20 August 2014

GPS Magellan Explorist 610 - A quick review

While navigating (regardless of being in the wilderness or on your own neighbourhood), you permanently need to answer to three questions; where you are, where you want to be and how to get there. The first and second questions are normally answered by a geographical position (either a Lat/Long pair of coordinates or a location, for example: Lisbon), whereas the latter can only be answered by a combined use of resources and science known by us as navigation.
Contrary to the common knowledge, the GPS is a not a navigation system. It's a positioning system. The name (GPS - Global Positioning System) clearly implies it. It was built and devised with the ambition of being the (near) perfect system to plot the position of its user anywhere on the globe, with the greatest accuracy that the modern human knowledge allows. It is, therefore, the successor of the sextant and the nautical tables and of the Decca and the Loran electronic positioning systems. It was never designed as an orienting system. For that job, to tell you how to go from the departure position to the arrival position - in a word: to give you the travel direction, you still need an orienting equipment. And this can be as simple as the common magnetic needle or as sophisticated as the modern gyrocompass. Let's face it: if all you ever needed for navigation was a 400 Euros GPS, why are all the ships worldwide equipped with gyros and gyro-pilots that can cost more than one hundred times that amount?
Regardless of that, GPS technology evolved a lot on the past twenty years. From the ancient bulky, professional, fixed and power-hungry receptors costing a small fortune we reached now the frontiers of portability, with these equipment's reaching the size of a wristwatch.
With the miniaturization came also the expansion of capabilities. Thirty years ago, the ancient GPS's only gave you a geographical coordinate. Nothing more. You'd have to plot the information on the nautical chart to perform your navigation calculations. Nowadays, a GPS receptor is a more complex machine, allowing you to elaborate tracks and courses and it is becoming more and more (with limitations) a navigation-do-it-all computer.
Since the system is fully functional either over land, sea or air, it was a matter of time for it to be used on outdoor activities.
Somehow curious how this type of equipment would help my mountain activities, I took the plunge and decided to buy one of them.
From the various makers on the market - Garmin, Lowrance, Trimble, Magellan, to name just a few - I choose the Magellan. Primarily for the noble name of it. In second for its technical characteristics, and in third for its already included worldwide coverage map and topographic charts (Summit series) for Europe.
As in everything in life, nothing is totally perfect. And this GPS equipment, although competent, is far from it.
Here's my two cents worth on the matter.
The GPS Magellan Explorist 610, with its navigation screen on Course-Up mode. A competent equipment, loaded with features. This equipment is, somehow, positioned, in characteristics, between the Garmin Oregon 450 and the Oregon 550, its direct competitors. Relevant features include:

Display: 3" Resistive Touch Screen colour display with 240x400 resolution
Altimeter: Barometric and/or GPS altimeter
Camera: 3.2 mega-pixel camera with auto-focus (capable of geotagging photos)
Video: 320x240 resolution size
Audio: Built-in microphone and speaker (capable of recording voice notes)
Compass: 3- axis electronic compass
Waterproof: Rated to IPX7 standards (immersed in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes)
Accuracy: 10-16 feet
Interface: mini D to USB

A detailed and competent review is also available on the site BackCountrySkiingCanada.
The back of the equipment, showing its camera lens, the speaker and the belt hook and the back panel lock - both made of solid stainless steel. The USB connector (protected by a waterproof cover)  is located near the palm of my hand, near the plastic loop. Regardless of the so-called waterproofness, I have to be honest with you: I'd be very careful with any attempt to sink the equipment in water to its IPX7 standards - waterproofness up to 30 minutes in 1 meter depth. The O-rings on the equipment don't give me that confidence, particularly the USB connector. Having tested the equipment in heavy rain though, I can vow for its resistance to rain showers and wet conditions. Which is, basically, what we need it for.
A side view of the equipment, showing its three control buttons. All of them allow for some function customization which is, in my opinion, a plus. GPS receivers are supposed to be operated with an alphanumeric keyboard, particularly on its major functions, like saving a waypoint. Going through menus to do this simply isn't practical. This is one step ahead from the nearest competitors.
The front of the equipment, showing its microphone (useful for voice notes on the trail). You might ask yourself why the need for this. Well, honestly, since you have it... it's never too much. After all, all the professional Nikon camera bodies of the last decade (D3, D3S, D4, D4S) have also this kind of gizmo. It's useful for photographers in the field. To record some voice memos about pictures and places, they say. Well, you have the same ability on your Magellan Explorist 610. The chart shown on the screen is a Raster chart of the Pico Ruívo area. It's basically a digitalization of a Portuguese Army topographic chart, on a scale of 1/25.000, geo-referenced, and transformed in a digital file, readable by the Magellan GPS. With this ability, we get the best of both worlds: the precision and graphical perfectionism of a paper chart and the ability to use it on a digital equipment.

What I like about it:
- Robust plastic, metal and rubber carcass.
- Customizable buttons.
- Good computer software: VantagePoint (there's still place for improvement, though).
- Plenty of accessories on the market, even from third-parties: 12 volts car connectors, bicycle, car and motorbike supports, etc.
- Bright display with recessed screen, giving additional protection to impacts.
- Excellent "Suspend" mode, allowing for extra duration of batteries, while keeping GPS fix and tracking.
- Waterproofness.
- Acceptability of Raster and Vector charts, either topographic and maritime (the latter due to a Magellan partnership with Navionics, a worldwide respected leader on electronic charts and navigation).
- Good accuracy, up to 5 or 6 meters on the ground. In my modest opinion, it's more than enough. Anything more, and you are entering on Differential GPS universe. Do you really need this improvement of precision in detriment of more useful functions?
- Integrated loop, allowing to suspend the equipment by a carabiner or a piece of rope to the backpack. You either like it or hate it. In my opinion, it's useful.
- The included cartography.
- Availability of free cartography on the web, particularly on the site Maps4me.net.
- Integrated photographic camera, with workable definition, allowing also video shots. It's not 4K, but suffices for a geo-tagged photo or video clip.

What should be improved:
- Lame software. The equipment is not intuitive to operate and I find myself quite often reaching for the manual, to remember a procedure, even after months of frequent use. The menus, although extensive, are not coherent. There's lots of information, but lacking organization.
- Very weak manual. Some functions of the equipment are not clearly described and some icons appearing on the display are not even mentioned, leaving us to guess their meaning. Not good. Not a professional behaviour from a company that gave so much to the GPS technology. It leaves us with the impression that the equipment was designed in the States, built somewhere else and the manual, additionally, on another place. And all that with lacks in communication.
- No turn-by-turn tracking and routeing in nature (my friend's Garmin Oregon does this by default). Since on Terra firma (contrary to sea navigation) we rarely navigate in a straight line - the only exception, in some tracks and routes, being the deserts - the lacking of this function is not understandable.
- The autonomy of 16 hours in optimal conditions is... optimistic, to say the least. Half of that, with a fresh pair of alkalines is closer to the truth. With normal trail use, with frequent operation of the equipment, you can expect a maximum of three to four hours of use. If the ambient temperatures are low... well... good luck. Do yourself a favour and carry a couple of pairs of freshly recharged Ni-MH cells, even if you are just contemplating a single day hike. Truth being said, the competition doesn't seem to be better.
- Time to first fix. Poor. I've read some reviews saying this equipment is fast. It's not my experience. The processor seems to be slow and even with the latest firmware available (ver. 7.14), the equipment takes a minimum of 30 seconds to boot and an additional 30 seconds for the first fix. My friend's Garmin is almost instantaneous.

Bearing the name of the greatest navigator of them all is not an automatic receipt for success. There's a lot more work to be done by Magellan, if they wish to achieve a leading position in the consumer GPS market.