A solid, reliable device with excellent battery life but let down by a poor joystick.
- Long battery life.
- Uses AA batteries.
- Tough and reliable.
- Slow operation.
- Poor joystick and zoom buttons.
- Small, low resolution screen.
As most phones have inbuilt GPS nowadays you might question why you would need a dedicated GPS unit, particularly one with a small low resolution screen. A dedicated unit has a few advantages however: more sensitive GPS receivers, better battery life, rugged build. Phones tend to have small GPS receivers and make use of network data to aid positioning, so if you’re out of network range they may struggle to find position. In addition, most mapping apps for phones use the Internet for map data, though it is sometimes possible to download the data for offline use, and thus require a strong network connection. With a dedicated GPS unit you load the maps onto the device so they’re always available. A dedicated unit will also work much more reliably in climatic extremes. There has been an effort in recent years to make phones that are shock and water proof, however most phones will not work nearly as well as a dedicated unit in wet, cold, very hot, and humid conditions. In addition, many dedicated GPS units, including the Garmin Etrex 20, use AA batteries, meaning you can carry several spares and are not reliant on finding a plug socket. You can also use this device with gloves, unlike a smartphone with a capacitive screen.
The Etrex 20 is a fairly compact but chunky device. It will never be described as slim but the shape fits really nicely in your hand. It’s small enough for a pocket or you can hang it round your neck. You can also fit it to handlebars if you buy a mount separately.
The outside of the device, including the screen is all plastic, but it feels quite well-made and rugged. The only thing that doesn’t feel solid is the joystick, which feels like it should be thicker and more rubbery. I’ve used the device for over a year now and it has survived use in pouring rain, hail, sub-zero temperatures and high humidity. It has fallen onto concrete (due to a poorly fitted bike mount) several times and is fully functional and barely scuffed. The screen, despite being made of plastic, hasn’t picked up many scratches.
Getting a GPS signal took a while the first time I used the device but after that was quick and reliable. However, high buildings, ceilings, tree cover, even thick cloud cover can all block a GPS signal. This is fairly normal I believe.
Navigating the device is done using a joystick. The joystick is perhaps the worst thing about this unit. It feels really plasticky and flimsy. To select or activate an option you have to click down on the joystick and this needs to be dead centre or you simply move to another option. Pressing the joystick dead centre is quite tricky and virtually impossible if you are moving on a bike on anything other than a very smooth road. The positioning of the buttons could also be improved in my opinion. In particular, the zoom buttons are too small and close together for comfortable use, even without gloves. However, despite the poor joystick and bad button placing I still prefer the solidity and feedback of physical controls rather than a touchscreen. The joystick would work fine if it was better quality and didn’t require being dead centre when pressed.
Battery life is good. Garmin claim up to 25 hours on one set of 2xAA batteries. This isn’t far off the mark and I’ve found I can get 2-3 days touring with the device constantly on while cycling, with the screen around medium brightness (though it dims after a few minutes). This makes the Etrex quite handy as a cycle computer and it gives fairly accurate speed while cycling. If used intermittently for checking position it is easily possible to get over a week from one set of batteries.
To get such battery life does require a few compromises however, notably in the screen and processor. If you are used to the latest smartphone you might find it difficult to adapt to the tiny, lo-res screen of the Etrex and the long wait for the device to do just about anything that involves updating that screen. There is very little detail on the screen making it poor for route-planning.
To get the most out of the device it should be used in conjunction with Garmin Base Camp, which needs to be downloaded from their website. This gives some pretty impressive functionality. As well as being able to make routes you can, for instance, create your own maps and put them onto your Garmin. However, there is a bit of a learning curve with Garmin software if you really want to get the most out of it. I must confess I’ve never really found the time, and tend to use the device purely for positioning, but if you make the effort a Garmin device is a powerful navigational tool. There is loads of stuff on it and it’s all offline.
Navigating the intricate menus using the joystick can be a pain though and a lot of functionality isn’t that straightforward or intuitive, e.g. creating or recording routes. It would be really nice to boot straight to the map, rather than having to go through the menu structure, as this makes it really tricky (and dangerous) to bring up the maps while moving on the bike. Sometimes it is virtually impossible to click-press on the joystick while moving.
I can live with most of the Etrex 20’s shortcomings, because fixing them would mean compromises in other areas, such as battery life. All in all it’s a good device, though more suited to hiking than cycle touring, where a touch-screen device or one with bigger buttons would be better. If you don’t mind replacing the batteries every few days (and it works with rechargeables) you could simply use it like a cycle computer and get the benefit of maps and positioning.
7/10 (This score ignores price. Learn more about these reviews.)