June 3, 2005

GPS Review: Garmin eTrex Vista by GPS Lodge

The Garmin eTrex Vistahandheld GPS receiver is a great little handheld model.

While it is not the newest model on the market, The Garmin eTrex Vista feature set covers some of the most used features on general outings. The eTrex line has many common features that make them very popular: portable, many have good base maps, with the option of downloading more maps on some models, and a decent interface that is easy to use once you are familiar with it. The key added features for the Vista are: an altimeter, electronic compass, and additional internal memory (24MB total). Overall, the Vista is a solid product at the high end of the eTrex line, but is left wanting for key features that you might expect out of a device like this these days. While lacking some key modern features, it is still a solid handheld GPS receiver.

Basic Usage eTrex Vista
The eTrex boots up and finds available satellites in about a minute, which is rather slow. It can be WAAS enabled, which is to say that it can receive specialized signals for more accurate positioning (+/- 3 meters or 10ft). Like the Legend, the main screen is a map that shows where you are, with configurable fields at the bottom of the screen that has numerous options from velocity, to average speed, and time to destination. The map page can be easily zoomed to get the right amount of information. With a few clicks of a button, you can pan the map which allows you to determine distance to other objects or locations from your current location.

The compass screen allows you can do several navigational tricks. These functions are great for finding your way through a hike in the woods, or when you are trying to navigate from one location to another using known distances, or known landmarks. By using the Sight n Go feature, it's easy to pick a direction and lock into it. Another way to use this is to pick a direction, project how far in that direction you want to go and drop a marker called a waypoint onto the map. The Vista will then tell you what direction to go to get to that waypoint while you cross the terrain to get there. This can be done either on the compass screen or the main map screen.

The barometric pressure based altimeter gives you a rolling picture of where you have gone. The scale can be adjusted in both the height scale and the distance scale to give a good representation of the terrain you just covered. The fields at the bottom of the screen can be selected to display loads of data, like total ascent, barometric pressure, etc. These are all pretty helpful if you are using the GPS anywhere altitude is important. I have used this screen and data a lot when we go biking in the hills or mountains to help determine the total vertical feet we climbed that day.

Like the Legend, the eTrex Vista's Trip Computer screen is a layout of 8 configurable fields. You get to choose from all the functions that are displayable to build your own little info screen that tells you exactly what you want to know at a glance. We tend to use this as a trip record, citing things like trip odometer, moving and stopped speed, average speed, etc. It's a good little report screen to help you keep track of your progress through your travels.

The Main Menu screen nearly identical to the Legend and is helpful to set up the GPS functions and perform most maintenance on your records. Here you can set up routes to follow, manage the tracks that you have made, and even track back along the same trail you just created - useful for navigating back out of the woods to your car for example.

Like the Legend, the Vista has several accessories that only add to the feature set for some niche appeal: Sun and Moon tracking, Hunting and Fishing guides, Area Calculations and the Jumpmaster program.

Maps and more on the eTrex Vista
Like the Legend, the Vista comes with a set of base maps that cover most main roads and terrain attributes across the US. I find though that unless you are interested in navigating across "blank" terrain, or traveling only on major roads, it is not enough information. I recommend one of the more detailed map packages like MapSource Topo US, or MapSource MetroGuide series. You may not need it though if you are just using the GPS to track your way to a particular location (a hunting stand or a scenic stopover), and need a reliable way back to where you came from. I tend to use it to navigate roads, trails and terrain, so I like the added detail. Downloading maps can be slow, and this is one of the HUGE downfalls of the monochrome eTrex line. The serial connection is horribly slow, and it can take up to an hour to download the entire set of maps and routes that you just set up on your computer. I was able to use the MetroGuide product and put Eastern Massachusetts plus huge swaths of New Hampshire and Maine on the Vista for my 24MB.

Summary
Overall, here at the GPSLodge we like the Garmin Vista, but its design features are mature in this GPS market. I still love the small, pocketable size, and its feature packed set for solid map-based navigation. The lack of a USB cable and audible alarms make me think that the Legend C or Vista C may be worth upgrading to. If the color versions are a bit too much for the budget, again, the eTrex Vista is a great handheld performer that will give you miles of satisfaction.

Want to Step Up? Consider the Garmin eTrex Vista C
Want a Step down? Consider the Garmin eTrex Legend

eTrex Vista Key Pluses
Larger internal memory than the rest of the line- 24MB
Electronic compass.
Altimeter
Can accept downloaded maps
Uses Maps to navigate (includes basic road and point of interest maps).
Very portable for the trail.
Lots of accessories.

eTrex Vista Key Minuses
Monochrome.
Serial computer connection is slow.
No expandable memory.
No audible alarms.
Smaller screen not easy to use while driving.

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Posted by Scott Martin at June 3, 2005 6:19 PM

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