On the flight plan page, simply highlight the destination airport, hit menu, and select the approach you want. You can even specify your mode of getting to the approach, vectors or one of the published transitions.
If you've used Garmin navigators before, you know that their software is typically easy to understand and use, and that's the case with the 96 handhelds, too. The units borrow heavily from products that have gone before, so if you're familiar with how to operate a Garmin 430 or 530 panel-mount navigator, a 196 or 296 handheld, or even one of the company's outdoor or auto navigation products, the software and user interface on the 96 will be familiar to you.
While similar in design and function to the larger screen, more powerful 296, there are features you won't find on the 96-series handhelds. There's no panel page (the page that replicates a panel of flight instruments using GPS data; a feature that it seems to me, while packing lots of "wow" value, is of limited utility), and the terrain database and TAWS-like utility of the 296 is nowhere to be found, either. If you want those features, be prepared to open your wallet a lot wider.
There are surprisingly high-end features that are included on the 96s. The units are excellent auto navigators (though city-level street level maps are an optional product). You get turn-by-turn guidance-there's no voice, but a polite beep warns you when a turn lies ahead, and there's a built-in database of major roads and highways. For boaters, there's a basic marine database and navigator, and additional marine software products can be purchased and loaded on the unit. A USB port is included on the back, and a cable comes with the unit, so updating data and adding software is an easy task.
While they could be bigger and a bit brighter, the displays are fast and detailed. The software is silky smooth, and users get a wealth of features. Couple these ample attractions with prices starting at $499, and it looks as though Garmin has another pair of winning handhelds. For more information, visit www.garmin.com.