My boyfriend wants to begin geocaching and would like a GPS for Christmas. I have no idea what type of GPS to buy. I'm looking for suggestions in a variety of price ranges. I don't want to spend more than necessary but I want to make sure the GPS will have all the features he will need.
Wow! Your boyfriend is a lucky guy!
You aren’t going to believe how complicated the answer to your simple question is. That’s because as of now, there isn’t any GPS receiver that has all the characteristics that most geocachers would agree are really desirable for geocaching. It is further complicated by the fact that the unit will have to communicate with a computer, and support for Mac is spotty, if that matters to you.
Before I go any farther, in the interest of integrity I have to tell you that I am not a geocacher myself; but I am a GPS nerd, and I love reading and writing about GPS receivers and technology. So I spend a lot of time on the Groundspeak (geocaching) GPS and Technology Forum
because it is one of the most active GPS forums on the web. I read a lot of the discussions concerning the pros and cons of various units for geocaching; so although I don’t geocache myself, I do know a fair bit about what geocachers like and don’t like about various GPS units.
It is possible to geocache with a very basic GPS receiver; but many features that are not strictly necessary are considered highly desirable and make the activity much more enjoyable. So I’m not even going to mention the most basic units that would “work”, because it sounds like you want to get him something pretty nice. Whatever you decide on, you might want to consider buying it from a place with a liberal return policy (such as REI), just in case he is less than thrilled with your choice. You’ll pay more, but it might be worth it in the long run.
The features that I see most wanted by the cachers are:
High-sensitivity receiver (I would call this a must-have)
Paperless caching capability. Not a must, but those who try it, love it.
Large, bright, easy to read display
Good mapping at a reasonable cost
Expandable memory (by using memory cards)
About paperless caching: when information about a geocache is downloaded from the geochaching.com web site, it isn’t just the cache coordinates. There are hints, difficulty, and a number of other text items. You can either print that information, or put it into an electronic (paperless) device. Cachers who are going traveling sometimes download hundreds, even thousands, of caches at a time (no kidding). They don’t necessarily expect to find them all, but if they happen to be near one, they can look for it.
Some GPS receivers can store the additional text information, so you have it all in one place. For those that don’t, the usual solution is to get a PDA and software to manage that information. Not as convenient.
Garmin units are generally very popular; but detailed mapping, which most people want for geocaching, is sold separately. So in considering total cost, the cost of the mapping should be added to the cost of the unit. Cachers often use both Topo
and City Navigator
maps. If either you or he buys maps for a Garmin unit, get them on DVD, not the pre-programmed cards. If you get the pre-programmed cards, you can’t view the maps on a computer. If you get the DVD, you can have them on the computer and send them to the GPS.
I’m going to start with the lower cost receivers, and work toward increasing price. All of the ones I mention have high-sensitivity receivers, color screens and expandable memory. All can load detailed maps (not included with Garmins), and do turn-by-turn street navigation (no voice prompts) with the right maps loaded. For prices, I suggest you look at Amazon. They have very competitive prices.
Garmin eTrex Legend HCx
Pros: Low cost; bright, sunlight readable display; great battery life
Cons: relatively small screen, requires PDA with software for paperless, relatively small display size. The rubber strip around the outside of the unit has come loose on many of them.
Garmin eTrex Vista HCx
Same as the Legend HCx, but with a magnetic compass and barometric altimeter.
The magnetic compass and barometric altimeter are features that are hotly debated as to their usefulness. Some people swear by them, others swear at them. I personally like them, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who says they aren’t important. I notice just now on Amazon, there is hardly any difference ($4) between the cost of the Legend and the Vista. Given that, I would go for the Vista over the Legend.
There have been some reports of position “drift” with the eTrex HCx units. That is, they start out accurate, but the position gradually drifts away from the actual, known position, sometimes by hundreds of feet. Turning the unit off and back on fixes it temporarily. Not all users report this, and Garmin may eventually fix it with a future firmware upgrade, which are free downloads.
Pros: Maps included in price! Can load aerial and satellite imagery, which is reported by users to be a huge benefit for caching; can use up to a 32 GB memory card. DeLorme offers an “all you can download” subscription to the imagery for $30 per year. Users are going nuts about this. Currently almost supports paperless caching, but has a limit of 800 characters. DeLorme has promised that the 800-character limit will be eliminated in an upcoming firmware upgrade, for fully paperless caching capability. The map software is reported to have a lot of powerful capabilities.
Cons: Relatively small screen size, the same size and resolution as the eTrexes; Slow processor. Although this unit is supposed to do auto navigation, users report that the processor can’t keep up screen refresh rates fast enough for driving at highway speeds, especially if aerial imagery is loaded. Auto route calculation is reported to be slow, and recalculation if you miss a turn…well, pull off and have some coffee. But for walking speeds (such as geocaching or hiking) the processor is reported to be adequate. The map software is reported to take a while to learn (but that is a consequence of its powerful capabilities). No support for Mac. DeLorme says they’re working on it, but there’s no telling when it will be available. No map coverage for Canada.
Garmin GPSMAP 76Cx
Pros: bright, sunlight readable display; bulletproof performance: very reliable (few bugs) and considered as accurate as anything available. The “drift” problem has never been reported with this unit; will float if you drop it in water
Cons: relatively small display size; although the screen is bigger than the eTrex models, an area at the top is used up by a status bar, so that the useable screen space isn’t that much larger than the eTrex units; requires PDA with software for paperless; overall unit is larger and heavier than the eTrexes.
Garmin GPSMAP 60Cx
Exactly the same electronically as the 76CSx, in a different shell. The 60 series has the buttons below the screen, the 76 has them above. The merits of each position are hotly debated with each having its fanatical proponents. From everything I’ve seen, I think either will work just fine. The 60 series is far more popular than the 76 series. I don’t know why, but my speculation is that it’s because the 60 is more rounded and fits the hand better. Although the actual overall dimensions aren’t that different, the 60 definitely feels smaller. Because the 60 is more popular than the 76, you can sometimes get the 76 for a lower price. But in terms of features and operation, the 60 and the 76 are identical.
Garmin GPSMAP 76CSx
Same as the 76Cx, but with a magnetic compass and barometric altimeter.
Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx
Same as the 60Cx, but with a magnetic compass and barometric altimeter.
A brand new model. Amazon
has a lot of info on it. DeLorme listened to customer complaints about the PN-20, and addressed them in the PN-40. This is a much better unit than the PN-20. Some of what follows is repeated from the PN-20 section, but I didn’t want people to have to jump back and forth to get all of the information for the PN-40.
Pros: Really fast processor. Users report screen refresh keeps up with highway driving, route calculation is quick; users who have previously had Garmin units report that the PN-40 gets a lock faster than anything they’ve seen before. Has a barometric altimeter and a 3-axis magnetic compass (better than Garmin’s 2-axis compass). Mapping included in price! Can load aerial and satellite imagery, which is reported by users to be a huge benefit for caching; can use up to a 32 GB memory card. DeLorme offers an “all you can download” subscription to the imagery for $30 per year. Users are going nuts about this. Currently almost supports paperless caching, but has a limit of 800 characters. DeLorme has promised that the 800-character limit will be eliminated in an upcoming firmware upgrade, for fully paperless caching capability. The map software is reported to have a lot of powerful capabilities.
Cons: Relatively small screen size, the same size and resolution as the eTrexes. The map software is reported to take a while to learn (but that is a consequence of its powerful capabilities). No support for Mac. DeLorme says they’re working on it, but there’s no telling when it will be available. No map coverage for Canada.
Pros: Does paperless caching; large, high-res display; has “profiles” to quickly change settings to optimize for hiking, road navigation, geocaching, etc.
Cons: Has had lots of technical problems since its launch. Garmin has addressed many with firmware upgrades, but some remain. Battery cover design seems to require considerable care to install properly to maintain unit water resistance. The display, while large and high-res, is reported by many to be dim and hard to read under some conditions, even with the backlight on full. Some features that people had become accustomed to in the 60 and 76 series are reportedly missing from the Colorado (could be added in a future firmware upgrade). Some users have reported the “drift” issue, some have not. Many Colorado owners report that they take their 60 or 76 series units with them geocaching, because the don’t feel they can trust the Colorado.
There are people who really love their Colorados, but I wouldn’t recommend one.
I have to admit, I haven’t paid a lot of attention to this one. I was considering buying a Colorado at one time, so I monitored the posts on it until I decided it wasn’t for me and bought a 76CSx. When the Oregon came out, I already had my brand new 76CSx, so I never considered buying an Oregon. Here is what I’ve picked up without paying much attention:
Pros: Touchscreen interface; large, high-res screen; does paperless caching; better reliability than the Colorado; seems to be considered more reliable than the Colorado (fewer bugs)
Cons: Like the Colorado, the display, while large and high-res, is reported by many to be dim and hard to read under some conditions, even with the backlight on full.
A final comment:
I’ve been a Garmin customer since about 1995. That’s not because I’m really loyal to Garmin, but because every time I decided it was time to buy a new GPS, Garmin seemed to offer the best overall product for my needs. Now for the first time, I feel like that may be changing with DeLorme’s introduction of the PN units.
Better still, DeLorme has impressed me with their participation in the forums (something Garmin doesn’t do) where they respond to users’ comments and suggestions. They show a serious commitment to customer service and customer relations. Their design team actually uses their products for geocaching and other activities, and they had geocachers beta-test the PN-40. Some people say it seems like the folks at Garmin have no idea what people do with their products.
DeLorme’s products are reported to work well from the day they are put on the market, with most of the firmware upgrades being to add features. As opposed to Garmin's firmware upgrades which are usually issued to fix bugs.
If I were buying a new unit today, and if my only
interests were geocaching, hiking and fishing, I’m pretty sure I would be buying a DeLorme PN-20. If I also wanted it for use in a car (which I would), I would buy the new PN-40. But I don’t live in Canada, and I don’t use a Mac. If you do, you may want to consider one of the Garmins. If you are considering the PN-20, go for the PN-40 if you can possibly afford it. The 40 will be much more versatile and useful overall. It costs about the same as the Garmin 60/76 CSx, but with the Garmins any maps you want are an extra cost.