Garmin Monterra and the future of Garmin

Until a few years ago if you wanted a GPSr you had little choice but to go to Garmin. Competition was very weak and Garmin products were good, but things have changed. While the historic competitors have failed to up their game the smartphone market rode into town, bringing with it larger high resolution displays, slim easy to use devices that Monterraoffered so much more. Now you can have one device that sees the geocaching process through from end to end, from pulling data via 3G or wi-fi, to on-line access to while out in the field, to finally logging your find on-line along with posting photos taken on your smartphone. And when you’re out walking or caching who doesn’t take a phone with then anyway? The biggest benefit is that many of us already have these devices, so there is no additional cost associated with them.

So why do people still buy dedicated handheld units? It’s simple. There are a few critical issues with smartphones:

  • GPS antenna / chipset does not provide as good and accurate positioning
  • Non-rugged hardware means the units can damage easily
  • Non-waterproof hardware
  • Battery life is poor

Garmin are about to release the Android based Monterra to bridge this gap, but what does it really bring to the party. The items on my list are simple hardware issues. Phone manufactures won’t address these issues because they add cost, are not mainstream requirements and may make their devices considerably larger and therefore less desirable. GPSr users are used to carrying around large clunky devices, so getting around power issues (and Android really does guzzle power) is easily solved by adding a large housing that takes three AA batteries or a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Garmin claim 22hrs on the rechargeable battery, but we all know to take these specifications with a pinch of salt. Sadly, what Garmin have done is to remove many of the benefits of an Android phone. There is no phone, no data (3G/4G). So we now need to carry a separate phone and we can’t interact with the data that is so central to geocaching whilst outdoors. Wi-fi is still available, but that’s not much use if like me you are generally out on the hills. While the device can record 1080p video (I don’t know how good it is though) it can only display a paltry 272 x 480 pixels. That means the HTC One has 16 times more detail on the screen. I believe this is part of the power saving exercise.

The Google Play Store is available on the device, and this could be Garmin’s downfall IMHO. Sure, if it wasn’t available some users would soon find a way around that, but by opening up the Play Store you can put any Android app on you want. This also means that the Garmin software becomes pretty much redundant (there are always people prepared to write this stuff for free and it’s usually better that the bundled software) and more importantly they will no longer get revenue from selling maps. It’s good news for the user. Personally I hate that if I buy a Garmin device I am tied down to some pretty poor maps and at a large cost. Now you can just install your favourite Android mapping application and associated off-line maps. If you don’t have a better Android (or other smartphone) device you could also install an offline sat nav app, though these are not free of course. WhereYouGo (the Android replacement for Wherigo), Munzee and a host of other GPS related apps could also be installed.

All it takes is for an electronics giant to see a profit and they will make an rugged Android phone with a good antenna/chipset and a large battery option and it’s bye-bye Garmin. No expensive software development or support is required. While they’re at it they will add in the phone and data connectivity and Garmin’s effort will be kicked into touch. The arguement for no phone appears to be battery conservation, but turning the phone (and data) on/off  on Android couldn’t be any easier. The final nail in the coffin is the cost. The Monterra is retailing for a whopping £600 (minus 1p). This comes with the totally useless base map and the only slightly more useful recreational map of Europe. There are also no details on Android version, processor, RAM, how speakers deal with being IPX-7 waterproof etc.

Of course dedicated GPS receivers also come with 3-axis compasses, barometric altimeters and the Monterra even has a UV meter (though it didn’t work in the review I saw), but these are much less important. Personally I’ve never seen much difference in practical terms between the 2-axis and 3-axis compass and all barometric altimeters on these devices are pretty much useless (and they drink batteries).

The release date has been put back several times now, but I’m sure that Garmin will make sure it’s out in time for Christmas regardless of whether it works or not. Garmin have a poor record in recent years when it comes to releasing new products as they have been full of bugs, but unlike Magellan they do at least address the issues and try to fix them. Santa can relax though, because I won’t be asking for a Monterra this Christmas.

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4 Responses to Garmin Monterra and the future of Garmin

  1. Brian Wilson says:

    You nailed some of reasons I have a Monterra. (1) Rugged – it rains here a lot (2) battery (3) GPS actually useful on the trail. You missed a few others. When I go hiking here, my smartphone has no data connection so the phone chip does nothing for me. The GPS in my smartphone sucks when it is out in the woods (away from A-GPS), and if I leave it switched on, the battery goes dead very quickly.
    I was worried about the resolution of the screen, but it turns out to be no problem at all. I don’t watch movies on the Monterra, I look at maps. I would not MIND if there were more pixels but you missed the big one — it is actually visible outdoors! No need to shade the screen and step under a tree, in fact, it’s MORE readable in full sun.
    I thought I’d be using the Android mapping apps but so far the opposite is true – I have been using the Garmin apps and almost ignoring the apps that I had installed. I need the other apps on my other Android gadgets but on the Monterra I just don’t need them so far. I am having fun with the Monterra but to be completely honest I still find the GPSmap 62 does just about everything as well as the Monterra, and at 1/3 the price.

    My solution to carrying a phone is to carry a dumb phone (1/3 the size of a smart phone) powered off and buried in a waterproof case in my pack, so I have it available for emergencies (should there be signal available). I slipped on a steep slope yesterday, and the screen of the GPS came up covered with mud. I poured a little water on it and washed it off.

    If anyone actually comes up with a smartphone that works in the outdoors as a GPS, I happily will try one. Until then I will continue using what works best for me – GPS in the woods, phone in the city.

    Cheers from Corvallis Oregon

  2. Interesting to read about this. I had a Garmin Oregon which I absolutely loved but felt that at times it was really difficult to see the map in bright light conditions. Also the resolution of the map wasn’t so hot.

    I decided to purchase a smartphone (iPhone 4S) and I am SO glad I tried it. Used together with an app called Viewranger I am now never at a loss as to what I see on the screen – the resolution is quite incredible and having walked for nearly a year with the iphone I’d not go back to the Garmin. OK so the phone is not waterproof but if I am walking in pouring rain (not very oftern) I ensure it’s in waterproof protection, but I’m not a great lover of walking in the rain.

    Now my other story. I was so chuffed with the iPhone I decided to sell the Oregon on ebay. I listed it and the bidding was up around £150 when I thought it would be a kind gesture to update the firmware etc. In so doing the Oregon crashed and would not reboot properly. I phone Garmin in Southampton and explained the problem with this 4 year old unit. After a bit of discussion the guy came back and said they would replace the Oregon with a refurbished item – brilliant, but I had to cancel the ebay auction in view of the timescale to get the replacement.

    4 weeks later and still waiting the replacement I phone Garmin quoting the RMA number (I had returned the Oregon). To cut a long story short, the delay was due to no stocks of the Oregon and after a bit of tooing and froing the guy at Garmin said they’d send me a brand new Montana as a replacement!!!!!

    What a big beast the Montana is to be sure. I tried it alongside the iPhone and still the iPhone outshone the Montana. I sold the Montana on ebay for £420.

    • Pete says:

      What a great outcome!
      It’s a case of “whatever works for you”, as we all have different requirements. The boundaries are blurring too, especially with the Monterra.

  3. Gary says:

    I realise I’m a bit late to this conversation but I would have thought an up to date version of the JCB Toughphone ProSmart Android phone would be just the ticket and what Garmin should have done to begin with.
    Better still if JCB built it for a brand associated with the outdoors world it would gain better visibility in the Market.

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