Sep 06 2007

Don't Get Lost

Garmin's eTrex can help your staff know where it's going — literally.

The Garmin eTrex Vista Cx packs quite a Global Positioning System punch in a small, portable package, with a 176-by-220 pixel display and a 1.3-by-1.7-inch screen that has variable-setting backlighting, which makes it visible even on sunny days.

End-User Advantages

The eTrex Vista Cx works on and off the road, not just as a GPS receiver but as an electronic compass as well. The built-in barometric altimeter offers fixed and variable elevation readings.

The GPS receiver will save your routes and tracks, find waypoints, and pan and zoom the map. The Vista Cx features a “bread crumb” trail, which not only records horizontal (x, y) travel but also records altitude (z) data so you can do post-trip analyses. You can save up to 10,000 points and 20 tracks at a time on the device.

Why It Works for IT

A key feature of any GPS device is map storage and retrieval. The Cx comes with a 64-megabyte microSD card but can support cards of up to 512MB. To replace the small card, a user must remove the battery cover. (It takes two AA batteries.)

If you are handing this device out at the office to travelers, don’t worry about it breaking. The GPS position is accurate within 1 to 2 meters, standard for the industry (if not slightly better).

To download records of your travels and upload new maps, connect the device to your PC via USB. As an added bonus, while it’s on the USB port, it draws power so as not to run down your AA batteries. (Previous models used serial ports, which do not transmit power.) Garmin provides a software interface, which can also download maps over the Internet and then upload them to the device.

The eTrex Vista Cx can upload all of Garmin’s digital mapping products. It has the ability to automatically generate a route from a current location to a new destination when either City Select or City Navigator digital maps are installed. The map area that can be loaded depends on the road system in your area. Typically, it’s one-third to one-half of your state’s residential streets in the 24MB memory. (Simply put, coverage would be greater in Montana but less in California.) If no map has been installed, the unit just automatically creates routes against the base map, which includes most state and interstate highways.


I found having to hold the unit horizontally to use the compass was a bit frustrating. You usually hold the device vertically, much like a cell phone, but then the compass does not work.

Although a continuous readout of the barometric pressure is available, one for altitude is not. GPS altitude must be accessed from the satellite page and is a one-time reading that does not continuously update.

As with most GPS units, street-level maps can be bought via Garmin’s Web site. Because these maps change from year to year, subscriptions are available. This isn’t a disadvantage per se — every unit on the market has this feature — but if you were expecting to pay for the receiver and then just go on a trip without paying more, that would be like buying a cell phone without the service. But, although the unit will download any map generated by Garmin, it does not work with third-party maps.

It also does not have an external antenna or a protrusion of any kind (like the Verizon Treo 700w). But this compact design comes at a price: The eTrex has trouble in high radio frequency areas and under tree cover. (There’s definitely no satellite reception in your house.) Even if you do get good reception under trees, there is some data scatter, which leads to inaccuracies.

CDW Price: $299.99

IT Takeaway

The eTrex works for location-based workers who need assistance finding locations and was used by workers after Hurricane Katrina. For your office, keep the following in mind:

• To keep the device current requires map subscriptions.
• Some third-party maps, such as DeLorme, Magellan, Lowrance and Microsoft AutoRoute maps, do not work with the device.
• Batteries last about 27 hours in save mode but only 20 hours when using backlight and compass features.
Dr. Jeffrey Sheen is the lead enterprise analyst for Grange Mutual Insurance of Columbus, Ohio.