Hands on with Garmin’s first Android-based backcountry unit
The Garmin Monterra is the company’s first Android-based handheld GPS receiver. Since it is so different from what has preceded it, I’m going to focus my review on changes to the interface and some broader implications of having an Android-based GPS with full access to the Google Play app market.
Before I get to that though, let me say that there are two Monterra models: One with a worldwide basemap that lists for $649.99 USD and one with preloaded 1:100,000 scale US topo maps, listing for $699.99. The model I tried is the latter.
Anyone experienced with recent Garmin handhelds and Android smartphones won’t be facing much of a learning curve with the Monterra. As someone fitting both criteria, I found the Monterra to be highly intuitive and, to a great extent, offering the best of both worlds.
The first screens you’re likely to see are the lock screen and home screen…
Perhaps the biggest interface difference is that all the familiar Garmin “page” functions are now apps, as you can see below at left. On the right are your standard Android apps. The Monterra has full access to Google Play (the Android app market), allowing you to download any app compatible with the device.
The third tab in the app drawer is for widgets, which can be added to any of the Monterra’s home screens. In addition to the recreational widget shown on the home screen image earlier, there are four other Garmin widgets that can be added to the five home screens (in addition to standard Android widgets)…
Other customization options
Profiles and dashboards are also available, just like on other Garmin handhelds. Profiles can be switched from the pull-down notification screen. Unfortunately the Monterra lacks the hard button shortcuts found on the Montana and Oregon 600 series.
Having said that, there is a screen lock shortcut that comes up when you hold down the power button (at left below) and a long press on the home button brings up recent apps in standard Android fashion (at right below)…
Within Garmin “apps,” things are very similar to how they appear on other recent Garmin devices. Here are some geocaching screenshots…
The notifications feature is both a blessing and a curse. The Monterra comes with all the stock Google apps, so unless you go in and turn off notifications, your email will be synced, you’ll be seeing calendar notifications, etc. You’ll need to dig deep in individual app settings to disable these features..
On the bright side, you can turn track recording on and off (and switch profiles) from the notifications menu…
Peak Finder app
Since Garmin highlighted the Peak Finder app when they announced the Monterra, and because I love getting up high and identifying peaks on the horizon, well… of course I checked it out. Don’t expect a virtual reality interface where you actually see the peaks. No, what you’ll see is shown below:
I was curious as to which would perform better using the app, my phone (a Samsung Galaxy Nexus) or the Monterra. Long story short — the Garmin won. The phone was much slower to acquire location data and didn’t track well as I panned the horizon.
Which is not to say that the Monterra was perfect — it seemed to be off, perhaps 5 degrees or so (see the Bugs section below). Still, I was easily able to determine which peaks were which.
One other note — the app is not ideal; there were few named peaks in some areas.
The implications of Android
The Android operating system opens up a world of possibilities. For example, I was able to rename .img map files using the Astro file manager. No more map tile limits. I’m betting you could do the same thing with waypoints, geocaching pocket queries, etc.
When I tried downloading a .gpx file from GPS Tracklog, the Chrome browser wouldn’t download it but opened it as a text file. I was however able to download a .gpx file from another site as an XML file. When I went looking for it in Astro it asked me if I wanted to “Import GPX file”. As soon as I did, it opened in the Garmin waypoint manager.
Chrome choosing to open rather than download a GPX file could possibly be circumvented by using another browser, though I did not try that.
Other mapping apps, like Google Maps and Orux Maps, worked fine when I tried them.
I’m sure this just begins to touch on the possibilities brought by an Android-based Garmin handheld. Looks like a nice playground for folks who like to experiment!
One other thing to mention here — if Garmin chooses to update apps individually, that could make new features and improved layouts available to users very quickly. I wonder if they will, and how they will circumvent it if they don’t.
It’s not off
On most Garmin handhelds, if you tap the power button you’ll get a screen that allows you to change the backlight settings; you hold the power button down for a couple of seconds to power it down. Not so on the Monterra — tap the power button and the screen goes blank. You might think it’s off, but you’ve only put the display to sleep. Make this mistake and you may come back later to find your batteries drained. You need to long press and select Power Off to actually shut it down.
The device I used was a pre-production model and I did notice a few bugs. As far as I know, these have yet to be resolved, but I have been told “please keep in mind that small glitches will be fixed in upcoming software updates.”
- I was not been able to successfully connect the device to my Mac (OS 10.8.5), even after updating the Communicator plugin; it worked fine on Windows 7 though
- I was not able to calibrate the compass; it never got past the first screen (this could be the reason for the Peak Finder app being a bit off; I’m seeing complaints about the compass from other users as well)
- When navigating a track, waypoints and low and high points were displayed in the active route, but not in the distance to next and waypoint at next data fields I placed on the map screen
A few quibbles
There are a couple of other things not to like. The 272 x 480px resolution is abysmally low. But there is no doubt a reason for that — to improve visibility in a wide range of outdoor lighting conditions. After all, you do want a brighter screen than what your smartphone has on a sunny day, right? Less pixel density means more light reflected back to your eyes.
I will say that the worst looking screens are Android screens — check out the battery widget on the home screen image near the top of this post. Once you’re in Garmin apps, where the company has optimized things for this screen resolution, they actually look pretty good.
The other gripe, less forgivable IMHO, is using Android 4.0.4; the current Android version is 4.4. I’d be a bit surprised to see the Monterra get an Android update either, and I have to wonder what this will mean for app compatibility and how it will impact folks wanting to develop apps for Garmin devices.
Despite those things, I actually like the device. Yes, it’s big, like the Montana, and it is expensive. And let’s face it, this is a beta device — this is Garmin trialling Android on a device that won’t appeal to many users, either due to price, size or its first-generation nature. Should you buy it? If you can afford the admission fee, are aware of the caveats and want a cool next-gen toy, sure, go for it! If you want a reasonably priced device for routine use, with far fewer bugs, you should look elsewhere.
More Monterra reviews
- GlobeRiders has also posted a detailed Garmin Monterra review
I’ll be posting more hands on GPS reviews as they appear, but in the meantime, here are some…
Other Monterra resources
Compare prices on the Monterra at these merchants:
- Check the current Garmin Monterra price at Amazon
- Get the Monterra at REI.com, where satisfaction is guaranteed and members get 10% back on eligible purchases
- Buy the Monterra direct from Garmin
- Get the Monterra from GPS City