Last updated February 24, 2009
In my last post, we looked at automotive GPS receivers. This posts looks at several categories of handhelds, from entry-level models to the cadillacs of the backcountry. I'll make a recommendation in each category, based upon value, feature set and user reviews.
A few caveats first…
- I'll admit a bias towards Garmin. They manufacturer quality units with intuitive interfaces.
- Except where otherwise indicated, the product links go to handheld GPS reviews here at GPS Tracklog, where you’ll find several places to track down the current low price from trusted vendors.
- The prices listed below are current as of the last update of this post. Keep an eye on our companion GPS Deals site for some great values.
- Unlike most car units, these handhelds don't come with detailed maps. You'll have to buy those separately. Unless you are a boater, your choices in the U.S. come down to a product like Garmin's TOPO U.S. (purchased separately), which is based on 1:100,000 scale maps, or the more detailed but geographically limited US Topo 24K.
- Many of the receivers listed below do double duty. That is, they can be used in the field as a handheld, but they can also slip into a dashboard mount to become an auto navigation device. You'll need to buy City Select or City Navigator software for that though. I'll point these units out below.
- You may also be interested in one of our specialty GPS guides -- GPS for hikers, GPS for bikers, GPS for geocachers, GPS for runners and GPS for golfers.
- Finally, all the units below have a high-sensitivity chipset for superior reception under canopy and in natural or urban canyons.
Our choice: Garmin eTrex Venture HC
- Sunlight-readable color screen
- Can accept detailed topo maps (sold separately)
- Comes with a USB cable for transferring waypoints, tracks and routes to and from your computer
- The retail price is $200, but as of this posting the Venture HC can be found for around $130
Other budget units
- The Garmin eTrex H has a monochrome screen and you lose the cable and the ability to load maps. The eTrex H is available for around $105 at the time of this update. I highly recommend getting the Venture HC instead.
Our choice: Garmin eTrex Legend HCx
- Color screen
- Expandable map memory
- High-sensitivity chipset
- Supports turn-by-turn routing, making it useful for city navigation
- As of this posting the Legend HCx can be found for about $180.
Other mid-range units
- The Garmin eTrex Vista HCx improves on the Legend HCx, adding a barometric altimeter and electronic compass.
The newest Garmin, the Oregon 400t, is a dream come true. It combines a high resolution, touch screen interface with pre-loaded topo maps of the entire U.S. It's a joy to use and offers grab n' go convenience. Listing for $639.99, the price has finally started to drop and it's now available for around $460.
An even more recent introduction, the Delorme PN-40 can accommodate aerial imagery and real USGS topos. It has a smaller screen than the Oregon (albeit more legible in most daylight conditions) and comes with powerful but complex software. An added plus is the ability to do highway navigation with no additional purchase. At the time of this posting, it was available for around $340.
Other high end units
- The Oregon 300, without pre-loaded detailed maps, is a good choice for someone who already owns an unlocked Garmin map set.
- The old standby is the Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx. This unit has all the features of the Vista HCx, discussed above, along with a larger color screen. Equipped with the SiRFstar III chipset, the 60/76 series are the most accurate consumer GPS receivers made by Garmin. I actually recommend this unit for professionals where accuracy is of the utmost importance.
- The Garmin GPSMAP 76CSx floats, making it popular with boaters. It has all the features of the 60CSx, but comes with a 128MB micro-SD card instead of a 64MB card.
- Another option is to get a couple of Rino 530HCx units for you and your outdoor adventure partner. That way, you get all the advantages of the 60CSx, plus you can see their position on your screen (and vice versa)!