Sunday, March 18, 2012

Garmin Monterra review

Garmin Monterra review

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.

Two models

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.

Interface changes

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…

Garmin Monterra lock and home screens

Garmin Monterra lock and home screens

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.

Garmin Monterra app screens

Garmin Monterra app screens

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)…

Garmin widgets

Garmin 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)…

Android shortcuts

Android shortcuts

Within Garmin “apps,” things are very similar to how they appear on other recent Garmin devices. Here are some geocaching screenshots…

Geocaching screenshots

Geocaching screenshots

Notifications

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…

Garmin Monterra notifications

Garmin Monterra notifications

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:

Peak Finder app on the Garmin Monterra

Peak Finder app on the Garmin Monterra

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.

Opening downloaded gpx files

Opening downloaded GPX files

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.

Bugs

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.

Conclusion

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

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:

 

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.

Comments

  1. Rich, Thanks for posting a link to my Monterra Review. I keep it updated with Garmin fixes and “most-asked-questions” detail hopefully without getting too much detail. 🙂

    Cheers,
    Dan Townsley

  2. Great review Dan. I loved your articulation of the current nature of the software feeling a little immature. One other major difference that may be important to some users not familiar with the Andriod interface is that if you want the alarm clock or “save always” funtion of the barometer to work you can’t turn the Monterra off. This might be obvious to Android users but previous Garmin users not familiar with Android might not know.

  3. Great review Dan. I loved your articulation of the current nature of the software feeling a little immature. One other major difference that may be important to some users not familiar with the Andriod interface is that if you want the alarm clock or “save always” funtion of the barometer to work you can’t power down.

    • Dan Townsley says:

      Thanks yagazoo. I know you’ve had a lot of hands-on as well. But, you got me on those two. I have been so focused on the GOAs and hardware, I totally missed the Barometer and Alarm Clock. I guess we’ll just have to make sure the Monterra is on-charge for the night and put it in Sleep-mode. 🙂

  4. Colorado_Dave says:

    Do you know how to add owner information to the Garmin Monterra? This is a custom message that appears at startup. Typically I add my name, address, phone number in case the unit gets lost. It was standard on my Garmin GPSMAP 60CSX and I was able to create and upload a text file in Oregon 550T but how about this Monterra? Thanks!

    • Dan Townsley says:

      The way to do this on the Monterra is to set Security Lock Screen. In the settings page where you set the type of entry you want to use (touch, swipe, PIN, P/W) you can also set User Info. The security screen with of course come up when the unit is powered on or when it goes to sleep (depending upon your settings).

      • Colorado_Dave says:

        Thanks Dan!
        I tried this procedure. For some reason the info scrolls across the screen instead of just showing complete. Not sure I like that!

        Also, it is inconsistent on when it appears on the PIN screen.
        Thanks- Dave

  5. Rich,

    First thanks for all the info on your site. It’s the best I’ve found. I’m looking at 1) Montana 650t 2) Monterra. 3) Oregon. I think I would have settled on the Montana if all this GLONASS talk hadn’t came up which is why I’ve included the Monterra in my possibles.

    I Just sold my Map60csx but never used it much. I plan on using the new unit primarily hunting and fishing mostly in Arkansas. I use Mac stuff if that matters. I’ll be in the Ozark mountains where the terrain is very rugged but elevation doesn’t get much above 2K ft. I also spend a good bit of time in the flat country here. Both areas have heavy timber which is why most guys used the Map60.

    I’m looking for ease of use, marking waypoints, navigating to waypoints, etc. The big important things for me are ease of use and accuracy. I like the touch screen and never really liked (or took the time to figure out how to use) my map60. I’m to used to a compass, map, and remembering where I am and where I need to go. But I can learn. It just seems like the touch screens are easier.

    Please help advise. I’m a little confused after all this reading and youtube watching. Lol

    Thanks,
    Tom

    • Between the three, I’d probably go with the Oregon 600 series. The Montana is older and they may abandon that line. The Monterra is downright buggy and the pace of updates has been very slow. Two things to be aware of… First, touch screens can be very sensitive. As I said in my review, “I often found that it would switch screens due to a glancing touch. You may want to consider a shortcut to allow you to easily lock the screen.”

      Second, these new units are even more complex than the GPSMAP 60. There’s no need to buy such a high-end unit if you aren’t going to use all those features.

      Hope this helps.

      • ArizonaMan says:

        Rich,

        Just an FYI in case you weren’t aware, but in Display Settings there is a Glove Mode, which you can turn off which will decrease the touchscreen Sensitivity. I haven’t tried using gloves with it turned on, but had the same issue you mentioned where a glancing touch would select something, once I turned Glove Mode off I had no more issues.

        Max

  6. Thanks so much.

    I’ll look at the Oregon hard. Is there another you would suggest looking at. I like the topo maps and large screen.

    Thanks!!!

  7. Jim1348 says:

    I was looking around the web for additional reviews on the Garmin Monterra. Unfortunately, most of them are not very favorable. Is anybody here using one of these currently and, if so, has Garmin been working on the bugs or is this just not a very good device?

    Jim

  8. I just updated my review after the Garmin Outdoor Apps (GOA) 1.19 update which is the second update Garmin has released. There will be additional updates. They have fixed several of the major bugs but there are still some issues as with all PND’s that are new on the market.

  9. brigida c. bote says:

    How can we contact your store, we are interested to buy gps monterra.

  10. So many apps and widgets! Does anyone actually use those?

    Looking forward to a Garmin device that has good map resolution, GLONASS, and satellite texting. I guess Garmin needs to merge with Delorme.

  11. Dick Powell says:

    Shame on Garmin!!
    I received my new Monterra two days ago and I am really upset with Garmin. I have been a good Garmin customer for years but I think they have dropped the ball on this device. I paddle creeks and such and I run a Gopro Hero 4 mounted on the bow of my boat. I thought how great it would be to control my Gopro with my new android based Monterra. Well, the android operating system is so old that many apps including the Gopro app are not compatible with the 4.0.4 in this unit!

    I am tempted to send this back but there isn’t another handheld that will do what this one will so I guess I’m stuck ’till maybe Garmin comes out with an upgrade. Any help?

  12. It has been publish for over a year that Garmin was not going to update the Android OS past v4.0.4. So it looks like you didn’t do your home work before purchasing the Monterra. You might also want to rant on GoPro for not supporting back level OS’s. My “old” GoPro App works just fine with my Hero 3 and the Monterra.

  13. jimbobnh says:

    Seems Garmin has dropped the Monterra… Not surprised. I like it. The screen is nice vs the Montana in daylight

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