Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Garmin 696: A Giant Leap Ahead

In a remarkable paradigm shift from past portable GPS devices, Garmin produces a larger knee-pad version with new talents

garminIf you hadn’t noticed, the Garmin 696 is bigger. Anyone who has seen the advertising for Garmin’s new world-beater 696 GPS navigation unit knows it’s a definite departure from Garmin’s traditional philosophy of thinking small. Garmin entered the market back in 1989 by producing a small, high-quality, portable GPS unit; but the new system’s most obvious talent is simply its size. (In fact, the 696 isn’t the first larger-format Garmin portable GPS.
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garminGarmin’s 696 comes with a remote antenna, but it hardly needs it. The unit’s built-in antenna is very sensitive, even under adverse conditions. After I finished the initial charge at home, I was surprised to see the system had initialized with six satellites and was ready for navigation, despite sitting on my kitchen table.

I’ve seen that trick before, and in that instance, I’d asked Garmin’s Tim Casey about it. He inquired if my roof was made of wood. Probably so. Wood doesn’t attenuate the GPS satellite signal as would some other materials, so the system can lock on to three or four satellites and be ready to navigate inside my home. That’s a great feature should I decide to move my house to a new location.

If you’re conversant with the functions on the 296/396/496 or the glass-panel G1000, you’ll probably find the 696 very user friendly. The knobology is similar to earlier Garmins, though operating controls on the 696 are slightly different. The new system employs a small joystick (a “click stick” in Garmin speak) rather than a four-way rocker switch, but the transition from one to the other is reasonably intuitive for anyone who can sit, talk and work a radio at the same time.

Though Garmin’s FliteCharts do bring instrument approach plates to the cockpit, and that’s definitely a good thing, there’s a catch for those aviators who accidentally or deliberately allow their subscription to expire. The display is electronic, so if FliteCharts becomes more than six months out of date, the chart page simply goes blank. Like you, I’ve never been an advocate of flying with outdated charts, but apparently, the prevailing philosophy is that you’re better off with no information at all, even if it’s correct, rather than the possibility of some bad info. Hmmm…

The nearest-airport feature came in for an overhaul on the 696. Press the Nearest button at lower right, then highlight an airport with the system showing both map position and panel page, and the 696 will draw a line from your present position directly toward the chosen airport. There’s no longer any need to interpret the bearing with reference to your present heading. It’s laid out on the screen for you. You also have runway length and width and tower/Unicom frequency on the same page.

garminStill another interesting feature is the mini satellite look-down view. If you wait long enough, the 696 will construct, line-by-line, an actual picture of the local terrain, similar to what you’d see on Google Earth. I’m not sure what you do with that, other than impress friends, but it’s there.

Combine large size and extra capability in one package, and you can bet the price will be a step above that for the 496. The 696 costs $3,295 MRP (your price may vary). That makes it either one of the most expensive portable navigation systems on the planet or the world’s least costly MFD. [If you’re only looking for a simple time-speed-distance GPS, you’ve come to the wrong place. You might be better served to consider the 296 ($995) or even the monochrome 196 ($595).]

The folks who’ll use the 696 to best advantage are those who can benefit from its large database, XM Satellite Weather and EFB, and if the price of admission and maintenance seems a little high, consider what it buys. Operators of big singles and light twins may find the 696 ideal for reducing clutter in the cockpit and backing up an older-generation GPS package. Corporate aviators also may appreciate the system’s talents for expediting IFR procedures (though again, the 696 can’t be used as a stand-alone GPS).

By the time you read this, Air Gizmos or Tropic Aero may have come up with a panel mount for the 696 that will allow you to join the MFD club at a fraction of the cost.


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