Honeywell offers low-cost handheld GPS

 - January 5, 2009, 6:24 AM

Except for some early models, Honeywell’s Bendix/King division hasn’t in recent years focused on the market for GPS handheld navigators. This year at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis., however, Bendix/King unveiled a handheld that offers a lower-cost alternative to Garmin’s dominant line of GPS handhelds.

The new Bendix/King AV8OR launched at a competitive retail price of $749, but lately street prices have dropped below $650. What makes the AV8OR different is not just that it is a capable aviation GPS handheld and a fully functional automotive GPS but it also offers the option of adding XM Weather, all for a competitive total price.

During a recent 27-flight-hour trip across the U.S., I had an opportunity to wring out the AV8OR along with an XM Weather receiver and subscription provided by WxWorx (see sidebar on page 60). The weather receiver is an option and normally costs $641, but AV8OR buyers will find a $250 coupon in the package, which lowers the receiver price to $472. This price is for the wireless Bluetooth receiver; a wired system is available, with discount, for $376. The coupon can be used only to purchase the receiver bundle directly from WxWorx, but some avionics dealers are offering their own discounts, too.

The AV8OR’s 4.3-inch color screen offers resolution of 480 by 272 pixels, and the user interface is 100-percent touch screen. At first I thought it would be difficult to use a touchscreen while flying, but the softkeys on the screen are easy to manipulate. Bendix/King designers make the most of the screen’s size by allowing the softkeys to disappear when not in use. The user can set the time that the softkeys remain visible.

The key advantage of the touchscreen is that any element that contains data is easily accessible. Touching an airport symbol, for example, pulls up a box and a “More Info” softkey. Push the softkey, and all of that airport’s information is presented.

Anything depicted on the screen that has more information attached to it will pop up when touched. For example, touching a road symbol will pull up that road’s name. Touching the boundary of special-use airspace displays the airspace’s parameters and controlling agency information. If elements are too close together, the pop-up box shows all of them, and the user simply touches whichever one is needed for more information. For closely sited towers, the pop-up box lists all the towers in the vicinity and their msl and agl heights. The touchscreen works well and maximizes screen real estate without sacrificing functionality.

On the left side of the screen are data fields showing information such as flight time since departure, groundspeed, ETE, distance to waypoint and so on. Four fields are shown on the screen at a time, but the user can select up to nine fields from a list of available data. The user scrolls through the nine fields by touching the data field area and moving a finger up or down. He can also scroll the map on the main screen in the same way, another big advantage for a touchscreen. While there is a handy stopwatch data field, there is no timer function.

Feedback on the touchscreen is provided by a loud clicking noise, which the user can turn off. I tested the AV8OR while flying in an airliner and turned off the screen clicks so they didn’t attract the attention of the flight attendant or make passengers nervous. Although the AV8OR package includes a remote antenna, I have never had to use it, even when strapped into the window seat of a 737, and the satellite reception is amazingly strong inside a building even five feet from the nearest window.

The main display offers three different map views, with topography on the map, topo off or relative terrain. In any mode, the user can select a vertical profile display, which takes up part of the bottom of the screen and shrinks the map by about 25 percent. Bendix/King calls this the “SmartProfile” although it doesn’t use this term on the display for some reason. SmartProfile shows a profile of the flight path superimposed on a cross section of the terrain. A dashed line shows the altitude of the aircraft and the flight path. If the flight path runs into terrain, well, that’s obviously going to be a problem. Changing the range selector also adjusts how far the profile looks ahead. A useful feature on the profile is the display of boundaries of special-use airspace and upcoming obstacles.

Having the terrain display on the AV8OR makes the unit well worth the price compared with older GPS handhelds without terrain information. Honeywell has long experience with terrain databases in its ground proximity warning systems and takes full advantage of that knowledge in the AV8OR.

Like most GPSs, the AV8OR delivers pertinent messages such as airspace proximity, and these can be turned off or customized for how far the aircraft is from the boundary when the warning pops up. Another useful message feature is the ability to add checklists in both the aviation and automotive modes. Users can create checklists, then store them on an SD data card and load them into the AV8OR. Using the proper checklist format provides a checklist with checkboxes next to each item. Each one can be checked before moving to the next, or the user can choose to skip items. To add a checklist, the user creates a text file and saves it onto a specific folder on the SD card that comes with the AV8OR, then reinserts the SD card in the handheld. The new checklist then shows up as an option in the Messages section and–if formatted correctly–works with the checkboxes as normal.

A handy feature is the ability to change the way airports are displayed, either using the ICAO identifier or the airport name, which can be easier to pick out on the screen.

The AV8OR package comes with two separate mounts, one for aircraft yokes and another suction-cup type for windows. The yoke mount does have one drawback; it is designed for thicker yokes and needs supplemental stuffing to clamp onto smaller yokes.

I found the Bendix/King registration system for data downloads confusing, and somehow I ended up in the system for updates to Honeywell’s high-end avionics systems, where required information included aircraft type and serial number. The correct system was on Bendix/King’s Wingman Web site. Honeywell needs to make the registration system simpler so customers don’t get lost in the company’s vast expanse of Web space. Updates to the Jeppesen database cost $17 each when purchased in the one-year 13-cycle version or $35 for a single update. Once properly registered, the update was simple; plug the handheld into a USB port, download the file and seconds later it was done.

Although the AV8OR plays multimedia (music and movie) files and comes with ear buds, XM Radio’s audio content is not available. “We are working on that as a future upgrade,” said Dan Barks, Honeywell director of general aviation aftermarket avionics.

One AV8OR user complained that the unit doesn’t offer a way to download flight records. The flight timer does record time since departure, but it disappears after the flight ends. “That is going to get fixed,” said Barks. “We do have plans in the future to be able to log flights. It’s on our list of things to do.”

The same user also complained that the automotive database doesn’t include all airports. The only way to navigate on roads to other than a major airport is to use the address of some facility on that airport. This is a valid point: a crossover aviation/ automotive GPS ought to be able to share databases between the two modes, but that is not the way the AV8OR is designed. The automotive side of the unit is a NavNGo system and thus is dependent on that company’s database. The two systems are not really compatible, and this shows up in the separate settings functions available for both units, which sometimes is confusing.

It also shows up in one annoying feature, the lack of automatic dimming or night mode when in the aviation mode. The automotive mode automatically switches to night mode when the ambient light reaches a certain level, but there doesn’t seem to be any night mode in the aviation side. To make the AV8OR comfortable to fly at night, I had to exit the GPS, go to the settings menu, dial back the backlight all the way as dim as possible, then switch to the “topo off map” mode, which has a black background and, combined with the dim setting, ensured that the display didn’t shine too brightly in a dark cockpit.

The Bluetooth communication function is useful with the XM receiver because the receiver doesn’t need to be close to the handheld and it saves on cockpit wires.

The Bluetooth receiver, however, does need to be plugged into external power and doesn’t offer battery capability. But the AV8OR doesn’t use Bluetooth to drive a Bluetooth-capable headset, so the user can’t listen to music when weather data isn’t needed. “I’m going to ask engineering about that,” Barks said. “That’s a good idea.”

For the automotive function, the AV8OR does an excellent job. It has all of the features of standalone automotive units, including voice directions, and what seems like a fairly up-to-date database. The user interface is clean and, most important for automotive use, non-distracting.