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Garmin eTrex Vista GPS receiver Review

24th January 2003

 Reviewed by Dave Burrows


Garmin GPS receivers


What do you get?
The Garmin eTrex Vista receiver is priced at around £279.99 including VAT and comes complete with a quick reference guide, a full manual, and an interface cable to a PC.


The Garmin comes with a base map but has been designed to work with a number of additional downloadable maps.  The one we tested was the Europe MetroGuide which comes on a double CD and provides management software and map data for the Garmin courtesy of NavTech Maps.

Garmin Europe MetroGuide is priced at £99.99 from GPS Warehouse


The cable set used connecting the Vista to the Pocket PC was provided by PC-Mobile and comes in a number of modular pluggable cables which can be set into a number of configurations or you can by a new adapter for another Pocket PC without having to by a complete lead set.


Garmin eTrex Vista Specification
The manufacturer's specification are quoted here.


Navigation Features
- Waypoints/Icons: 500 with name and graphic symbol

- Tracks: Automatic track log; 10 saved tracks let you retrace your path in both directions

- Routes: 20 reversible routes with up to 50 waypoints

- Trip computer: Current speed, average speed, time of sunrise/sunset, resetable maximum speed, trip timer, and trip distance

- Map datums: More than 100

- Position format: Lat/Lon, UTM/UPS, Maidenhead, MGRS, Loran TDs, and other grids


Electronic compass features
- Accuracy: ±2 degrees with proper calibration (typical); ±5 degrees in extreme northern and southern latitudes
- Resolution: 1 degree

Barometric altimeter features
- Accuracy: 10 feet with proper calibration (user and/or automatic calibration)
- Resolution: 1 foot
- Range: -2,000 to 30,000 feet
- Elevation computer: Current elevation, resetable minimum and maximum elevation, ascent/descent rate, total ascent/descent, average and maximum ascent/descent rate
- Pressure: Local pressure (mbar/inches HG), 12-hour automatic pressure trend recording

GPS Performance
- Receiver: WAAS-enabled, differential-ready, 12 parallel channel GPS receiver continuously tracks and uses up to 12 satellites to compute and update your position

Acquisition Times:
- Warm: approx. 15 seconds
- Cold: approx. 45 seconds
- AutoLocate™: approx. 5 sminutes
- Update Rate: 1 second, continuous
GPS Accuracy:
- Position: <15 meters, 95% typical*
- Velocity: 0.05 meter/sec steady state

DGPS Accuracy:
- Position: 3-5 meters, 95% typical*
- Velocity: 0.05 meter/sec steady state

WAAS Accuracy:
- Position: <3 meters, 95% typical*
- Velocity: 0.05 meter/sec steady state

Dynamics: 6g's
Interfaces: RS232 with NMEA 0183, RTCM 104 DGPS data format and proprietary GARMIN
Antenna: Built-in patch

- Size: 4.4"H x 2.0"W x 1.2"D (11.2 x 5.1 x 3.0 cm)
- Weight: 5.3 ounces (150 g) with batteries
- Display: 2.1"H x 1.1"W (5.4 x 2.7 cm) high-contrast LCD with bright backlighting
- Case: Waterproof to IEC 529 IPX7 standards
- Temperature range: 5°F to 158°F (-15°C to 70°C)
- Data storage: Indefinite; no memory battery required
- Internal Memory: 24 MB

- Source: 2 AA batteries (not included)
- Battery Life: Up to 12 hours (typical use)


The Garmin eTrex Vista Receiver

The first thing you notice when you take the Vista out of the box is just how tiny it really is.  It's about the size of a regular Nokia mobile phone in height and it's very light weight!  The battery compartment is situated on the back and comprises of 2xAA batteries.  Although you could put rechargeable NiCad or NiMh batteries in there, the Vista tends to prefer alkaline, and bear in mind that rechargeable batteries supply 2.4 volts as opposed to 3 volts.


Like a lot of the Garmin range, the Vista has a rugged waterproof case and it shows with rubber seals to keep water out of every nook and cranny.


The Vista sits nicely in the palm of your hand, and is designed so that you can operate all the buttons single handed so you can keep your other hand free, and this works well.


The display is a four level gray LCD screen with backlight.  It has a high resolution screen of 288 by 160 pixels which is higher than the Garmin GPSMap76, however the screen is much smaller and allows you to get as much as you would see on a GPSMap76 onto the smaller Vista screen.


On the back of the receiver there is the quarter turn battery locking mechanism hiding the two AA sized batteries.


Also on the back located behind a rubber gasket is the Garmin proprietary interface connector.  It is this connector that allows the Garmin to be interfaced to either a PC or more importantly your PDA.


GPS Satellite Fixing
After experiencing the strength of the Garmin GPSMap76, and being spoilt for choice, we were kind of expecting the same excellence in signal strength.  One thing to note is that the antenna's on the Vista and GPSMap76 are different, the GPSMap76 sports a quad helix antenna where as the eTrex range does not.  This does show, and performance isn't as great as Garmin's using the quad helix, but still the performance is more than acceptable compared to most GPS receivers. 


The Vista in our tests seems to receive more signal when horizontal or at a 45 degree angle, where as Garmin's with the quad helix tend to see more signal strength when held vertical, which is corroborated from views of other GPS users.


The Satellite screen shows up to 12 satellites it knows are in the sky, and shows which ones have complete ephemeris data for and which one's its currently getting this from, to the right you'll see a 4 satellite 3D fix.


The average fix I seemed to receive was around the 50 second mark, although I did have some longer fixes of around the 2 minute mark when it failed to download a complete set of ephemeris data in the allotted time period.


One thing I do like on the Garmin's, is leave them for a few minutes and they'll bleep at you and come back telling you they couldn't receive a full fix, would you like to continue ? or initiate a cold/factory fix ?, which I really do think should be something that should be added into most Pocket PC GPS Receivers, or at least the applications.  This would help diagnose TTFF problems and help people see there's a problem quicker rather than dumbly sit there waiting for a fix.


Holding a fix is just as important as getting the first fix, and the Vista was certainly able to do that, however compared to the GPSMap76, we did notice the signal bar's jumping around quite a bit whilst using the Vista for in-car use.  I think this would have been where the quad helix antenna would come in better, but adding support for this inside the Vista would increase it's size substantially.


Two applications you don't usually see on a Garmin are a Calculator and a Calendar.  This strangely enough does come in quite handy, as you're always left wanting these functions, and although these are being added into most mobile phones now a days, it's still a welcome edition to a GPS receiver providing that it doesn't limit the receiver in any ways to the normal GPS functions.


A further welcome edition not seen in many of the lower spec Garmin's is a compass that not only works as a compass should, but to be able to tell you what direction to travel towards for your next waypoint.  This is a very neat feature, and is not tied to GPS signal, so you can quite happily use this if the Global Positioning System signals were blocked or not available for whatever reason.



Something you see on most Garmin's now a days is the barometric altimeter that gives you the distance and maximum elevation plotted to a graph, the Sun's sunrise and sunset, and the moon's moonrise and moonset.  These are all essential to the hiker, and if you're out in the wilderness you also can receive hunting and fishing times which are approximate timings where you might expect to catch more fish, this does also depend on weather and location, so the prediction given is just that, a prediction, and shouldn't be necessarily deemed accurate.



Vista Setup Menus

The menu's on the Vista are operated using the click stick on the front of the receiver.  It's good to see everything is accessible quickly without having to wade through countless menus.


On the main setup menu you have everything you need here from setting the time formats from 12 to 24 hours, the time zone you're currently located in, any UTC offset and whether you are currently in Daylight Savings Time.


The date and time will be set when you acquire your first fix, and on future fixes as this is synchronised as part of the NMEA sentence received.


One thing that is important on gray scale screens is a contrast control, depending on whether you're in shade, or in the open bright sun, you may need to tweak contrast and the Vista like other Garmin's has a 4 level gray scale control with a backlight facility that you can set to a timeout of 15 seconds up to 2 minutes in length before the backlight will turn itself off.


As in previous Garmin's, Garmin offer a rich serial data format comprising of Garmin's own proprietary format, Garmin DGPS for Differential or WAAS data, NMEA In/NMEA Out which is the standard that most people would use when connecting to a PC or Pocket PC, Text Out, RTCM In, RTCM In/NMEA Out, RTCM In/Text Out.  This gives users of the Vista a vast amount of export options allowing for both WAAS and NMEA data transfer. 


You can also change the units that are displayed on the Vista in the Position Format and Garmin offer a large selection of Map Datum Support for nearly all Map Datum's in existence.  WGS 84 is the default selection which corresponds to World Geodetic Survey 1984 and is the most commonly used.


As Garmin have included full magnetic compass support in the Vista, you have a function to automatically switch off the compass over a particular speed.  This is handy because the Compass does use up a lot more battery power, and one thing Garmin do stipulate is to not have the Compass turned on all the time.



WAAS what is it? WAAS stands for Wide Area Augmentation System.  It's a system of satellites and ground stations that provide GPS signal corrections, giving you even better position accuracy.  How much better? Try an average of up to five times better. 


A WAAS-capable receiver can give you a position accuracy of better than three meters, 95 percent of the time, and you don't have to purchase additional receiving equipment or pay service fees to utilize WAAS.  You can find out more about WAAS at http://www.garmin.com/aboutGPS/waas.html


OK so WAAS is good, but it does not come configured as standard. You need to go into the Setup Menu and enable WAAS as shown on the left. Once enabled you need to initialise the receiver with a good view of the sky and you should see your GPS fixes change into Differential fixes.


How can you tell if you are getting WAAS fixes?  First of all on the sky page you will see differential fix messages and in the satellite strength bars a 'D' will appear indicating that the satellite is being used in the WAAS fix. 


Check out our EGNOS/WAAS Article for more information of the use of EGNOS in the UK

The sequence and messages displayed are as follows:

  • Acquiring Satellites is displayed when the receiver is first switched on, or if you have lost your fix for some reason. This means that the unit is attempting to get a fix.
  • 2D GPS Location is shown when the GPS receiver has a fix on 3 satellites. When you get a 2D fix the receiver can display your position but not your altitude.
  • 3D GPS Location is displayed when there is a fix on 4 or more satellites. In this mode the GPS unit can display both position and altitude.
  • 2D Differential Location indicates that the receiver is using either DGPS or WAAS differential data on 3 satellites
  • 3D Differential Location shows that the GPS unit is receiving differential data on 4 or more satellites. This is the most accurate fix you get with this receiver.


Connecting the Vista to a Pocket PC
This can be done very easily with a cable set supplied from PC-Mobile.  All you need to do is set the Garmin Vista interface to NMEA In/NMEA Out, and connect it up to your Pocket PC and use any GPS package set to COM1 and NMEA 4800 and you should start receiving the NMEA data stream.


This can be verified by using WinFast Navigator which is available on our downloads page, or G7To CE which is also available from our downloads page.


Connecting the Vista to a PC

I loaded the Map Source MetroGuide software onto my laptop and connected up the Garmin Vista with the supplied cable that comes in the box.  This enabled me to download further maps to the Vista allowing for  greater use out of the Vista.  The maps were spot on and located me on the map exactly where I was.  The roads are sources from the NavTech database. 


The Garmin has sets of displays named pages. These are the Satellite Page, the Map Page, the Compass page, the Highway page, the Route page.



The map page shows the available map data, superimposed with your route, waypoints, tracks etc.


You can choose various levels of zoom by using the Zoom in and Zoom out buttons on the left hand side of the Vista.


By pressing the menu button you can set up the fields displayed on the screen, and other options for the map display.


In general this applies to all pages. Pressing the menu button displays context sensitive options for the page as shown on the right. Pressing the menu button again will display the main setup menu.


Comparing the Vista to the GPSMap76

The Vista does hold up well when compared to the GPSMap76 when stationary.  You'll see very comparative signal strengths when stationary, although if you're using a Vista in-car, you'll find this is where the GPSMap76S will excel, but for nearly £100 more, you do have to ask yourself for what really is a larger screen and a quad helix antenna, is it worth the extra £100 ?  If size is an issue to you, and you want a GPS receiver that can easily fit inside your shirt pocket, and you don't mind the smaller screen albeit with a higher resolution, then the Vista will probably come out tops and save you a nice packet.


However if you're not really going to use the Vista for hiking and you're mainly going to use it in-car coupled with a laptop or PDA, then this is where the GPSMap76 and GPSMap76S will excel.


The Other Screens

The other screens are displayed here.  Below left you'll see the Trip Computer, below middle the Waypoint screen and below right the compass screen.




Strengths and Weaknesses
The unit tested is one of the top of the range of the consumer handheld GPS systems available.  It's crammed pack full of features, many probably wouldn't be used, but you have them there if you may need them at any time.  Garmin and others do produce cheaper units for just over £100 which compare favourably in price to sleeve and Compact Flash GPS Receivers.


The flexibility of the system is good, after testing the GPSMap76, I like the Vista, but the only thing that does let it down is the smaller screen which I found to be a little too small on numerous occasions.


The biggest plus has to be the feature set and TTFF and the units ability to retain the fix even in adverse and unsuitable conditions. Fixing took slightly longer when travelling but you will see this on all GPS receivers. 


Purchase from




Manufacturers Website


Suppliers Website http://www.gpsw.co.uk

Pocket GPS Reviewer

Dave Burrows

Pocket GPS Reviewer Website








Overall Rating 95%

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