I, personally am a big fan of GPS devices for wilderness navigation. As with any electronic device, there are tradeoffs for things like usability (aka user friendliness), power consumption, performance, durability, size and cost. Smartphones are very powerful mobile computers that some try to replace trail hardened dedicated systems with but this is a very unreliable and potentially dangerous scenario if redundant systems are not used. The biggest issue with relying on a smartphone is durability and the second being reliable power consumption and charging. Most smartphones are not easily charged or can even have their batteries changed in the backcountry. This dictates the requirement for dedicated electronics. Garmin is a leader in mobile GPS navigation systems and their “trail” line consists of many great options. I am intimately familiar with the ETrex lineup (having used the 20 and 30 models since they were released a few years
ago and the GPSMap 64s unit that I bought to replace the ETrex. The GPSMap 64 series replaces the 62 series and was released earlier this year (2014). In my opinion, any good, useable GPS is only as good as the maps you have loaded into it, and Garmin has a great selection of maps depending on your location and the 64s can load most third party maps and customer imagery including satellite overlays. I live in Squamish, BC, CAnada and as a result most of my adventures are in BC and the Pacific Northwest, the states of Oregon, WAshington, Idaho and sometimes Utah. TopoCanada, Garmin’s electronic map files are at Version 4 (V4) and include Electronic Elevation Data (DEM) and shaded relief rendering which is displayable on the 64s.
Physical Characteristics, Button Layout and Screen
Generally speaking, the 64s is the same size as the previous 62 series units, which compares to a compact FRS or GMRS radio and antenna at with a 2.6 inch (diagonal) “sunlight readable” screen as advertised by Garmin. In bright direct sunlight, there is a definite glare on the screen and not as easy to read as say in darkness with a backlight, but it is still useable…Detailed physical specs etc can be found at http://www.Garmin.com, as this is a hands on review not just a re-hashed website spec and out of the box review.
Since I have moved from the Etrex 30 unit to the 64s, the button layout is the biggest change. I prefer real buttons to touch screens on an outdoor device as it makes it much easier to use with gloves or mitts on or a dirty screen without having to remove gloves or find some sort of stylus as other users have preferred. There are well labeled dedicated buttons for screen and maps zoom, cursor control (that also moves the cursor diagonally across the screen, something lost on the Etrex series and the click stick control), Enter key, Find key, Page key and waypoint Mark key, Quit or exit key and of course a dedicated power button on the side. All of the device controls are on the bottom front of the unit, easily reachable with one handed, thumb operation in either hand.
On the back there is a mini USB connection as well as a coaxial connection meant to attach an external antenna, these are covered by a heavy rubber cover that squeezes into place. Also on the back battery cover is a attachment for mounts that is compatible with the same accessories as the Etrex series which is a nice touch so you do not have to buy new mounts. When mounted on the handlebar of my mountain bike, while at the larger end of what I would install there, the 64s is still not too obtrusive.
Software and Performance
The biggest reasons for me upgrading to the 64s was the speed and performance of the processor. No specific details are given from Garmin on the internal hardware characteristics, but in comparison to the current Etrex lineup, the speed of map scrolling, which is a very important function, is virtually instant, or continuous on the 64s, whereas the Etrex has a very long pause (many seconds) before the screen refreshes and shows the new map locations. This map scrolling speed was faster when either travelling or when using the cursor to explore regions of the map not currently on display.
The basic software “pages” or screens are very consistent between the Etrex and 64s and this is no surprise to keep the user familiar with the handheld’s layout.
The most common two screens for me are the trip computer and the topographic map screen. As with most of the units, the screens or pages are customizable to whatever level you prefer. On the map screen, I prefer no text or data fields to get the most out of the map on a small handheld screen. The trip computer screen vary depending on whether I am using it for cycling or mountaineering and skiing.
The waypoint and track screens are familiar from other units as well. One really nice feature is the multi map capability where you can turn each map feature on or off as desired. In the screen above, this is where you see the Birdseye imagery overlays that Garmin offers once downloaded from their website and uploaded to the unit. They are essentially Google Earth type pictures, but I found have their limitations with cloud cover and some details, they do not have the zoom level detail that Google Earth seems to have. Perhaps this is to keep the file sizes to a manageable level.
One thing I found awkward at first was being able to save a waypoint at a location other than your current one while using the handheld in the field. By awkward I really mean not intuitive, but once you figure it out, it is fine. When scrolling, you need to hit the enter key on the location and then the menu key and select save as waypoint. This is not on the dedicated “mark” button, that always uses your current location for a waypoint.
The signal reception is as good as ever with a Quad helix style antenna, vs the Etrex series with Patch antennas, personally the Etrex 30 has great reception and accuracy, when both are activated on the GPS and GlONASS networks. There is perhaps a marginal increase in accuracy with the 64s, when looking at field tracks on uploaded onto mapping software of Google Earth. I did not conduct a detailed study regarding this factor yet.
One gripe with all of the Garmin software that I have used is the fact that the default for uploaded tracks onto the units are that they do not show up on the map. This is normally a small inconvenience, where you have to go to each track file in the unit and select it to Show on map, then is stated hide on map when its actually shown, a bit confusing if you do not know the convention. At times I have to load up to 8 tracks onto 8 different GPS units so you can see where it would be nice to be able to change the default settings. I called Garmin support about this and there is currently no way around it.
All in all, I recommend the 64s if it fits within your budget, but if you are upgrading and already have topo maps on file, it does not make sense the buy the 64st as you would be paying for maps that you already have, other than that, the units are identical.