Like many youngsters in the US (I’m not young, but I can dream), I’m extremely spoiled with techno gadgets. I have 4 iPods. Yeh, 4. I have a Shuffle that’s used for decoration, a Nano for the occasional workouts (they happen once or twice a year), a Video which is now outdated and my new iPod Touch (it’s insanely great btw). Even in both of my cars I have integrated GPS and laser-guided cruise. Laser guided cruise is the best thing since sliced bread. It’s the closest thing you can get to a car with auto-pilot. You select your speed and the car maintains the speed by decelerating (braking) or accelerating as necessary to avoid obstacles. And of course, in the SR22, the whole glass cockpit with dual GPS units and autopilot has me spoiled even when flying.
As I was marveling over all the electronics in the the SR22, I realized that my eyes don’t know where to look for the traditional instruments in case something went wrong. If I had an electronics failure, not only would I have a hard time flying the plane, I’m almost certain I would struggle with airspaces and long-distance navigation. It’s not that I don’t know how, but I’m sure the skill becomes rusty over time as the dependence on the glass cockpit increases ever more.
With all the redundancy in the Cirrus planes, I figured I still have to have a portable battery-based GPS as a backup system. There are just too many pilot stories that start with “I lost my entire electrical system.” So I decided on the Garmin 296. The Garmin products seem to be extremely popular in aviation and were the most highly recommended systems by everyone I spoke with.
The Garmin 296 is a color GPS with a number of very attractive features including a movable map, terrain awareness, airspace information, airport information (including frequencies, runways and other info) and even an instruments page.
The 296 gets some getting used to, but as you learn to navigate and input information into the device, it provides back a wealth of information. This single device provides everything a lazy pilot (A.K.A. me) needs to get to his or her destination without the use of the plane’s GPS and MFD units.
The instrument page recreates the essential instruments needed to fly the plane. Although one must be reminded that the GPS can only provide ground tracking speed and the attitude indicator at best will be providing delayed information, the overall feeling of the Garmin 296 is that of comfort and safety, knowing that if all else fails, there is a good alternative way to track one’s position, even in the dark.
Like the Garmin 430s, you can program your route of flight into the Garmin 296 with all the waypoints that you intend to use. The movable map provides the familiar magenta-colored lines indicating your intended direction of flight, complete with airspaces, heading indicator, ground speed and distance and time to your next waypoint.
This unit has a TON of functionality. You can save flight plans, checklists and all kinds of information I currently have no use for. I found that most of the functionality that I regularly use in the Garmin 430s is also available in the Garmin 296. That’s very comforting.
The user interface of any product that has anything to do with the aviation industry is absolutely aweful. The Garmin 296 is no exception. It’s as if we are stuck in the 80s. A collection of awekward buttons allow you to navigate the many screens and enter information into the system, but it’s painfully slow and unintuitive.
I purchased the car expansion kit for the Garmin 296, which is an additional $249 add-on kit. Save Your Money! Do not under any circumstances buy the car kit. It’s a great idea: use one device in your plane and once you get to your destination, take it with you to your car and use it on the road. Except the car kit comes with only a 128MB memory stick and software that needs to be installed on your computer to transfer a limited set of roads to that memory stick. I couldn’t get the software to run successfully on my Vista laptop and eventually I gave up and bought myself a Magellan Maestro 4040 from Costco for just $299. For the road, the Magellan is awesome! It’s far superior to the Garmin and at $299, it’s a no-brainer. I’ll do a separate review on that unit.
Price of the Garmin 296 is unexplainably high. At $1,195, the Garmin 296 is the entry-level color GPS unit that Garmin offers. The Garmin 396, which adds weather capability (requires a separate subscription) costs $1,795 and the Garmin 496 which adds a couple of other useless bells and whistles is over $2,000. As a backup unit, the Garmin 296 is definitely the way to go as the extra bells and whisles will almost never be used, even in the case of an emergency.
The Garmin 296 doesn’t meet my expectations of quality, ease of use and price. It’s overly expensive, not very intuitive and way bigger than it needs to be. But, it also has all the features necessary to give me the comfort I was looking for as a backup system. I know I can rely on it to avoid airspaces and get me to my destination in case of a complete electrical failure in the SR22. Since I haven’t used any other aviation GPS units, I’ll have to give the Garmin a thumbs up. It provides everything you need in an ugly, unattractive and expensive package. I will be keeping it in my flight bag.