Top positive review
96 people found this helpful
Great GPS but could be even greater
on 20 September 2010
This is my first walking/trekking GPS and I am generally very pleased with it. I'm glad I opted for a wrist worn device, rather than a portable brick, even if it does lack colour and mapping. For me a significant part of the enjoyment of trekking is the exploration and navigation and I want to use the Foretrex as a companion to a conventional map and compass. I don't feel ready for a Satmap Active yet and anyway, I've seen the price of the maps!
The GPS sensitivity is good and in the open the Foretrex normally reports a position accuracy of 3m. Before setting off I set it down in the open for a few minutes, so as to get good satellite locks.
Unlike some people I have no problem with the length of the Velcro strap. Perhaps I have a thin wrist or Garmin have simply designed it for the European rather than American physique! It's not uncomfortable to wear and the pins holding the strap are probably more robust than they look. It's not exactly a fashion statement, but then it's not supposed to be.
I bought the Foretrex 401 instead the 301 as I thought I'd like the ability to link to a heart rate monitor (see update below). The electronic compass, altitude and barometer functions are interesting extras but, if I'm honest, up to now I could have managed without them. I'm sure the altimeter and barometer would be more useful in the mountains than in the Suffolk countryside! I also considered the Garmin Forerunner series. Some of the Forerunners are quite cute but they are intended more for fitness training than navigation and the lack of an OS grid reference was the show stopper for me.
I find that it is necessary to manually calibrate the altimeter at the start of every trip as it takes about an hour for the auto calibration to take effect. I therefore wish that the altimeter calibration function were easier to access, perhaps from the Elevation page. Once calibrated, I've found the altimeter to be surprisingly accurate (within a couple of metres), at least at walking speed when weather conditions are stable. If there were rapid changes in barometric pressure it would probably take a while for the auto calibration to adjust. I'd like the barometric pressure to be shown as well as the altitude on the Elevation page and I'd also like to have a barometric pressure log, to help monitor weather changes.
You cannot use the Foretrex to replace a conventional compass. The electronic compass needs to be calibrated every time you change batteries. Even with careful calibration (I sit it as level as possible on an office chair and slowly rotate the chair twice!) it is usually several degrees out and a lot more than that if it isn't held perfectly level. Any error in the compass bearing affects the bearing pointer and if you're not careful it could send you seriously off course. At this price I really think Garmin should use a 3 axis sensor.
If you suspect the electronic compass is out of calibration you're better off turning it off and using the GPS derived compass, as long as you are moving. I now display the bearing to next waypoint field on the compass page and then sight this bearing using a conventional compass - it's a lot more accurate. It's also useful to monitor the bearing if your intention is head in a straight line to the next waypoint. In this case the bearing field should remain constant. If the bearing decreases you're moving too far to the right, if it increases you're moving too far to the left (the reverse if you're taking a back bearing).
I'm using Eneloop rechargeable batteries which give me adequate life for two or three decent walks - probably around 15 hours with the compass on. I've noticed that some people report battery life as low as 4 hours. If you use these batteries it's important to ensure you set the battery option in the system setup to NiMH, otherwise the Foretrex will probably give you a premature indication of the battery being flat.
When navigating a route I'd like there to be an optional beep alert as the next waypoint is approached. There is only a beep when approaching the final destination.
For a casual walk I don't always want to do a lot of route planning. To prepare a route with all the waypoints and download them to the Foretex seems to take as long as the walk itself! Instead, I like to use a paper map and compass and use the Foretrex as a track logger and navigational assistant. For this I'd really like to be able to mark waypoints on my route (which you can do) and have data fields for distance from last waypoint, bearing from last waypoint and perhaps time from last waypoint. I was really surprised that these data fields are not available. (Please note update 13 Aug 2012 below)
The addition of a thermometer might be useful, although it would probably be difficult for it to measure ambient air temperature accurately.
Not having used a Garmin GPS before it took me a while to understand some of the options settings. The owner's manual is very terse. It doesn't even mention all the options and those it does mention it doesn't explain fully. For instance, it would have helped to understand how auto route leg transitions work (eventually I found a description of this online).
There is no application software supplied with the unit and you are left to discover for yourself how to obtain BaseCamp and link into Google Earth. I enter waypoints in Google Earth and export them as KML files. I then convert them to GPX. Uploading walked tracks to Google Earth is great, although the current version of Google Earth seems to reduce the number of track points. This degrades the path accuracy and reduces the total track lengths slightly.
A couple of tips about creating and navigating routes. It appears that when setting the Foretrex to start navigating a route it ignores the first waypoint in the route. Bearing this in mind I define the first waypoint as my starting point. I've found Foretrex to be pretty intelligent and if you enable navigation in the middle of a route it understands where you are on the route and navigates you to the correct next waypoint (I imagine it would have difficulty understanding what you want to do on routes that wind back tightly on themselves). For a circular walk define the first and last waypoints to be the same, eg WP00, otherwise when you start to navigate a route Foretrex may immediately declare you've arrived at your destination! When you start the circular route navigation you'll then be asked if you want to Follow to WP00 or if you want to Follow to WP00, which isn't very helpful. Select the second option if you want to follow a route from the first waypoints to the last waypoints on the route.
Overall I do like the Foretrex 401. There are some extra features I'd like, the manual could certainly be a lot better and it should be supplied with at least some application software. However, it ticks all the main boxes and works well, although the compass is a bit iffy. I do think that it's expensive for what it is and I feel it should be about half the price - i.e. around £100 list, £70 discounted but then I guess it's quite a specialist market.
4 stars does seem a bit mean and if Garmin were to address a few things I'd be happy to rate it 5 stars.
28 June 2011 - Update
I today received the Garmin Premium Heart Rate Monitor and have just reviewed it. Whilst it appears to do the job of measuring heart rate the software support for the Foretrex 401 is pretty dire. I've found that the heart rate data is only saved correctly in the ACTIVE LOG tracks and not in saved track data. Then if you use Garmin Connect to upload the activities you have to manually upload the Current.gpx file otherwise it doesn't include the heart rate data. On top of this you can't use BaseCamp to edit the ACTIVE LOG tracks if you want to preserve the heart rate data. It's all very unfriendly and severely limits the usefulness of the heart rate monitor. I get the impression that Garmin don't want to support the crossover market between navigation and fitness training.
27 July 2011 - Update
I recently removed the strap for the first time in order to clean it. I then noticed that the two lugs that house the nut inserts for the strap screws were badly cracked. It looked as if they'd soon split completely and the strap would detach. This may be a weakness in what is supposed to be a robust case design. Has anyone else noticed this problem? To their credit Garmin promptly replaced my Foretrex with a new unit. I just hope the same thing doesn't happen again next year.
13 August 2012 - Update
After a year with my replacement 401 I've noticed that one of the fixing lugs is starting to crack. Although nothing too severe it puts me off removing the strap for cleaning. I've just uploaded a photo of one of the cracked lugs on my first 401 which Garmin replaced.
I've found a useful undocumented feature which allows you to measure quickly distance and back bearing from your last waypoint. Press and hold the Mark button as you would normally to mark your current position as a waypoint. Then instead of confirming 'OK?' press and hold the Goto button. This saves the waypoint and immediately starts to navigate to it (you'll probably get a friendly beep and message telling you you've just arrived at your destination). You can then read the distance and back bearing from the 'Next Dest' and 'Bearing' fields.