Garmin eTrex Vista HCx


Part Number: 010-00630-00

Bottom line:

If you need a new hand held GPS, get this one. (Caveat Emptor.)
Also, see my reviews on Android smart phone software.

Introduction:

I have been thinking about replacing my OLD eTrex Venture with a GPSMAP 60CSx. Just before I ordered, I got wind of another new model about to be released. It was the eTrex Vista HCx. So, after the release date I ordered the Vista. It was about $150 less expensive than the 60CSx. I am glad I waited. In Late July 2007 there was no owners manual available to down load, so I grabbed the one for a Vista Cx. This looks to be a similar unit. More about that later.

Auto-Locate Mode:

I expected that the first time I turned it on that it would take about 2 minutes to acquire satellites (then 45 sec. for a cold start; 15 sec. for a warm start). So when I turned on the HCx for the first time, I was surprised that it took me off the satellite page in about 30 seconds. I didn't expect this, so I didn't think to check navigational accuracy right away. Maybe it was so fast just because I am within a few hundred miles of Garmin headquarters. Since then it has been very rapid to acquire, so much so that I plan on turning it off when I am on the trail and don't actually need it for a few minuets. Maybe the batteries will last longer that way.

Most of the time my old Venture would not acquire satellites when in the house, the Vista not only starts OK in my house, but does it in about 10 seconds. After a minute the accuracy is about 15 foot. The new Vista would not acquire in the local mall, but that is hardly surprising. I finally thought to check WAAS. It was turned off by default. Turning it on seemed to improve accuracy at that location from 15 to 10 foot. I was driving at the time so this is hardly a scientific observation.

Navigation accuracy compared to Venture:

This would be hard to quantify. Really, all I need to tell you is that on average I went from 16-20 foot accuracy to 10-15 foot (Venture to Vista). That is subjective but I think it is usable. All the normal disclaimers apply; your mileage will vary, close cover before striking and so on.

Basemap:

Shows Inter-states and main highways but no other roads.
Shows small town names but no topographical features.

Battery consumption:

Rather than measure the time it takes to deplete a set of batteries, I opted to compare the rate of discharge with my other GPS. This gives me an idea how it will perform without having to wait a few weeks or by sacrificing a set of batteries. I ran these tests with a set of new AA's.
Measured milliamps   Venture   Vista HCx     
During Turn On       140        90
Back lighting off    130        70
Back lighting on     200       200  full brightness
Back lighting on       -       118  half brightness
What does this data tell us? With no backlighting the Vista batteries should last a lot longer than the Venture. Maybe as much as twice as long. But, if you use full brightness back lighting, expect the batteries to deplete quickly, of course. Garmin claims Battery life of 25 hours. I think that is a stretch. Caveat Emptor.

Calibrating the compass and altimeter:

Easy, just follow the manual. By the way, these 2 features are the main reasons I went with this model (and the sensitive receiver). Now that I've used it, they are not that good. Don't buy this unit just for those 2 features. They work but not well. The compass in particular is disappointing. Typically, the unit uses satellite navigation for compass direction until you come to a stop, then switches to the internal compass. The unit has to be laying flat for it to be accurate. Flat, like you would lay it on a table. In the car, either the tilt angle or the metal near it causes the compass rose to veer off when I come to a stop. Yes I know it can be set up to only come on below a certain speed after a preset time. I may just turn off the internal compass until I need it. I'll have to play with it some more. Too bad there is not a dedicated switch to turn the compass off.

PC connections:

Works OK. The cheep cable is not marked for up or down. It can only plug in one way though. Marked as made in China. You might be surprised how much stuff comes from there now, even vitamins.

Paper Manual compared to the Vista Cx PDF:

Not even close. The paper version has 50 pages, the PDF version for a Vista Cx was 112 pages. Hopefully Garmin will get the new small manual on-line soon as a free PDF download. The Vista Cx PDF was still helpful since the paper manual that came with the Vista was so simple. So, get the PDF even if it is the wrong model. By the way, Garmin will not let you copy-paste words out of their PDF's (another lame idea).

Software included:

Trip and Waypoint Manager v 4 (Map Source), USB drivers and Web Updater
The installer is not Windows compliant and does not install programs correctly for Windows protocol. That being said, it will probably work OK for you, but this is something else Garmin really needs to work on. I had to download new Map Source software version 6.12.4 (dated May 17, 2007).

Geocaching features:

The claim that the Vista HCx is Geocaching ready is some what misleading. Well, it is a selling point I guess. In the 50 page paper manual I found references to geocaching in 2 places but not in the index or table of contents. The Geocache setup page allows you to change the two icons but, why would you bother? You can also select Calendar Entry (Y/N). There is a reference to Geocache Navigation Mode in the Vista Cx PDF.

Geocache Navigation Mode is like the compass rose mode but with 3 buttons at the bottom of the screen. They are: Found, Note, Stop. After you sign the log for a cache you can select the Found button, and then chose the option of finding the net closest cache or just quitting the mode. Pressing the Note button shows any title. This only works on some caches. It is because of the way .LOC and .GPX files are handled by different programs.

Oh, I downloaded the Garmin Communicator Plug in. This allows you to directly load coordinates from geocaching.com into your GPS. Neat feature!

I have had problems with the Vista identifying whether a cache is found or not. It has to do with the symbol used in the file I downloaded. Ideally, all uploaded files should have
this:
<sym>Geocache</sym>   (only used in .GPX files)
<type>Geocache</type> (or)
<type>Geocache|Traditional Cache</type>
Not this:
<sym>Geocache Found</sym>
<type>Geocache Found</type>
The problem is when I FIND (select) a waypoint (Cache). The Vista expects me to select an un-found cache. So, it excludes caches marked as found. The easy way around this (so far) goes like this: Main Menu, Find, Geocache, MENU button, Show Found Cache. The better fix is for Ground Speak to batch fix all the downloads files.

Pictures:

These are only samples and where not in any special order. "Not In Plane View" is the name of a cache about air planes. Thanks to hogrod for help with pictures.
Find found / not found selected map to Geocache Navigation Mode Note (description)

Accessories reviewed:

I did not try any other Garmin products such as additional Map Source products, Blue Chart or TOPO. I did not put much detail into the accessory reviews as I have nothing to compare them to. Mainly these are the accessories I bought for my HCx, the Auto Navigation Kit with DVD and the San Disk brand 2.0 GB micro SD Memory Card.
DVD   City Nav. N.A. v8 Expensive, cumbersome to unlock ( > 1 hour ! )
2 Mounts Handy
12-volt Adapter for car Must have!
Memory   San Disk brand I got 2 GB. Why buy less?

The DVD gave me more data than anyone has a right to need in one lifetime. But, I can not say enough BAD things about Garmin software. I have rarely see such pitiful examples of programming. Why would any company need to have the unlock code converted from an 8 digit pass code to a 25 digit one before use? And then it wanted a 7 digit number they said was on a peace of paper marked 'IMPORTANT' in 9 different languages. I never did find that piece of paper. Many people have complained about Map Source cost. I think the cost per value is fine (if it is up-to-date data) except for the terrible software to load it.

POI Loader is Free Software from the Garmin web site. It is rudimentary at best. It doesn't do anything without the GPS being connected to your PC. This is lame, even for free software. So far I have not found a way to delete just one POI waypoint! I get much more use from EasyGPS.

Garmin should sell their software rights to someone that can run the map business correctly. Then they could concentrate on their core strengths. Garmin makes real good hardware. I am very pleased with their GPS units.

Closing thoughts:

Garmin Claims:

"Deep foliage, nor canyons faze the rugged eTrex Vista HCx."
". . . even in heavy cover and deep canyons."

Does it live up to it's claims?

We don't have canyons in Kansas and with such a dry climate we don't have much heavy tree cover either. Before I used this Vista, I envisioned trying to find areas to test these claims. In the end it does not matter. The eTrex Vista HCx is so much better than my old eTrex Venture, I don't care. My Vista will get lots of use.

Originally posted 08/03/2007


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Update 08/08/2007:
WAAS was turning it's self off. I updated firmware with Garmin WebUpdater to fix that problem (to v2.30).

An undocumented feature is to press enter (joystick) and power up the GPSr to see hidden data like: Time, Temperature, SNR, Voltage and more.

If you want more out of POI loader, search Groundspeak Forums under GPS Units and Software. To set up your GPSr for USB Mass Storage option try menu, menu, setup, interface, enter.



Update 08/10/2007:
I guess the v2.30 firmware update introduces a new feature. It gives a hint when you update firmware, change the batteries or if you have the compass turned off. The hint feature is not a bug, it is telling you that you need to calibrate the compass (or that it is turned off). Just calibrate the compass and the hint will go away.

The feature is very annoying if you want the compass turned off. Duh, if I turned off the compass, do I need to be told that it is off? One work-around is to remove the compass page from viewing sequence. Then you only see the message if you main menu to the compass page.

I simply leave the compass on. Some people have said that they turn off the compass to conserve batteries. Just to be sure I measured the current draw of my Vista HCx with the compass on and off. There is NO appreciable difference!



Update 09/28/2007:
The firmware update is out to fix the "compass hint" feature (bug). It is v2.40. There were many other changes made from version 2.30 to 2.40. Garmin WebUpdater worked slick but not until I remembered to plug in the cable to my GPS (duh).

Also, they now have a PDF manual for the HCx series (free download). It seems to be a copy of the paper one that came with the GPS. As such it is still lacking at about 50 pages compared to the Vista Cx download with 112 pages. So get both while you are there. They are both helpful even if one is the wrong model. There is also an eTrex HCx Quick Reference Guide to download if you want it.



Update 06/08/2008:
After almost a year of use I am still happy overall. I have decided to turn off the magnetic compass and set the altimeter to auto calibrate from the GPS. Those features are not very usable otherwise. The magnetic compass is easy to turn off, just press and hold the top right button. The compass page (azimuth card) still works from the GPS, just like older models.

I have also noticed the same problem that others have commented on. The rubber BAND that circles the unit is getting loose. Probably stretching in the sun. I may have to send the unit back for repair if it gets worse. I'll post again if I do.



Update 12/04/2010:
Still using the eTrex Vista HCx. The rubber BAND is still loose, I just don't want to part with it long enough to send it off. I often use my Droid phone for casual geocaching now, without the HCx, but on serious caching trips, I can not be with out my main unit.


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