Not that long ago, the portable GPS market was where much of GA's innovation took place.
In a few short years we went from bulky, brick-like boxes that had the capacity to track half a satellite for a minute or so every hour, to touchscreen colour units that never lost the signal and that brought a host of new features.
Then along came the iPad. It seemed the era of the bespoke portable GPS had come to an end, made extinct by the meteoric arrival of the iPad and the apps it spawned. Then, earlier this year, Garmin announced the aera 660.
There's not much that takes us by surprise, hut this did. Gould a relatively small, bespoke aviation GPS costing the best part of $800 really compete with what iPad and Android tablets offer? The 660 arrived in the office just before a couple of long flights, so we took it along for 12 hours' flying to find out.
Within a couple of mm, the aera 660 is pretty much the same size as the previous aera 550 but Garmin has managed to grow the screen by about 30%. The screen is bright, sharp, has good contrast and, in our experience at least, is easily readable in bright sunshine. Despite the screen being power hungry, the battery was good for nearly four hours between charges.
If you are familiar with either the 550 series or 795 you'll be at home with the 660's menus and structures. The base map out-of-the-box is Garmin's vector charts with varying levels of detail and airspace.
Personally, I prefer vector maps as they're well designed, better forscaling, changing orientation, keeping up-to-date and displaying relevant features, but I know some pilots still love raster charts (digital representations of the paper versions). These are available to buy and download from flygarmin.com.
Rates vary, the 660 can also be loaded with purchased, again from fly Garmin, "flite charts", effectively digitised versions of national AIP plates, including instrument approach plates. Its a useful backup, hut in my view the charts are too small to rely on as your primary reference during an instrument approach.
There are a couple of extra features worth mentioning. The first is that if you have (or buy for about $675) a Garmin GDL 39 3D you will be able to pick up ADS-B traffic that can be displayed on the aera. The 3D version of the GDL 39 has a built-in AHRS that uses the 660's terrain database to provide a miniature Primary Flight Display (PFD) giving a virtual Attitude Indicator (AI), groundspeed. GPS-derived altitude and heading. If you have a Garmin VIRB action camera you can control that remotely from your aera, useful if it happens to be mounted externally.
In flight, the Garmin proved very easy to use; the new touchscreen has capacitive rather than resistive touch like the 550, and scrolling and pinching movements are quick, smooth and precise. As you'd expect the it are lots of options for configuring the map, including the option to have the unit in landscape or portrait mode.
01 It's easy to drill down for more information such as frequency and runway information. Sadly weather and notam are only available with ADS-B in the USA
02 In portrait mode and making use of the GDL 39 3D for heading and attitude data, altitude and groundspeed are GPS derived
03 Garmin's Safe Taxi' makes it much easier to find your way around when on the ground
04 If you feel the need for digitised paper charts, they are available for purchase for most European countries (and that includes the UK)
05 Garmin's vector mapping is good, detail level can be easily changed, as can the displayed data fields
06 The 'Nearest Airfield' page makes it easy to get started
07 ADS-B derived traffic from the GDL 39 can be shown on the map page and on the 660's dedicated page. As you can see, airspace warnings remain active
Our overall impression? The 660 packs pretty much all of the nav functions you'll need in an easy to handle unit. The screen is great, its brighter and less reflective than an iPad, and when the map and traffic are shown rather than approach plates it's certainly big enough. Adding the GDL 39 3D brings extra back-up to your installed AI, and, as the number of aircraft equipped with ADS-B Out increases, so will traffic information.
Pricewise the aera is more expensive than a top-of-the-range tablet and one of the leading apps. If you're finding it hard to kick your addiction to digitised paper charts, the price difference gets bigger still. In a feature shoot-out, the aera would put up a brave fight but would ultimately lose out to the apps, so why buy one?
Several possible reasons. If screen contrast and brightness are uppermost in your list of must-haves, the aera wins. If you want an aviation-specific unit that doesn't distract you with email, films and apps, the aera is for you. If you want connectivity with the GDL 39 3D you'll need the aera (or Garmin's own app, Garmin Pilot). If you don't want to concern yourself with tablet operating system updates and other software installs that can have unintended consequences for your aviation GPS, the aera is the way to go. And if space is at a premium, the aera is a nice compact package.
Function-filled aviation-specific portable navigator competing successfully with iPad and flight-planning apps.