Garmin Montana notes

Sometimes, I get waaay too excited about gadgets, and I have to share it. So, sorry, here it goes :)

For some reason that is not very important, I was looking for a better solution for GPSes with maps.

Side-note: if you ask why Android is not “good enough”, here's the story: last year, knowing that Google Maps supports caching (finally), I upgraded Maps, preloaded London, and went on a trip. Only to exit the Victoria underground station and to stare ~20 minutes in light rain at my phone, wondering why it doesn't get a fix. I gave up in the end, and used the cached maps for getting around. Later I learned the reason: Maps was not broken, but without data, Android can't get a lock easily; and more-over, the recent Maps update without GPS active even once afterwards, to do whatever it needed, meant I couldn't get a lock until back in Switzerland.

Or, alternatively: while on a trip to Japan, it turns out that Google Maps caching is not supported there, probably because of rights over mapping data. So I had location, but only temporary cached maps (from the wifi in the hotels).

Due to this kind of problems makes I consider Android maps a toy, so I wanted a GPS device with proper maps (on the device, not in the cloud), and with good GPS capabilities (no fancy A-GPS or anything, just plain good standalone GPS).

Having had good experiences with the sport line of Garmin (but which doesn't have maps, so it's out of the question), I looked at Garmin. Many people complained about some things (same all over the place):

  • newer devices less tested, software with lots of bugs
  • dumbing down of devices, ultra-simplification of the UI

The latter is something that jumped at me from many of the blogs/fora that I read; I like customisable “power tools”, not one-button mice.

The other thing that I didn't really like was that most devices are very “focused” on a niche: the nüvi line on automotive, the Zumo line on motorbikes, and the hand-held lines with some blurring of hiking/geocaching/etc. So no “one-size fits all” device…

Features! Customisation!

That is, until I found out the Montana series. My my, I was blown. Both by the price (I couldn't believe how expensive it was, without maps!) and by the features.

As it turns out, the Montana has different “profiles”, and it can act:

  • as a hand-held device for hiking/geocaching (yay!)
  • as a bicycle-mounted device for biking through the woods (yay!)
  • as a motorcycle-mounted device (hmmm…)
  • as a car-mounted device, for automotive use, including guidance, both TTS and non-TTS voices, lane assist, speed limits, etc.

That is for flexibility. As for performance/features:

  • it has a Transflective liquid crystal display screen, so it works best (as opposed to worst) in bright sun, and of course also works in the dark, via its back light
  • the touchscreen is resistive, so glove-friendly: tested it with my regular gloves on and with my biking gloves (which are very clumsy), and it works like a charm
  • it is water-proof (IPX7); that means I can keep it in the open in the rain, and not worry about dropping it in the snow
  • it has both a (replaceable) LiIon battery (many hours of runtime, > 10) and support for powering via 3 AA batteries (> 20 hours), which coupled with some Eneloops is awesome
  • GPS sync is awesome; from hard poweroff, it syncs in ~3 seconds I would say (exited building, powered on, was already synced by the time I entered the satellite menu); even in-house, it gets around 2 satellites, and sometimes manages to get a lock

Now for the downsides. Being a multi-functional device, it's not as good as a dedicated one:

  • for handheld use, it's a bit heavy; I personally don't mind, but it's something that has to be said: ~300 g
  • for motorcycle use, it's worse than the Zumo: no bluetooth compatibility, so you can't have it talk to you in the helmet; but I don't have a motorcycle, so… :)
  • for automotive use, it lacks many things compared to a top-of-the-live nüvi: no voice recognition, no junction view, no birds-eye view, etc.; but I don't have a car, so… :)

But the small (for me) draw-backs aside, it's definitely not a dumbed-down device. It's the first device that I have which I feel it a bit “too customisable”. From completely changeable menus, to profiles that remember their maps selection, to many dashboards, to almost-programmable shortcuts (e.g. a shortcut to change profile, set destination to a given way point, reset the trip log, and turn track logging on)… a bit overwhelming at first. Add the 3-axis compass, barometric altimeter, ANT+ support… and you get a very powerful device.

Software

As to the software, yes it has some bugs - mainly that the device crashes sometimes (abruptly) if you play too much with the routes (didn't happen to me yet “on the road”, only when testing it at home). On the PC-side, Garmin's BaseCamp is nice, but doesn't hold a candle to Google Maps, for example, in terms of UI; I don't mean shininess, but simply how well the UI works. The most annoying thing is how it doesn't scale detail appropriately with the zoom level. But it works, and I can plan hikes offline, and upload both tracks and routes to it (this is important: it seems other recent Garmins can't replay tracks, only routes). And I can load many maps, and toggle them at will, etc.

The “many maps” feature is not to be overlooked. I could have, for example, standard Garmin maps loaded, but just in case they're insuficiently detailed or out of date (hey, Navteq is slow…), I can also have Open Street Maps from two days ago. The routing is then done on the currently active maps, so you are not restricted to a single mapping provider. And of course you can also have custom POIs (Point of interest) on it.

Bycicle use

The bicycle mount is solid enough, so that on a rough roads it's held firmly. From my ~20 minute test this morning, a few things to note:

  • it wanted me to take bigger paths, rather than the trails I like to take; probably I haven't customised it well enough yet
  • recalculating a route (when it realises you insist on taking another path than it planned) is very fast
  • whenever you approach a change-of-direction, it beeps (see below) and turns on the back light (temporarily), so visibility is improved
  • you can actually use the touchscreen with winter gloves (of course, when stopped or at very very low speed)

Voice output

By default, the unit can only beep, but if coupled via a 3.5" jack to headphones or via the automotive mount, it can properly speak; quality varies with voice, and whether it is TTS or not. I managed to find one voice (non-TTS) that sounds really well, but of course with less information, and one TTS voice that sounds OK-ish but gives full info. By “full info”, I mean the following: the behaviour of the various TTS voices is not consistent. For example, on a simulated route, various voices were saying the following:

  • non-TTS: “keep ahead” (voice A), or “keep-ahead, then keep right” (voice B)
  • voice C, TTS: “in 94 kilometers, exit right”
  • voice D, TTS: “in 94 kilometers, take exit 14 on the right”
  • voice E, TTS: “in 94 kilometers, take exit 14 on the right in the direction Landquart, then keep right”

I don't know why these differences, or if they are consistent across routes. But I'll keep with voice E for now :)

Summary

So, sorry again for sounding like an ad (I don't have any relation with Garmin the company), but I find this device awesome - powerful, rugged, and working (so far) very well. I'm glad that there still exist companies who don't believe they know better than their customers, and instead offer you with a tool that you can make it work just like you want. Or almost ;-)

Garmin's tag line: “Big and Tough – Goes anywhere, everywhere”. I tend to agree :)

Did you try to use offline OpenStreetMap data with some Android app? (like osmand)
Comment by Nelson Friday night, February 15th, 2013
Considering that you are already aware of OpenStreetMap, you should really try OsmAnd (or the paid + version) on Android. It is definitely better in terms of offline availability of maps. The application itself is being improved by developers on regular basis.
Comment by Anonymous terribly early Saturday morning, February 16th, 2013

While you mention PC, you mean Windoze. Pathetic. Just the thing most Windows-only software manufacturers do.

Well, maybe next time. :)

Comment by Anonymous early Saturday morning, February 16th, 2013

Probably a proper maps application on Android works better than Google's. But it's still Android: bad screen in sunlight, bad battery life, bad GPS lock, etc.

In any case, thanks for the hint (I wasn't aware of it), I'll check it out.

Comment by Iustin Pop late Saturday morning, February 16th, 2013
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