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Garmin Foretrex 101 GPS REVIEW

Comprehensive review of the Garmin Foretex 101 GPS Review.

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by Blake Morstad | 2004-12-10 03:00:00-07

Overview

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Foretrex 101 showing the six dedicated operation buttons as well as the straightforward main menu page; simplicity and ease of operation are strong suits of the 101.

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The Foretrex 101 worn on your wrist frees up your hands while hiking.

The Foretrex 101 is a wrist-mounted GPS unit for the minimalist - small, lightweight, and waterproof. It weighs the same as the Suunto X9 to within a few tenths of an ounce. With street prices as low as $115 (manufacturer's suggested retail price is $139), it is also minimalist on price. The Garmin Foretrex 101 focuses on the no frills basics of navigation in an easy-to-use unit. To meet size, battery life and price criteria, Garmin eliminated features such as topographic mapping, a barometric altimeter and a magnetic compass.

Having a GPS on your wrist has two benefits. It frees up your hands for climbing, paddling or trekking poles. It also gives you continuously readable navigation information. The Foretrex 101 can also be used as a small handheld unit by removing the strap. Without the strap, it is similar in function to the Garmin Geko 201, but is smaller and lighter. The Foretrex 101 compares in its wrist-mounted mode to the Suunto X9, except for the lack of an electronic compass and a barometric altimeter. It is also bulkier on the wrist. However, the Foretrex 101 has more reliable and faster GPS reception, a larger display and is significantly easier to operate than the X9.

Overall, the 101 is an excellent value for a GPS. It has just the right navigational features for backcountry navigation.

To summarize:

  • Among the very lightest and smallest GPS units
  • GPS performance as good as the eTrex and Geko series units
  • Excellent battery life (over 22 hours in battery save mode)
  • Wrist mounted - frees up hands; continuously readable information
  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to operate
  • Basic GPS/navigation functions (no support for internal maps). Missing magnetic compass and barometric altimeter. Some may wish to use the 101 in conjunction with a magnetic compass and barometric unit like a Suunto Vector.
  • Bulky for a wrist mounted unit and interferes with some clothing. Used without the wrist strap it is delightfully small and pocketable.

Specifications

• Weight

Backpacking LightManufacturer claimed
2.9 oz (80.8 g) with batteries, without strap; 0.5 oz (14.2 g) strap only 2.6 oz  (73.7g) with batteries, without strap

• Dimensions

3.3 x 1.7 x 0.9 inches (8.4 x 4.3 x 2.3 cm) excluding band

• Battery Life

Normal mode (GPS always on): 15 hours (manufacturer), 16 hours (Backpacking Light tested); Battery Save mode: 22 hours 14 minutes (tested). Battery life tested using Energizer Max AAA alkaline batteries.

• Battery Type

2 AAA batteries

• Barometric Altimeter

No

• Electronic Compass

No

• WAAS Enabled

Yes

• Screen Resolution (H x W)

100 x 64 pixels

• Screen Size (H x W)

1.4 x 0.9 in (36 x 23 mm)

• Display Type

Black and white LCD with backlighting

• Auto Locate GPS Fix*

5 minutes

• Cold GPS Fix*

45 seconds (manufacturer); 42 seconds (Backpacking Light average)

• Warm GPS Fix*

15 seconds (manufacturer); 16 seconds (Backpacking Light average)

• GPS Accuracy

Normal GPS mode, less than 15 meters; WAAS mode, less than 3 meters

• Waypoint/Route Memory

500 waypoints/20 routes with 125 waypoints per route

• Trackpoints

10,000 (10 tracks)

• Additional Memory

No

• Additional Memory Type

N/A

• Computer Interface**

Yes, Windows PC, Macintosh with third party cable

• Basemaps

No

• Additional Maps

No

• Water Resistance

IPX7 (International Protection Code 7) - submersible in 1 m of water for up to 30 minutes

• Receiver

12 parallel channel GPS receiver

• Antenna

Built-in patch

• Celestial Info

Sunrise and sunset

• MSRP

$139

• Included Equipment

Extension wrist strap which enables you to wear the 101 with a heavy jacket, 2 AAA batteries, manuals

• Optional Equipment

PC interface cable (proprietary Garmin RS232 - different from the cable used with the eTrex and Geko series, $14.99 MSRP), USB to RS232 converter cable $60 MSRP, selected Garmin MapSource products, bicycle mounting kit
*Auto Locate Fix = GPS movement over 500 miles since last fix and/or more than 30 days since last fix. Cold Fix = More than four hours since last GPS fix and/or significant movement since last fix (you'd need to use a car or something faster to get far enough). Warm Fix = Less than four hours since last fix without significant movement (you can't walk or run far enough in four hours to lose a warm fix).
**National Geographic Topo! now supports the Foretrex series with version 4.0. According to National Geographic there is currently no support (and may never be support) for the Foretrex series in Topo! versions 2.7 and 3.4.3. To download waypoints created in these older versions you'll need to upgrade to Topo! 4.0 and merge the old waypoint file into a version 4.0 file before downloading to the Foretrex.

Features

In addition to the features specified above, the Foretrex 101 also has the following:

  • Six main pages or screens including: Satellite, Map, Navigation, Trip Computer, Timer, and Main Menu. The Trip Computer, Satellite, and Navigation pages can be customized by changing displayed fields.
  • Trip computer: Current speed, average speed, re-settable maximum speed, trip timer and trip distance.

GPS Field Performance

The Foretrex 101 has the same reported fix times as the rest of the Garmin lightweight GPS units, including the eTrex and Geko series. These lightweight units all use a similar GPS receiver and antenna. Reported fix times corresponded well with field tested fix times, as shown in the following table.

The Foretrex 101 is equipped with the capability to receive WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) satellite correction signals to increase positional accuracy. WAAS is not utilized when in the backcountry for the following reasons. First, WAAS decreases battery life for all GPS units when enabled. Second, since the WAAS system uses one of two geostationary satellites, reception can be difficult in all but open land and marine settings. Canyons and forested or mountainous areas frequented when hiking often do not receive strong WAAS signals. Third, increased positional accuracy achieved with WAAS does little to aid backcountry navigation where position accuracy is normally less than 15 meters without WAAS. Thus for most hiking activities, the WAAS mode is kept off.

Cold Start (minutes:seconds)Warm Start (minutes:seconds)
Average00:42 00:16
Maximum01:15 00:30
Minimum00:27 00:08

Excellent GPS performance and fast fix times are not without compromise. The Foretrex 101 uses a larger patch antenna, requiring a larger plastic case than that required for a loop antenna (the Suunto X9 uses a loop antenna allowing for a smaller size but with poor GPS reception and slower fix times). The Foretrex 101 is much larger than the X9 and can interfere with clothing layers, gloves, and elastic cuffs on jackets. To alleviate interference, Garmin includes an extension wrist strap that can extend the strap allowing for the unit to fit over clothing layers. This solves the problem for warmer conditions, but having the unit exposed to the cold in winter conditions greatly shortens battery life. (If battery life is a concern in cold conditions, we suggest that you keep the Foretrex 101 in a warm pocket.)

The 101 maintained good satellite contact on trail runs and hikes in forested areas. Fast movement of the unit, antenna position, and clothing layer coverage did not appear to affect reception.

GPS Operation

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Trip Computer pages showing the four screens available. Each of these fields can be customized. The Foretrex 101 pares the number of main pages on the unit to five screens (six if the Timer page is enabled). These main pages include the Satellite, Map, Navigation, Trip Computer, Timer, and Main Menu pages. This contrasts with the overwhelming number of menu pages on some other small GPS units. It is possible to change the displayed fields for the Trip Computer, Satellite, and Navigation pages, which is a useful feature. We liked customizing the Trip Computer page to include the trip odometer and overall speed, which displays average speed. The Trip Computer page is actually larger than the screen size containing four different sub-screens that can be chosen as the displayed screen for the Trip Computer page by simply scrolling up or down. Once a certain page is chosen, it is stored and displayed later as the contents of the Trip Computer page.

The Satellite page gives the user the option to choose between a Normal and Advanced Skyview. The Advanced Skyview displays the satellites oriented in the sky with signal bars for each satellite and accuracy with indication of a 2D or 3D fix. It also allows the satellite graphic to be oriented with the direction of travel. The Normal mode has only one signal bar and an accuracy value. We think that Garmin should have scrapped this Normal Skyview page and simply used the Advanced Skyview, which provides more useful reception information.

The Foretrex has six dedicated buttons, including: GoTo, Page, Enter/Mark, Up, Down, and Power. These buttons are well designed and provide a good tactile response, allowing for easy manipulation. The Power button is slightly receded into the Foretrex case to prevent an accidental power-on. Holding the Power button turns the unit on and off while a quick depression toggles the backlight on and off. Browsing between the five main pages is done by simply hitting the Page button. This action only advances to the next page in one direction, so if the Page button is accidentally depressed at the wrong time, the next main page will appear. To get back to the main page of interest, the user has to go through the remaining pages. This proved to be an inconvenience, which might be alleviated by having a Page Back button or giving the GoTo button two functions.

The menu levels in the Foretrex usually do not extend past two sub-levels, which makes operating the unit straightforward. One gripe is the process to turn off the GPS receiver, which requires at minimum six button presses. Turning off the GPS receiver is desirable if the user simply wants to use the Foretrex for time display between GPS fixes. This would eliminate the need to carry an additional timepiece. We'd like to see a combination of button presses that would turn off the GPS receiver quickly and easily.

Marking waypoints with the Foretrex simply involves holding the Enter/Mark button for two seconds. This brings up a waypoint window letting the user type a descriptive name (six characters maximum selected using a scrollable alphanumeric list) as well as choose a symbol for the waypoint. If default names and symbols are accepted, marking the waypoint requires only two button presses. The waypoints are stored in a list that can easily be browsed to find the point of interest. Routes are created from the waypoints by selecting from the waypoint list, which proved to be relatively easy, yet also time consuming. Downloading routes to the Foretrex from a PC is much faster. Individual waypoints can also be downloaded, which is superior to manual entry of waypoints in the Foretrex. People who buy the Foretrex 101 must purchase a Garmin proprietary PC cable to connect to a computer. The cable costs an additional $15 and is not always available as a standard stock item at local stores that carry the Foretrex.

An optional page within the Foretrex is the Timer page, which must be enabled to be displayed as one of the main pages. This page has a settable countdown timer, which is supposedly useful for sailing. Once the timer counts down to zero, the elapsed time begins. This countdown feature proved to be cumbersome when trying to simply record elapsed time, which we often wanted to do while hiking. Beyond the countdown issue, the Timer page had another drawback: the timer maxed out at 99 minutes and 59 seconds, as the display is unable to fit an additional hour digit. A similar timer exists within the Trip Computer page that measures moving time, although it requires the GPS to be turned on to determine whether the unit is moving. Timing functions are not normally found on handheld GPS units, but because the Foretrex is a wrist mounted unit we expected more chronographic functions. A simple stopwatch function in the Foretrex 101 would be desirable.

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Menu showing the GPS modes

The Foretrex 101 can also be used without the wrist strap, making the unit comparable in size to the Geko 201. However, the absence of the strap made button presses less ergonomic. The overall size of the Foretrex without the strap is smaller than the Geko 201 and nearly an ounce lighter. We found the unit more comfortable in the pocket than the Geko 201.

Battery Life and Power Management

Battery life for the Foretrex 101 is impressive, with a reported and tested battery life of 15 and 16 hours, respectively, when the unit is in Normal GPS mode (GPS fix rate = once every second). When in Battery Save mode (GPS fix rate = once every five seconds), the Foretrex had a tested life of over 22 hours, which is substantially higher than many GPS units using AA batteries. The Foretrex 101 battery tests were performed using regular Energizer Max AAA alkaline batteries. With Energizer e2 Titanium batteries we would expect the 101 to have a battery save mode life in the range of 25 hours. This is comparable to the Geko 301 in battery save mode. See Alan Dixon's Geko 301 and 201 review.

We liked the ability to change the Foretrex 101's batteries in the field for multi-day, navigation intensive trips. The Foretrex 101's brother, the Foretrex 201, uses an internal rechargeable lithium battery that cannot be replaced.

The Foretrex 101 has the capability to record a track while hiking, which is useful if conditions warrant leaving an electronic breadcrumb trail to backtrack later. Except in the case of whiteouts, however, this feature is not usually needed and it's preferable to turn it off to save battery life. This is done by simply navigating to the Tracks menu and turning the Recording option to OFF.

Computer Interface and Software

As mentioned, the Foretrex 101 is capable of interfacing with a PC to download and upload routes, waypoints, tracks, and trackpoints. However, the unit doesn't come with the required $15 cable (this is a new cable, different from the cable for the eTrex and Geko series). Computer download is the preferred way to enter waypoints when planning a trip since entering navigation information manually from a paper map can be tedious. Some type of mapping program (e.g., National Geographic Topo! or Garmin MapSend) is required. National Geographic Topo! version 4.0 now supports the Foretrex series.

Note: according to National Geographic there is currently no support (and may never be support) for the Foretrex series in versions 2.7 and 3.4.3. To download waypoints created in these older versions you'll need to upgrade to Topo! 4.0 and merge the old waypoint file into a version 4.0 file before downloading to the Foretrex.

Display

The Foretrex uses the same screen as the Geko series, except that the Foretrex uses landscape orientation. The 100 x 64 pixel screen size allows enough information to be displayed on each screen to minimize the need for multiple screens and deeply nested menus. A quick press of the power button toggles backlighting on the Foretrex. A feature that we like is that once turned on, the backlight turns off after a user-defined period of time. When subsequent buttons are pressed, the backlight turns back on, illuminating the display. To turn the backlight off, press the power button quickly. We found the backlighting on the Foretrex effectively illuminated all parts of the screen.

Value

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Size comparison between the Suunto X9 and the Garmin Foretrex 101

The MSRP for the Foretrex 101 is $138, with street prices as low as $115. We believe that the Foretrex 101 is a great value at this price. The Foretrex 101's price is close to that of the Geko 201 and about $50 cheaper than the Foretrex 201. The Foretrex 201 only differs by the type of battery used and the inclusion of the PC cable. (If you intend to use a GPS for multi-day trips then the Foretrex 201's inability to be charged in the field and lack of replaceable batteries are a concern.) When compared to the similarly priced Geko 201, which has identical features, the Foretrex 101 is lighter (with the strap removed), smaller, and has wrist-mounting convenience if desired. Compared to the Suunto X9, a similar wrist-top mounted GPS unit, the Foretrex 101 is about $550 cheaper (MSRP). The benefits of the X9 are a smaller size, an electronic compass, and an altimeter. The Foretrex 101 has much better GPS reception and is significantly easier to operate than the X9.

Recommendations for Improvement

Some recommendations for future iterations include:

  • More watch-like attributes such as a stopwatch and the ability to turn off the GPS receiver more easily when only a time display is needed.
  • Inclusion of a barometric altimeter and electronic compass. Possibly the Foretrex 301?
  • Include a PC cable with purchase and use a USB connection rather than 9-pin serial connection.
  • Reduce the size of the unit so that there is less interference with clothing.

Citation

"Garmin Foretrex 101 GPS REVIEW," by Blake Morstad . BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/garmin_foretrex_101_gps_review.html, 2004-12-10 03:00:00-07.

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