From weather to terrain to tunes, Garmin’s GPSmap 396 does it all

Aviation International News » September 2005
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October 2, 2006, 11:02 AM

It’s not a bad idea to keep a portable GPS receiver in the flight bag just in case, but now Garmin has come out with an aviation handheld that even seasoned business aircraft pilots will want to dig out and keep on the glareshield full time.

The GPSmap 396, introduced earlier this summer, is Garmin’s most advanced handheld aviation product to date. This unit is so nimble that simply to call it a GPS navigator is to gloss over many of its more captivating and useful features, covering a full range of navigation, weather, terrain and traffic functions.

For example, the 396 comes standard with an integrated XM Satellite Radio receiver and antenna that let pilots access full-color graphical weather maps and text updates in addition to XM’s 100-plus audio channels. The unit also comes with a complete Jeppesen nav database and a terrain database capable of providing TAWS-like alerts and pop-ups. And by interfacing with a Garmin GTX330 mode-S transponder, the GPSmap 396 can display TIS traffic targets on its color 3.8-inch LCD screen. As Garmin correctly points out, no other handheld offers such a diversity of features.

The datalink weather capability of the GPSmap 396 is sure to cause the biggest buzz in the aviation community, especially among general aviation pilots seeking a single unit that can provide the most features for the lowest price. A monthly subscription to the XM weather service costs between $30 and $50 depending on features (plus a one-time $75 activation fee). For another $12.95 per month subscribers get access to the full line of XM programming, including dozens of commercial-free music channels, news and talk channels and all Major League Baseball games. The unit features an audio jack that can be used directly with a headset or it can be connected to the airplane’s audio panel line-in port.

A Mini Multifunction Display

According to Garmin, the WAAS-enabled GPSmap 396 is the first aviation handheld GPS receiver to combine a moving map with terrain alerts and satellite weather. Additional features, such as the TIS traffic, a U.S. streets database for use in the car and a “mini panel” including GPS-derived HSI, VSI, groundspeed and turn indicator, should make the $2,495 (list price) unit an enticing option for weekend pilots and professional crews alike.

“The new GPSmap 396 really establishes itself as the premier portable navigation device, whether in the airplane, car or boat,” said Gary Kelley, Garmin’s director of marketing. “This unit makes it possible for any pilot to have a mini-MFD in his cockpit.”

Pilots can customize the map display to overlay XM WX data on the unit’s Jeppesen and topographic maps, or they can choose to display individual weather pages alone. In terrain mode, the GPSmap 396 combines inputs from built-in terrain, obstacle and electronic flight databases to give pilots a clear depiction of proximity hazards that require attention. Pilots can customize their own minimum clearance limits for terrain cautions, which pop up as digital thumbnail images. Terrain appears in red, with black Xs indicating unsafe operating areas.

Viewing the display in any light is easy, Garmin asserts, thanks to the device’s 256-color, high-resolution (480- by 320-pixel) TFT display. The unit also features USB data transfer, quicker processing than earlier Garmin handhelds and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack. Battery life between charges is 5 to 15 hours depending on backlight settings, according to Garmin. The unit is the younger sibling of the $1,595 (list price) GPSmap 296, which also has a 3.8-inch LCD screen, but which lacks the additional weather, terrain and traffic functions of the 396 and has a slower internal computer processor.

XM content is delivered to the GPSmap 396 through the three-inch-diameter GXM30 antenna. The service includes metar and TAF updates, Nexrad images, lightning strikes, echo tops, winds aloft, TFRs and other information.

XM offers Aviator and Aviator LT version of its weather services. The latter is the “light” version, which costs $29 per month and includes Nexrad images, TFRs, metars and TAFs. The full Aviator version ($49 per month) adds airmets, sigmets, echo tops, severe weather storm tracking, surface-analysis maps, lightning data, winds aloft and satellite mosaic images.

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