Garmin GPSmap 696 is a versatile handheld navigator

 - July 28, 2009, 7:59 AM

Garmin’s GPSmap 696 is a capable and feature-filled portable GPS navigator that doubles as a Class 1 or 2 electronic flight bag (EFB) with the ability to display weather, terrain, approach charts and airways. While the 696 displays own-ship position on moving maps and SafeTaxi airport diagrams, potential buyers should know that it does not do so on approach charts.

Garmin introduced the 696 last October, moving away from the usual schedule of releasing new portable navigators seemingly every year at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh. The 696 sells for a street price of $3,295; a non-XM Weather 695 version is available at $2,695 for buyers who live outside of the XM satellite coverage area and can’t benefit from the XM features or for those who simply don’t want to pay the monthly fee for XM weather and radio stations.

The big difference between Garmin’s last major new GPSmap system–the traditional small-format handheld 496–and the 696 is the size (the company skipped over the “596” designation for no explained reason). The 696 weighs more than two pounds (one kilogram) with the battery pack attached (versus the 496’s 14.2 ounces) and is almost as wide and tall as a small notebook computer. The best part of the 696 is the huge display, which measures seven inches diagonally and 3.6 inches wide by six inches tall. The 696’s display resolution is 480 by 800 pixels, up from 320 by 480 on the 496. Picking out airport IDs and other information on the smaller 496 display can be difficult, especially when the volume of information expands in a busy metropolitan area. The 696 looks more like a shrunken Garmin G1000 multi-function display and is almost as easy to decipher. (The smallest G1000 MFD has a 10.4-inch diagonal display.)

While EFBs with much more capability exist, the 696 packs a lot of information and capability into a relatively small package, something that business aircraft pilots might find useful and cost-effective. With current Jeppesen nav and FliteCharts database subscriptions, the 696 can replace bulky paper charts.

As a dedicated aviation GPS navigator, the 696 doesn’t have the capability to add or display automotive and marine maps, like the 496 and other handheld GPS units, such as BendixKing’s AV8OR, do. The 696 does, however, have an SD card slot, although oddly, Garmin’s MapSource Web site says that no non-aviation mapping programs are available for the 696. The SD slot is normally used for database updates, but it can also be used to add other map data, such as topographical information from US Topo and Topo 24K. GPSmap 695/696 owners are using their units with the topo data for pipeline patrol, flying in Alaska and Canada, and firefighting and EMS operations, according to a Garmin blog. The topo data includes lines of elevation, hiking trails and additional detail of terrain features and streets in four areas, Australia, the U.S., Canada and the UK.

Part of the need for the size of the 696 is that Garmin designers like to use buttons, keys and the company’s now-familiar FMS joystick instead of touchscreen controls. The joystick is used to select items in a database field, such as an airport ICAO identifier. The user manipulates the joystick to move a pointer around the map display and find more information about airports, airspace and even ground features (cities, highways, rivers, lakes and so on). If the 696 is receiving XM weather, the information includes Metars and TAFs at airports, details of sigmets, airmets, pireps and so on.

Information for an item under the pointer pops up in a white box, and pushing the “enter” key pulls up whatever other information is available for that item. With the pointer over an airport, the enter key pulls up four separate pages of information, accessible via the soft keys on the bottom of the 696. This includes airport operations data, airport diagram, IFR approach charts, AOPA’s listing for that airport and weather (Metars and TAFs).

Without going into exhaustive detail, there are plenty of alternate methods to find information; clearly Garmin designers understand that people don’t want to be forced into one access method. An easy way to look for airport, nav station and other information is to push the “nearest” button and select from the list.

The 696’s large screen offers another big advantage–lots of customization options. The unit’s default is four data bar fields across the top, but the user can modify the page layout to show as many as 12 data fields, or up to six and an HSI indicator. All of the data fields are customizable with as many as 31 options. Garmin 1/2/3/496 owners are probably familiar with the GPS-driven “instrument panel” page, and the 696 allows the panel to run along the top of the screen with the map showing on the bottom, so there is no need to switch between the two. Most Garmin navigator users probably know that the speed indicator shows groundspeed, not airspeed, but it would be helpful if Garmin would label the speed “instrument” with a prominent “GS” just to make sure.

A 696 user can spend hours with other customization features in the system setup menu. Examples include choosing units, airspace alarms (including a proximity alarm), fuel tank timer, which airports to display by runway surface and length and oodles of et ceteras.

The 696 doesn’t show VFR and IFR en route charts, but the map page provides normal VFR views that display topographic data or a cleaner-looking IFR map on which low-altitude Victor airways, high-altitude jet routes or both types of airways are available. A satellite view is also available, but only at ranges of 20 nm or more.
While the 696 stores up to 10 aircraft profiles, these are fairly basic, with only three data fields: cruise speed, maximum speed and fuel flow. Likewise, the weight-and-balance feature is just a simple spreadsheet allowing calculation of total weight, arm and moment, but not sophisticated aircraft-specific analysis. The weight-and-balance page stores data for each aircraft for which a profile has been created. A handy feature is the “empty” soft key, which zeros all the weights for each aircraft stored; it retains the empty weight and all the arms stored in each profile’s weight-and-balance page.

The 696 stores up to 50 flights in the flight log, and users can save up to 15 track logs. The 696 can store up to 50 flight plans each with up to 300 waypoints. Most modern handheld GPS units with color displays show terrain and a vertical profile of a flight planned route, but on the 696, this capability is all the better on the large screen.

The 696 includes Garmin’s SafeTaxi feature, which displays the aircraft’s own-ship position on airport diagrams available at more than 850 airports. The diagrams display runway and taxiway identification, airport landmarks and runway incursion “hot spots.” This is an excellent aid to help pilots navigate unfamiliar airports and ensure takeoff and landing on the correct runway.

Even better than the terrain display on the big 696 screen is the XM weather information. The 696 can display XM Weather’s Aviator Pro, which costs $99.99 per month and includes turbulence and icing forecasts. The $49.99 Aviator service includes what most pilots would want, such as Nexrad radar, TFRs, Metars, TAFs, winds aloft, lightning, airmets, sigmets and so on.

The 696 is a capable tool, but in addition to the purchase price, there are ongoing data costs that must be considered. An annual subscription to Jeppesen NavData is $295. Add to that FliteCharts NACO approach plates and terminal procedures for $395 a year, SafeTaxi for $195 and obstacle data for another $195, and the annual bill for the most frequent data currency would be $1,080. The terrain database is not updated as often, and a single update costs $150.

The FliteCharts and SafeTaxi charts are not available on the Atlantic and Pacific 696. The Atlantic unit does include obstacle and terrain databases, while the Pacific unit includes terrain only. All 696s contain the Jeppesen aviation database and the worldwide basemap.

For $3,295 (many vendors include free shipping), the 696 package includes a yoke mount, the GMX 40 antenna needed for XM Weather, a remote GPS antenna (which I never needed during flight tests), 12/24-volt power cable and other bits and pieces.

Using the 696 is a pleasure. The interface is simple to learn, although Garmin offers eLearning training software for $99.95. The combination of the large screen, terrain and weather display with features like SafeTaxi and IFR airways makes the 696 an extremely practical Class 1 and 2 EFB.

I found three negative characteristics of the 696: it is heavy; the screen generates a lot of heat; and the XM Weather antenna plug is fixed at a 90-degree angle to the unit, which puts pressure on the antenna cable when the 696 is laying flat on a lap or other surface and not mounted on a yoke.