Garmin’s aera packs plenty in small package

 - April 30, 2010, 11:18 AM

Garmin late last year released a new line of compact handheld GPS units, the aera 500 through 560 series. The four new aera units are priced from $875 to $2,199 and key differences between these and the older but still available 196 through 496 series is inclusion of Garmin’s City Navigator NT street mapping system (almost the same as Garmin’s nüvi automotive GPS units) and a touchscreen display.

With the addition of street mapping, Garmin is now back in direct competition with BendixKing’s AV8OR series, which offers the Navigon street mapping system and touchscreens. Unlike the larger AV8OR Ace, however, the aera series doesn’t include charts or the Ace’s georeferencing (own-ship position display) on approach and en route charts. The aera 550 and 560 units do include Garmin’s SafeTaxi diagrams, which show own-ship position on the airport diagram. Another useful feature available only on the 550 and 560 in automotive mode is lane assist with junction view, speed limit display and Navteq traffic alerts (a separate $119.99 GTM-20 receiver is needed for traffic).

The top-of-the-line aera 560, which we tested, includes a GMX 40 XM satellite weather antenna and can display the full XM Aviation Pro weather from WxWorx. This includes Nexrad, satellite view, echo tops, winds aloft, lightning, storm cells, Metars and Tafs, Airmets and Sigmets, TFRs, Pireps, freezing level, turbulence and current icing product forecasts and a non-aviation weather forecast. Cost of Aviator Pro is $99 per month; the lower-cost Aviator without icing and turbulence is $54.99 per month and Aviator LT $34.99 (no winds aloft, Airmets, Sigmets, Pireps and so on). The aera 510 also includes the XM antenna. Neither the aera 500 nor 510 includes SafeTaxi charts or the AOPA Airport Directory. The 560 and 510 can also overlay weather information in automotive map mode, as well as play XM’s 170 satellite radio channels in aviation or automotive modes.

All four aera units include terrain/obstacle databases and displays and also the capability of hooking up to Garmin mode-S transponders to display traffic information system alerts. High- and low-altitude airways are also included in the aera’s Jeppesen nav database. The Smart Airspace feature highlights airspace at the user’s altitude in bold and deemphasizes non-applicable airspace.

With four different aera models to choose from, it’s difficult to keep track of the functionality of each. The best way to sort this out is to use the “compare” feature on Garmin’s Web site to make sure the unit under consideration has the desired capabilities.

The aera GPS units are a logical upgrade from earlier small Garmin handhelds and all feature a touchscreen, unlike the 196 through 496 models. The user interface on the aera units seems much simpler and intuitive. The touchscreen on the aera makes entering information much easier than the 196-496 scrolling system, and I was able to find all needed information without having to consult the aera manual. The aera’s 4.3-inch diagonal display is larger than the 3.8-inch diagonal display on the 196-496, although its display is slightly lower resolution.

Other aera features include Bluetooth wireless capability, IFR map mode, weight-and-balance calculator, vertical nav and a comprehensive list of “nearest” information, including the always-handy nearest intersections. Flight plans can include IFR approaches, adding approach waypoints to the flight plan. For those who like to save interesting maps or other screens, the aera includes a screen-shot function that allows the user to capture any screen and save it for later downloading. The screenshot function works only in aviation mode.

My only complaint with the aera is the lack of a stylus for tapping the touchscreen. Too often, my fingers couldn’t find the right spot on the screen, even aftermaking sure it was correctly calibrated, resulting in too much backspacing to find the correct information.

If you must have approach plates on your portable GPS, then Garmin’s only option currently remains the larger and heavier 696, which provides EFB Class 1 and 2 functions. But for a more compact and lighter unit full of features and an excellent automotive mode, the aera series delivers a lot of functionality for the price.