Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Garmin Aera

Touch screen comes to GPS

Like the 195 and 96C, the Aera includes a built-in antenna. I attached the test unit to the right yoke of my Mooney, and it never had any problem locking on to satellites in less than a minute, this despite the overhang of the panel cover and a generally poor view of the sky. If I owned an Aera, I’d probably plug in the external antenna and lay it on the panel for even better signal acquisition.

Don’t let the Aera’s talents intimidate you, and don’t let its 184-page manual cow you. The system is so intuitive, you won’t need an engineering degree to work your way through the functions. Garmin has been especially amenable to the KISS principle, keeping things as simple as possible. When I received my evaluation unit, I deliberately left the manual in the box. My degrees aren’t in engineering, but I was able to figure out most functions in a few minutes by trial and error.

Screen size becomes especially important in a system that has no buttons or switches but relies on the screen itself for command entry. The Aera’s display is a 4.3-inch QVGA that’s slightly larger than the one used on the popular 396/496 (technically, a 28% increase in area for the Aera).

Garmin isn’t the first to explore touch-screen GPS—Anywhere Map’s ATC and Bendix/King’s AV8OR and AV8OR Ace came first. The Aera’s yoke mount is among the most flexible of all, allowing quicker disconnect for those instances when you need to move the unit between vehicles.

The map is vivid and intense, kept that way by a fast 5 Hz refresh rate. The terrain database includes data points every nine arc seconds, approximately 44 per square nm. (Less expensive models offer 30-arc-second mapping, four data points per nm.) The pseudo keyboard allows for direct input of waypoints rather than using a rocker to scroll through the alphabet one letter at a time.

Just as with Garmin’s XX6 series, which offers the “quit” key, the Aera provides a “back” key to let you retrogress one step. When you’re done working with a given page, you can step back to the map or navigation page with a single push.

Things have changed a little since the early days of GPS. When the Navstar universe was complete and GPS became fully operational in the mid-’90s, everyone became fascinated with the ability to make direct-to flights rather than the squiggly-line trips often necessitated by VORs. That’s still an important feature, but these days, with the advent of TFRs and other restricted airspace, flight plans are becoming more relevant. The Aera offers storage for up to 50 flight plans, which ought to be enough for anyone.

As with the 396 and 496, the Aera also offers terrain and traffic with pretty much the same presentation. The system will interface with the 330 Mode S transponder to display traffic, and you can transfer frequencies directly to Garmin’s SL30 or SL40 NAV/COM through the Aera. The Jeppesen database is huge, providing enough terrain and obstruction information to please the most picky mapmaker.

Just as many pilots educated on steam gauges greeted the remarkable, integrated G1000 glass flight deck with mixed reviews a few years ago, touch-screen controls are a step up we all need to get used to. Remember, in aviation more than most other disciplines, change is inevitable, except from vending machines.

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