November 6, 2001
I'll spare you the ecstatic marketing description, but the Airmap 100 is a "small" handheld GPS receiver made by Lowrance, who has spent most of its corporate life making panel-mount marine GPS receivers. However, their foray into aviation GPS receivers has been well-received, and I will concur that they've done a generally fine job.
The Airmap 100, as I've found, is a fairly nice handheld at quite a good price. It's relatively small, is therefore quite portable, and comes with a nice complement of extras for the price. The receiver seems to be fairly sensitive (I don't have any conclusive way to test), and is the latest-n-greatest 12 channel variety.
The included extras are a hard case, an external antenna, a yoke mount, a cigarette power adapter, a power and data cable, and the "latest" Jeppesen database on a diskette. The hard case is of the injection-molded plastic variety, with enough space to carry all the included stuff. The external antenna includes a suction-cup mount. The yoke mount is actually a RAM-mount cradle for the receiver, which screws down to an Autel Quick-Clamp.
Setting up the receiver is a somewhat complicated procedure. In order to store the pieces all in the case, you have to take the yoke mount halfway apart (it's designed to be easily taken this far apart). The antenna and power cables need to be coiled up fairly neatly, or they get tangled in the case. To fully utilize the receiver, you'll probably want to connect the power and antenna, and set up the yoke mount. This takes about 5 minutes without practice, and perhaps a minute once you've got the procedure down.
The receiver comes with detachable caps over its multipin power/data and antenna connectors. Unfortunately, they're tiny, black, and very easily lost. I've just taken them off my unit (since it's either in the case where the connectors are protected, or actually in use).
The unit also comes with a diskette containing "the latest" Jeppesen database, which should be used to update the receiver before you start using it. I put "latest" in quotes because although I bought mine in early July 2001, the database I got was from January 2001. Of course there's going to be a lag time, but that seems somewhat excessive to me.
I was unable to actually load up my database at first, because every time I plugged in the power and data cable (which has got bare leads for the power, so you can connect any connector you desire), the thing turned off. I finally called up Lowrance customer support, and told them what was going on (I had already had the cable apart to see if there was a short anywhere, it looked clean to me). The person I talked to was quite nice, and even proved to be technically knowledgable as we talked about the soldering job on the connector. He said the cables fail more often than they'd prefer, and took down my name and address. I think three days later, I had a new cable in my mailbox -- very nice!
Actually loading up the new database is pretty uneventful, although you will lose any routes based on database waypoints (manually entered waypoints remain, as I recall).
Once the receiver is set up, it acquires a signal quite speedily, and is quickly ready for action. It boots first into a warning screen, suggesting in no uncertain terms that the navigation data included is not to be used for navigation. Once that either times out, or you press the EXIT key, it goes to the satellite status screen, which shows where the satellites are located on a stylized sky, and how strong their signals are via bargraphs below.
At this point, you can choose any of the available screens by pressing the PAGES button. They're separated into four groups: Status, Nav, Map, and Group. The Status group only has one choice, which is the Satellite status page. The Nav group offers two choices, which by default are set up as a CDI/compass rose with a few info boxes, and a page full of info boxes. The Map group offers three choices, one page with a map only, and two pages with different groups of info boxes along the bottom. The final group, Group, has pages A through J, which are a set of just about anything else you'd need, including map pages, info boxes, and "other stuff."
All the screens are fully configurable, which is fairly amazing all by itself. Any of the info boxes can be placed on any of the screens, you can customize of the displays in any of the screens (except the Status screen). The Group pages are where you're really meant to make the changes, but anything's possible.
I find myself using the Map and Nav pages for the most part. The Map pages are useful for finding out where you are (and perhaps seeing your groundspeed or heading), and the Nav pages are excellent for when you need more numerical data. The Group pages are interesting to me mostly for the page with clocks on it -- local time, UTC, and an analog-looking clockface with local time.
For more information about the different pages, take a look at the manual as provided by Lowrance. (Fairly large PDF file.)
This GPS receiver has many, many options. It can do everything you've ever expected a GPS receiver to do, and possibly more. And, for the most part, it's all accessed via menus.
Press the MENU key, and you're started. There are perhaps 6-9 main menu selections, some of which are only present if you're on the right page to start with. They're context sensitive, which is great when you're actually using it, but confusing when you're trying to set it up. For instance, if you're setting up how pages look, one of the things you can do is change map options (default range, north up vs. track up, etc.). Not only can you change map options for all map pages, you can also change map options for one particular map page only. And if you're not starting out from a map page, the map menus aren't available.
However, for all that this is confusing on the ground, it ends up being a boon in the air. In general, if you want to fix something in the menus, the menu you want pops up on the first press of the MENU key. Lowrance really did their homework here, and it shows. The result is that the receiver is simplest to operate in the air, which is precisely where you want it.
Most of the main menus also have sub-menus underneath them, which all makes a fair amount of sense. The menus are logically arranged, and I found myself largely able to use the device without even looking at the manual (always a fine test of anything like this, because you won't have time to look in the manual when you're in the air).
The Navigation Test
I have had this unit along for two cross-country trips, both conducted while still a student pilot. (Well, I still am a student pilot as I write this, but that will change soon.) One was a night cross-country from Tacoma Narrows to Kelso and back in Washington state. The other was a cross-country from Tacoma Narrows to Portland-Hillsboro (Oregon), to Astoria, and back to Tacoma Narrows.
For the Kelso trip, I did the paper planning first, and entered the route into the GPS later. I would basically fly from airport to airport at 4-5000 feet, since it was nighttime, and that route would take me near but not directly over I-5. I plugged that into the receiver, and was pleased to see that my paper planning and its internal computations basically agreed on distance and directions.
Once in the air, I found myself using the GPS as a double-check to make sure I was really where I thought I was. It also provided useful information like the current time (the clock in "my" rental plane is broken), and the ETA to the next waypoint. In that, it fulfilled its role quite well. The only thing I should have done was turn on the "auto range" feature, which zooms in on the map as you get closer to the destination.
Lowrance again pleased me on this trip, as the backlight was necessary in order to keep an eye on the GPS without shining a flashlight on it every time. To my distinct pleasure, the backlight is dimmable in 101 steps, from 0 to 100%. I found that between 10 and 20 was just about right. The brighter values would be good if you were using it in a brighter, but still dim environment, or one in which night-vision wasn't so crucial. Lowrance has done their homework.
The trip to Hillsboro was more of a VOR-nav test for me, and so the GPS didn't get much of a workout. It was useful in helping me spot airports and landmarks (much easier than unfolding the chart), and kept me worrying about the time, as I was running about 45 minutes behind when I left Astoria -- I decided against landing at Olympia on the way back, based on the ETA information provided by the GPS.
The Jeppesen database included in the unit is most useful when flying cross-country, as it provides information about VOR intersections, airports (including comm frequencies, runway diagrams, etc.), navaids, and airspace. The receiver warns you when you're about to enter different airspace (though these warnings can get fairly annoying if you're flying near a border for any length of time). The database even includes information on large obstructions, noting them on the map.
Updating the database to the latest information costs $75 for one update, or $61.15 per update if you subscribe for a year at a time (13 updates per year). The available databases are "Americas" or "Everywhere else".
I hope to do more cross-country flying with the Airmap 100, and will update this document when I've got more experience in this realm.
The "extra" bits that come with the receiver were actually a major part of my decision to purchase this unit rather than a Garmin or any of the other competitors. The fact that for the same price, you get not only the receiver, but also a yoke mount, external antenna, hard case and cigarette-lighter power adapter makes this a very tempting combination.
The quality of some of the extras is questionable, though.
The cigarette lighter plug, for instance, came apart in the hard case at some point, and I had to spend 10 minutes re-locating all the parts and fitting it all back together.
The yoke mount, while quite sturdy and useful, is limited by its complexity and the fact that you have to spend 45 seconds unscrewing the fine-threaded clamp bolt in order to get the thing off the yoke stem.
The external antenna screws down to an angled metal plate, with suction cups on part of it, so that it will attach to most sloped aircraft windshields -- but the suction cups aren't quite strong enough to hold the antenna up securely. It's better to put the antenna somewhere that it can rest on the glare shield as well.
As I mentioned above, the data cable I got originally was damaged, apparently with a short circuit inside one of the cables -- not a sign of using quality cabling.
However, despite all these things, the parts do all work, and when you get used to the shortcomings, they work fairly well. The one thing I'll probably do is replace the yoke mount with one that attaches to the yoke stem with some kind of cam-and-lever arrangement rather than a clamp bolt.
To their credit, Lowrance decided to use a RAM-mount cradle for the receiver, so it'll be easy to find a RAM mounting solution that works better than the provided mount.
I think that, in the end, Lowrance have come up with a fine unit that is an excellent contender for "most bang for the buck" in a handheld GPS receiver. I purchased mine for under $500, and I feel like I got the best thing out there for that price. (I got my unit at JA Air Center in Chicago, for about $450 -- click on their Deep Discounts page to see current prices.)
It doesn't have color, but it also doesn't sport the color price tag. It doesn't have a big screen, but it's also small enough to slip into a loose pocket, and ends up being fairly visible in the cockpit (although it would help a lot if it were mounted closer to eye-level). What it does have is nearly every feature available in a handheld GPS receiver, and very few shortcomings, not to mention being produced by a company that clearly stands behind their product.
If I had it all to do over again (I was recently asked this question via email, prompting me to finally write this review), I would make the same choices, knowing what I know now. If I had another couple hundred dollars to spend, I might have gotten the Airmap 300, for its larger screen, but that's just about the only thing I'd change.
Created by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me.