Garmin eTrex Vista HCx GPS REVIEW

With the addition of a new ‘H’ high sensitivity receiver, the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx GPS sets a new benchmark for GPS performance in difficult reception areas

Hightly Recommended

Overall Rating: Highly Recommended

The Garmin eTrex Vista HCx represents the lightest handheld color mapping GPS unit with true high sensitivity GPS receiver technology. Unlike other units that claim “high sensitivity” receivers, our field and lab testing shows that the Vista HCx outperforms the competition in its ability to get reception in exceptionally difficult areas. It performs well in areas where traditional knowledge was “don’t bother taking a GPS, it won’t work.”

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by Alan Dixon |

Garmin eTrex Vista HCx GPS REVIEW

Overview

In the past few years the best GPS receivers have dramatically improved their performance in difficult reception areas. Their souped-up digital signal processors can have many thousands of times or more processing power than their analog 12-channel predecessors. This allows them to acquire and maintain an accurate GPS fix in deep canyons and under heavy tree cover where there is only a faint and highly degraded GPS signal-places where their older counterparts, with less sophisticated electronics, were useless.

This new technology works. In one test in a difficult reception area, the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx, with a new high sensitivity receiver acquired 8 satellites and a 10-meter position fix in less than 30 seconds. In the same test, a direct competitor’s best unit failed to locate a single satellite in over 8 minutes. Detailed test results are discussed later in the review.

What’s Good

  • Exceptional GPS receiver performance
  • Lightest and smallest high sensitivity GPS unit with color mapping and full navigational functions
  • Excellent features and user interface, especially for serious backcountry navigation
  • Good battery life
  • Field replicable, readily available AA batteries (rechargeable battery setting as well)
  • Durable construction

What’s not so Good

  • Larger and heavier than the very lightest backpacking GPS units (e.g., the 3-ounce, B&W, non-mapping Garmin Geko series)
  • No direct interface with full US electronic map coverage at 1:24K resolution (e.g., you can’t upload non-Garmin maps like National Geographic Topo! maps directly into the GPS unit)
  • Proprietary Garmin internal maps: Full USA coverage at 1:100K, but limited 1:24K resolution coverage (only for National Parks).
  • User can’t load raster maps or satellite imagery into the GPS.

Specifications

  Physical & Performance

  Unit dimensions, WxHxD:

4.2" x 2.2" x 1.2" (10.7 x 5.6 x 3.0 cm)

  Display size, WxH:

1.3" x 1.7" (3.3 x 4.3 cm)

  Display resolution, WxH:

176 x 220 pixels

  Display type:

256 level color TFT

  Weight:

5.5 oz, 156 g with batteries, mfr spec
(5.95 oz, 169 g measured with alkaline batteries)

  Battery:

2 AA batteries (not included)

  Battery life:

25 hours

  Waterproof:

yes (IPX7)

  Floats:

No

  High-sensitivity receiver:

Yes

  Maps & Memory

  Basemap:

Yes

  Ability to add maps:

Yes

  Built-in memory:

No

  Accepts data cards:

microSD card (not included)

  Waypoints:

1,000

  Routes:

50

  Track log:

10,000 points, 20 saved tracks

  Features

  Electronic compass:

Yes

  Barometric altimeter:

Yes

  Geocaching mode:

Yes

  Sun and moon information:

Yes

  Tide tables:

No

Background

For over 10 years Garmin has arguably made the best small handheld GPS units capable of supporting serious backcountry navigation. But given sales volume, they’ve been slow to introduce high sensitivity GPS technology to their smaller and lighter handheld units. That changed this year. Garmin just upgraded some of their most popular e-Trex GPS models with high sensitivity receivers. These models are designated with an “H.” Thus, the e-Trex Vista Cx becomes the e-Trex Vista HCx with the addition of a high sensitivity receiver. As far as I know these are the lightest high sensitivity GPS receivers suitable for backpacking navigation*.

While the Garmin Geko units are lighter, they give up a lot with their limited resolution black and white displays, a more basic set of navigation functions, no mapping capability, and less sensitive GPS receivers. Most other manufacturer’s mid-sized units are in the 6+ ounce range and don’t come close to the performance and functionality of the eTrex series. And don’t get your hopes up that high sensitivity GPS technology will come to navigational units in the 3-ounce range. The Garmin Gekko 101 is gone. It’s possible that Garmin will phase out the Geko series in the next few years if its sales volume drops below critical levels. In the GPS industry, if it doesn’t map in color it’s not going to sell.

Finally, while Garmin’s color mapping eTrex GPS units have been without peer for backcountry navigation, this year there are two challengers: the just released DeLorme Earthmate and the soon to be released Magellan Triton series. Backpacking Light will review both of these GPS receivers to see how they stack up.

* The smaller 3 ounce Garmin Edge is a high sensitivity GPS based bike ride computer. It is mainly intended for athletic performance measurement, resembles a Garmin Geko in size, weight and screen display. The Edge has some rudimentary navigational capability that might make it useful for navigation in skilled hands. The unit does not map, has limited route and waypoint management functions, has a 10-hour run time and critically, lacks field-replaceable batteries.

Field Testing and Performance Measurement

To see how the new Vista HCx performed, I tested the following three GPS units side by side. I attempted to get a fix with the units in 13 situations, ranging from easy to very hard reception. I focused on the ability to get an initial fix in difficult reception areas. The rational for this is discussed in the next section.

GPS Units Tested

  1. Garmin Vista HCx, representing Garmin ‘H’ high sensitivity receiver technology;
  2. Garmin Venture Cx, representing their previous receiver technology
  3. “Unit C” a competitor’s current (released this year), best technology handheld GPS

In the testing, the Garmin Vista HCx was the clear winner. It was followed by the Garmin Venture Cx. Unit C was a distant third and failed to get a fix in over half of the tests.

Number of Successful Fixes by Difficulty (total of 13 tests)
RankTotalEasy (4)Mod (2)Hard (3)Very Hard (4)
Vista HCx1134234
Venture Cx294232
Unit C3642zerozero
Fix Time by Difficulty
RankAverageEasyModHardVery Hard
Vista HCx10:350:201:110:290:22
Venture Cx22:471:013:053:473:18*
Unit C3n/a2:286:37No FixNo Fix
* Calculated from two successful fix times out of four “Very Hard” tests

The Garmin Vista HCx averaged over five times faster to get a fix than the next unit. It was the only unit to get a fix in all 13 reception situations. Furthermore, it acquired more satellites with better positional accuracy. The Garmin Venture Cx did credibly. While slower to get a fix and acquiring fewer satellites with less positional accuracy than the Vista HCx, it got a fix in all easy to hard situations. It even managed to get a fix in two out of four times for the very hard reception situation. Unit C was a disappointment. It had long fix times even in easy to moderate reception situations and was unable to get a single fix in the hard or very hard reception situations.

The new Garmin high sensitivity receiver fixes a problem I had with earlier SiRF-based high sensitivity receiver units: these SiRF units were good at maintaining a fix, once acquired, but had difficulty acquiring an initial fix. The initial fix could take two minutes or longer even with an open sky view (easy reception). That seemed like an eternity when I was itching to get on the move. To make matters worse, it would only acquire an initial fix if I stayed in the same place. If I did something like start running before getting an initial fix, it might not get a fix in 45 minutes. In comparison, my conventional, non-SiRF units (e.g. Garmin Venture Cx) would usually acquire an initial fix in much less time. Garmin seems to have solved this initial fix problem with the “H” series. When I first fired up the Vista HCx (cold fix) it acquired a GPS fix in an astonishing 28 seconds. This is the fastest cold fix I’ve measured for a handheld GPS that’s been off for weeks and moved thousands of miles.

The Garmin Vista HCx shows equal performance improvements in difficult reception areas. As mentioned earlier, it easily out-performed a competitor’s best GPS in a reception torture test. On the trail, the Vista HCx did considerably better at acquiring and keeping a fix in comparison to the other two units. Many times, the Vista HCx acquired and held a fix when other units could not. In a particularly difficult test (non-field), the Vista HCx acquired a GPS fix on the bottom floor of a two-story brick townhouse and accurately tracked my progress walking to the front of the house. The other units were unable to get a fix, let alone track me walking along the bottom floor.

Finally, I will not delve into the navigational features and display, etc. of the color mapping eTrex series. These navigational capabilities have not changed with the addition of the ‘H’ designation. All of the color mapping eTrex functionality is well documented and has been reviewed numerous times. It is a mature technology by the clear leader in this sector. It works!

Rationale for testing

In testing GPS units I focused on the GPS unit’s ability to get an initial fix in a variety of situations. Typically it is easier for a GPS to maintain a fix in a difficult situation if it originally acquired a good fix in an easier situation. That is, if you get a good fix with an open sky view (easy reception situation), leave the unit on, and then hike into a heavily forested canyon (difficult reception situation), there’s a good chance that even a so-so GPS will maintain a positional fix much of the time in the canyon. But if you fail to get an initial fix in an easy reception area, and instead turn the unit on once you are in the heavily forested canyon, many GPS units will never get a fix, and even some good units may take quite a while to get a fix.

To truly separate out the GPS unit’s performance differences I focused more testing on difficult reception areas. I wanted not just long fix times as a sign of performance degradation but failures to get a fix as well. Thus in the moderate reception situation all units were able to get a fix, but there was a 5 to 1 difference in the time to get a fix between the worst and best GPS. In the hard and very hard situations the lesser GPS receivers start failing to get a fix, further differentiating performance.

The decision to focus on initial fix performance has another reason. I rarely leave my GPS unit on while I backpack or climb (leaving a bread crumb for glacier travel or navigating in whiteout conditions would be exceptions). Some days I don’t turn the GPS on at all. If I do turn it on, I get a fix and turn it off. Partly this is to conserve batteries but mostly this is a philosophy of making navigational decisions from reading the terrain. Leaving the GPS on or using it too often distracts from this. But… every once in a while I really want to use a GPS and then I do need a reliable fix. I hate waiting.

Assessment

Note: Be careful before reading too much into the “real trail” significance of a high sensitivity GPS for the average backpacker. With a clear sky view, the norm for most desert hiking and much of mountain and other hiking, there is little practical field performance difference between the new high sensitivity “H” Garmin units and their older receiver technology predecessors. While you may wait a bit longer for a fix, a unit like the Garmin eTrex Venture Cx would adequately serve most backpackers in most situations. Note also, that the new non-mapping Garmin eTrex H (not tested) should have similar high sensitivity GPS receiver performance and has a street price around $100.

The primary place I expect the newer technology to shine is in very difficult reception areas like the narrow canyons of the southwest. This would be a godsend as navigation is not as simple as it seems in these canyons. I also expect somewhat better performance in the tree covered canyons of the Appalachian Mountains and similar deep, treed mountain canyons in the west. And of course, you do get a fix about five times faster with the new technology. Those few who need to upgrade probably know who they are.

I’m torn. I still love my Garmin Geko 301 for its small size and utilitarian navigation functions. It’s served me faithfully for years. Part of me wants this unit upgraded with the newer GPS technology (and a USB interface!). But I have to admit that I haven’t used my Geko in over a year:

  1. If I think a GPS will be useful on a trip, I take a color eTrex unit with the internal maps for my location. In my opinion, the significant increase in navigational functionality (color maps even at 1:100K) is well worth the extra 2 to 3 ounces over the Geko.
  2. If I think a GPS will be of marginal use on a trip, I don’t take one.

Like many other people, I may be contributing to the declining sales of 3 ounce, navigationally targeted, GPS units for backpackers and hikers. If I take a GPS, it will likely be a larger mapping Garmin eTrex HCx unit.

Now, if Garmin introduced a 3-ounce color mapping GPS with a high sensitivity receiver… But don’t hold your breath. I’ve been petitioning Garmin for a while on this point without success.

What’s Unique

The Garmin eTrex Vista HCx represents the lightest handheld color mapping GPS unit with high sensitivity GPS receiver technology. Unlike other units that claim “high sensitivity” handheld receivers, the Vista HCx outperforms the competition in its ability to get reception in exceptionally difficult areas. It performs well in areas where traditional knowledge was “don’t bother taking a GPS, it won’t work.”

Recommendations for Improvement

  • I wish that Garmin would put the ‘H’ receiver technology and color mapping in a 3-ounce Geko style GPS.
  • I wish that Garmin would allow users to load non-Garmin digital maps into their GPS units, e.g., digital maps from programs like National Geographic Topo! or raster images like digital 1:24K USGS maps or satellite imagery.
  • Grey is not a good color for keeping track of a GPS in the backcountry. Put the dull colored unit down on grey soil or a rock and you can easily forget it when you move on. I know, because I have done this with cameras and other expensive electronics. I greatly prefer a bright yellow, orange or green case to keep track of a GPS.


Citation

"Garmin eTrex Vista HCx GPS REVIEW," by Alan Dixon. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/garmin_etrex_vista_hcx_gps_review.html, 2007-12-12 02:00:00-07.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Garmin eTrex Vista HCx GPS REVIEW


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Wade Henrichs
(WadeHenrichs) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
New Garmin Colorado coming soon? on 12/14/2007 16:39:40 MST Print View

Rainier Winter

There may be a new Garmin Series coming this spring called the Colorado. Supposedly handles U.S. topo 1:24 uploads, arial photos (raster images), etc. Weight unfortunately more like 7+ ounces, battery life only about 16 hrs (AA), but pretty nice feature set.


http://gpstracklog.typepad.com/gps_tracklog/2007/12/more-on-the-gar.html#more

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Garmin eTrex Vista HCx GPS REVIEW on 12/14/2007 17:18:17 MST Print View

Before I bought my 60cx about 2 yrs ago, I asked Garmin what reciever they were using in these units. They weren't shy about stating that the units had the SirfStar 3.

"Thank you for contacting Garmin International. I will be happy to assist you today. The new GPSMap 60Cx will have the SirfStar III Gps receiver and will not come with any internal memory."

Wade - Thanks for the info re: the Colorado... I've been holding off on upgrading to the Vista HCx in the hope that Garmin would release a high end GPS at CES in 2008. Sounds like the Colorado will be it. If the Colorado writes tracks and waypoints to the card then in my mind it will be a winner even if it's heavier than the Etrex series. If the tracks aren't stored on the card then I will probably go with the light weight Vista HCx.

Edited by skopeo on 12/14/2007 17:23:47 MST.

Wade Henrichs
(WadeHenrichs) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
"unofficial" Garmin Colorado info on 12/14/2007 21:43:10 MST Print View

This apparently was on the Garmin site briefly and then pulled so I don't know how accurate this will turn out to be--but sounds tempting.




http://209.85.207.104/search?q=cache:90TqARRDIg4J:https://buy.garmin.com/shop/shop.do%3FpID%3D11022+Garmin+Colorado+site:garmin.com&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us

Bob Bankhead
(wandering_bob) - MLife

Locale: Oregon, USA
Garmin Colorado on 12/14/2007 22:09:13 MST Print View

Sounds like it has a lot of battery-hungry bells and whistles that hikers don't need and/or will rarely use........but you still have to pay for them.

MSRP = $642 is, IMO, rediculous. I have no intention of surveying or trying to find my way through the trackless depths of the amazon rain forest. Thanks, I'll pass.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Re: Garmin Colorado on 12/15/2007 00:53:02 MST Print View

I agree. Garmin will have to add something significant before I'd spend that much. At least the Vista HCx that was reviewed here has a much improved receiver which is a solid improvement and has the light weight/good battery life advantage. Unfortunately, the Vista still doesn't store the tracks to the SD card (... well it does but the GPS can't read them... which means they are useless). This has been a big problem with the Garmin's as I currently average about 40 miles on the track log before it starts overwriting itself. You can save the log but it filters it terribly and I generally have my maximum number of saved tracks already used up with tracks I've loaded up before the start of my trip. If the new GPS has unlimited track logs then I might make the jump. When the new SIRF 3 receiver came out in the 60cx I paid about $500 for it but it was worth it for the greatly improved reception. You can now buy it for under $300, so if I make the jump to the Colorado I'll wait until the price comes down (and wait for everybody else to find all the bugs).

Bob Bankhead
(wandering_bob) - MLife

Locale: Oregon, USA
Garmin GPSmap 60CSx on 12/15/2007 14:15:09 MST Print View

from an REI catalogue that just arrived, this quote from the description of the referenced GPS;

"highly sensitive SiRFstar III chipset...."


$499.95 ($459.95 after $50 Garmin mail-in rebate; expires 12/31/07)

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Garmin GPSmap 60CSx on 12/15/2007 19:07:18 MST Print View

Are you referring to the 60Cx/60Csx? If so, the 60Cx is listed at under $300 (after rebate) at this site: http://www.gpscentral.ca/products/garmin/60cx.htm
The 60Csx is just a little more.

David C Briggs
(dcbriggs) - F - M
RE: Garmin Edge on 12/19/2007 19:39:55 MST Print View

I used the Forerunner 305 for about 100 miles of VT AT in October. It only lost fix a few times. I did have to recharge it everynight - it went low battery after about 11 hours. I wrote a program to convert AT centerline data to the Garmin .tcx format and used that as the track. The 305 beeps to tell you that you are off track and points you which way to get back on. Its not a map, but on the AT, its more than enough.
The Edge 705 soulds like it is a 3.7 oz full maping high sensitivity GPS that can take Garmin Topo maps. It also sounds like you can justify the price by getting the street maps and having it double as a Nuvi/TomTom since it also does turn by turn directions. Has anyone tried one yet for both purposes?

Octavio Salazar
(shotguntuna)
help downloading topo! waypoints on 01/15/2008 23:21:41 MST Print View

hi guys,
first off I’d like to thank for the very informative review, based on the information I’ve decided to give GPS route finding another try, I’ve had a GPS for a while now but I just use it as a back up and in reality only take it out of the pack each time I break camp, I mark the car location, put it away, then after a long day of hiking, bring out the GPS for a minute, mark the camp site then put it away again till the next night,
when I first got the unit I found it very distracting and was paying more attention to it than the land marks so I decided to use it this way as not to distract from my hiking experience,

I read the review and thought I could upgrade my GPS and get more use of it by making waypoins on my planned route using my topo! software before hand and habing the assurance of the route could actually do more exploring,
so that was the plan, so I buy the Vista HCx spend all day making the route on the software and now I cant download the waypoints to the unit, am I missing something?
how can I export the waypoints from topo! software to the Vista HCx unit? I hope its just “user error” otherwise I’ll return the unit and keep with my old ways

thanks for any advice

Octavio Salazar
(shotguntuna)
Re: help downloading topo! waypoints on 01/16/2008 10:58:23 MST Print View

so, i found i have an older version of topo!,
need to upgrade to ver.4.0

Rob Marchetti
(rob@lonepinetech.net) - F
hcx maps western US on 05/20/2008 07:20:30 MDT Print View

I have had a few garmin gps units and the hcx is my fav for sure. While the positioning is a little erratic ,the track can innacurately jump around, this is not a big problem and is part of learning curve. You learn to read the instrument and anticipate when it might be off a bit and get another reading.

The high senstitvity (hcx) is like night and day difference from the other non hcx etrex models. Way way way better reception to the point that the old models basically dont work in the woods and this one does.

As far as 24k maps that are uploadable to the garmin unit, check this out: http://www.miscjunk.org/ . I am not sure of the scale but the contour interval is way better than the mapsource maps. Essentially 24k detail on your gps! I have uploaded these maps to my unit and they are great.

Also the battery life is phenominal

I also have a colorado 400t and I think the hcx is better especially for long trips (weight and battery). The screen on the colorado is bigger but not that much easier to read. colo has more internal memory capability than hcx but for practical reson hcx has plenty.

Edited by rob@lonepinetech.net on 05/20/2008 07:28:34 MDT.