In the past few years the best GPS receivers have dramatically improved their performance in difficult reception areas. Their souped-up digital signal processors can have many thousands of times or more processing power than their analog 12-channel predecessors. This allows them to acquire and maintain an accurate GPS fix in deep canyons and under heavy tree cover where there is only a faint and highly degraded GPS signal-places where their older counterparts, with less sophisticated electronics, were useless.
This new technology works. In one test in a difficult reception area, the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx, with a new high sensitivity receiver acquired 8 satellites and a 10-meter position fix in less than 30 seconds. In the same test, a direct competitor’s best unit failed to locate a single satellite in over 8 minutes. Detailed test results are discussed later in the review.
- Exceptional GPS receiver performance
- Lightest and smallest high sensitivity GPS unit with color mapping and full navigational functions
- Excellent features and user interface, especially for serious backcountry navigation
- Good battery life
- Field replicable, readily available AA batteries (rechargeable battery setting as well)
- Durable construction
What’s not so Good
- Larger and heavier than the very lightest backpacking GPS units (e.g., the 3-ounce, B&W, non-mapping Garmin Geko series)
- No direct interface with full US electronic map coverage at 1:24K resolution (e.g., you can’t upload non-Garmin maps like National Geographic Topo! maps directly into the GPS unit)
- Proprietary Garmin internal maps: Full USA coverage at 1:100K, but limited 1:24K resolution coverage (only for National Parks).
- User can’t load raster maps or satellite imagery into the GPS.
Physical & Performance
Unit dimensions, WxHxD:
|4.2″ x 2.2″ x 1.2″ (10.7 x 5.6 x 3.0 cm)|
Display size, WxH:
|1.3″ x 1.7″ (3.3 x 4.3 cm)|
Display resolution, WxH:
|176 x 220 pixels|
|256 level color TFT|
|5.5 oz, 156 g with batteries, mfr spec|
(5.95 oz, 169 g measured with alkaline batteries)
|2 AA batteries (not included)|
Maps & Memory
Ability to add maps:
Accepts data cards:
|microSD card (not included)|
|10,000 points, 20 saved tracks|
Sun and moon information:
For over 10 years Garmin has arguably made the best small handheld GPS units capable of supporting serious backcountry navigation. But given sales volume, they’ve been slow to introduce high sensitivity GPS technology to their smaller and lighter handheld units. That changed this year. Garmin just upgraded some of their most popular e-Trex GPS models with high sensitivity receivers. These models are designated with an “H.” Thus, the e-Trex Vista Cx becomes the e-Trex Vista HCx with the addition of a high sensitivity receiver. As far as I know these are the lightest high sensitivity GPS receivers suitable for backpacking navigation*.
While the Garmin Geko units are lighter, they give up a lot with their limited resolution black and white displays, a more basic set of navigation functions, no mapping capability, and less sensitive GPS receivers. Most other manufacturer’s mid-sized units are in the 6+ ounce range and don’t come close to the performance and functionality of the eTrex series. And don’t get your hopes up that high sensitivity GPS technology will come to navigational units in the 3-ounce range. The Garmin Gekko 101 is gone. It’s possible that Garmin will phase out the Geko series in the next few years if its sales volume drops below critical levels. In the GPS industry, if it doesn’t map in color it’s not going to sell.
Finally, while Garmin’s color mapping eTrex GPS units have been without peer for backcountry navigation, this year there are two challengers: the just released DeLorme Earthmate and the soon to be released Magellan Triton series. Backpacking Light will review both of these GPS receivers to see how they stack up.
* The smaller 3 ounce Garmin Edge is a high sensitivity GPS based bike ride computer. It is mainly intended for athletic performance measurement, resembles a Garmin Geko in size, weight and screen display. The Edge has some rudimentary navigational capability that might make it useful for navigation in skilled hands. The unit does not map, has limited route and waypoint management functions, has a 10-hour run time and critically, lacks field-replaceable batteries.
Field Testing and Performance Measurement
To see how the new Vista HCx performed, I tested the following three GPS units side by side. I attempted to get a fix with the units in 13 situations, ranging from easy to very hard reception. I focused on the ability to get an initial fix in difficult reception areas. The rational for this is discussed in the next section.
GPS Units Tested
- Garmin Vista HCx, representing Garmin ‘H’ high sensitivity receiver technology;
- Garmin Venture Cx, representing their previous receiver technology
- “Unit C” a competitor’s current (released this year), best technology handheld GPS
In the testing, the Garmin Vista HCx was the clear winner. It was followed by the Garmin Venture Cx. Unit C was a distant third and failed to get a fix in over half of the tests.
|Rank||Total||Easy (4)||Mod (2)||Hard (3)||Very Hard (4)|
|Unit C||3||n/a||2:28||6:37||No Fix||No Fix|
|* Calculated from two successful fix times out of four “Very Hard” tests|
The Garmin Vista HCx averaged over five times faster to get a fix than the next unit. It was the only unit to get a fix in all 13 reception situations. Furthermore, it acquired more satellites with better positional accuracy. The Garmin Venture Cx did credibly. While slower to get a fix and acquiring fewer satellites with less positional accuracy than the Vista HCx, it got a fix in all easy to hard situations. It even managed to get a fix in two out of four times for the very hard reception situation. Unit C was a disappointment. It had long fix times even in easy to moderate reception situations and was unable to get a single fix in the hard or very hard reception situations.
The new Garmin high sensitivity receiver fixes a problem I had with earlier SiRF-based high sensitivity receiver units: these SiRF units were good at maintaining a fix, once acquired, but had difficulty acquiring an initial fix. The initial fix could take two minutes or longer even with an open sky view (easy reception). That seemed like an eternity when I was itching to get on the move. To make matters worse, it would only acquire an initial fix if I stayed in the same place. If I did something like start running before getting an initial fix, it might not get a fix in 45 minutes. In comparison, my conventional, non-SiRF units (e.g. Garmin Venture Cx) would usually acquire an initial fix in much less time. Garmin seems to have solved this initial fix problem with the “H” series. When I first fired up the Vista HCx (cold fix) it acquired a GPS fix in an astonishing 28 seconds. This is the fastest cold fix I’ve measured for a handheld GPS that’s been off for weeks and moved thousands of miles.
The Garmin Vista HCx shows equal performance improvements in difficult reception areas. As mentioned earlier, it easily out-performed a competitor’s best GPS in a reception torture test. On the trail, the Vista HCx did considerably better at acquiring and keeping a fix in comparison to the other two units. Many times, the Vista HCx acquired and held a fix when other units could not. In a particularly difficult test (non-field), the Vista HCx acquired a GPS fix on the bottom floor of a two-story brick townhouse and accurately tracked my progress walking to the front of the house. The other units were unable to get a fix, let alone track me walking along the bottom floor.
Finally, I will not delve into the navigational features and display, etc. of the color mapping eTrex series. These navigational capabilities have not changed with the addition of the ‘H’ designation. All of the color mapping eTrex functionality is well documented and has been reviewed numerous times. It is a mature technology by the clear leader in this sector. It works!
Rationale for testing
In testing GPS units I focused on the GPS unit’s ability to get an initial fix in a variety of situations. Typically it is easier for a GPS to maintain a fix in a difficult situation if it originally acquired a good fix in an easier situation. That is, if you get a good fix with an open sky view (easy reception situation), leave the unit on, and then hike into a heavily forested canyon (difficult reception situation), there’s a good chance that even a so-so GPS will maintain a positional fix much of the time in the canyon. But if you fail to get an initial fix in an easy reception area, and instead turn the unit on once you are in the heavily forested canyon, many GPS units will never get a fix, and even some good units may take quite a while to get a fix.
To truly separate out the GPS unit’s performance differences I focused more testing on difficult reception areas. I wanted not just long fix times as a sign of performance degradation but failures to get a fix as well. Thus in the moderate reception situation all units were able to get a fix, but there was a 5 to 1 difference in the time to get a fix between the worst and best GPS. In the hard and very hard situations the lesser GPS receivers start failing to get a fix, further differentiating performance.
The decision to focus on initial fix performance has another reason. I rarely leave my GPS unit on while I backpack or climb (leaving a bread crumb for glacier travel or navigating in whiteout conditions would be exceptions). Some days I don’t turn the GPS on at all. If I do turn it on, I get a fix and turn it off. Partly this is to conserve batteries but mostly this is a philosophy of making navigational decisions from reading the terrain. Leaving the GPS on or using it too often distracts from this. But… every once in a while I really want to use a GPS and then I do need a reliable fix. I hate waiting.
Note: Be careful before reading too much into the “real trail” significance of a high sensitivity GPS for the average backpacker. With a clear sky view, the norm for most desert hiking and much of mountain and other hiking, there is little practical field performance difference between the new high sensitivity “H” Garmin units and their older receiver technology predecessors. While you may wait a bit longer for a fix, a unit like the Garmin eTrex Venture Cx would adequately serve most backpackers in most situations. Note also, that the new non-mapping Garmin eTrex H (not tested) should have similar high sensitivity GPS receiver performance and has a street price around $100.
The primary place I expect the newer technology to shine is in very difficult reception areas like the narrow canyons of the southwest. This would be a godsend as navigation is not as simple as it seems in these canyons. I also expect somewhat better performance in the tree covered canyons of the Appalachian Mountains and similar deep, treed mountain canyons in the west. And of course, you do get a fix about five times faster with the new technology. Those few who need to upgrade probably know who they are.
I’m torn. I still love my Garmin Geko 301 for its small size and utilitarian navigation functions. It’s served me faithfully for years. Part of me wants this unit upgraded with the newer GPS technology (and a USB interface!). But I have to admit that I haven’t used my Geko in over a year:
- If I think a GPS will be useful on a trip, I take a color eTrex unit with the internal maps for my location. In my opinion, the significant increase in navigational functionality (color maps even at 1:100K) is well worth the extra 2 to 3 ounces over the Geko.
- If I think a GPS will be of marginal use on a trip, I don’t take one.
Like many other people, I may be contributing to the declining sales of 3 ounce, navigationally targeted, GPS units for backpackers and hikers. If I take a GPS, it will likely be a larger mapping Garmin eTrex HCx unit.
Now, if Garmin introduced a 3-ounce color mapping GPS with a high sensitivity receiver… But don’t hold your breath. I’ve been petitioning Garmin for a while on this point without success.
The Garmin eTrex Vista HCx represents the lightest handheld color mapping GPS unit with high sensitivity GPS receiver technology. Unlike other units that claim “high sensitivity” handheld receivers, the Vista HCx outperforms the competition in its ability to get reception in exceptionally difficult areas. It performs well in areas where traditional knowledge was “don’t bother taking a GPS, it won’t work.”
Recommendations for Improvement
- I wish that Garmin would put the ‘H’ receiver technology and color mapping in a 3-ounce Geko style GPS.
- I wish that Garmin would allow users to load non-Garmin digital maps into their GPS units, e.g., digital maps from programs like National Geographic Topo! or raster images like digital 1:24K USGS maps or satellite imagery.
- Grey is not a good color for keeping track of a GPS in the backcountry. Put the dull colored unit down on grey soil or a rock and you can easily forget it when you move on. I know, because I have done this with cameras and other expensive electronics. I greatly prefer a bright yellow, orange or green case to keep track of a GPS.