GPS Montana 650t vs a smartphone

Does it make sense to buy a GPS handheld for backpacking and outdoor activities? Until quite recently, proponents had several good arguments for choosing dedicated devices over smartphones, such as lack of topographical maps, lack of advanced localization functionality, poor battery life, inability to work without Internet connection and design usually too fragile for outdoor use. However, which of these arguments are still up to date?

I had the opportunity to test GPS Garmin Montana 650t while moving around the Polish Polar Station in Hornsund and I must admit I am very disappointed with this device. It is enough to turn it on to get the impression of an outdated piece of technology: the display with a resolution of 480×272 pixels almost hurts eyes, the user interface responsiveness is much below expectations, and the camera takes pictures so bad that besides a fast “note” of the site, it is pretty much useless – photos have significant distortions, poor colors, blue “artifacts” and very high level of noise. Not to mention, that it has the tendency to freeze randomly and the only thing that helps is removing the battery. Also, if you think you can use it with your gloves on (“glove-friendly touchscreen display”), you are going to be very disappointed. No, it doesn’t work with gloves very well. Unless you are patient enough or don’t mind deleting couple waypoints by accident.

Maps, compared to what is available for iPhone or Android, are also disappointing: both in terms of quality and price. Contour map of Norway for $150? Or the whole world for $5, more accurate and up to date, thanks to open data and crowdsourcing? Displaying routes, panning and zooming are painfully slow. Storing maps in the memory still remains a mystery to me. Depending on the map type, direct transfer over USB cable sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t.

The newer model (Montana 680t) is not a huge improvement it terms of specification. The only difference is the camera (eight megapixels instead of five) and support for GLONASS, which is the Russian equivalent of GPS. GLONASS speeds up satellite fixing and may work in some areas better than GPS (like the High Arctic).

Smartphone or a handheld GPS?

Rugged iPhone 4 with a Powermonkey Extreme on the left. Not much difference in size or weight.

Speaking of money, in order to have all the necessary maps I would have to pay around $850 plus the cost of the unit itself, roughly $500. After spending a total of $1,350 I end up with a device which doesn’t meet my expectations and is obviously too expensive for the quality offered.

On the other hand, I can buy a brand new iPhone 6s 64GB for $940, an app for $5 which allows me to keep topographical maps of the whole world in memory, high-quality weatherproof case for $50 and a professional powerbank from Powertraveller for $175. It costs me $1170 and I get a well rugged, modern device with GPS/GLONASS support, barometer and compass, that can be recharged with a solar panel strapped to my backpack. Not to mention its excellent camera, e-mail, Web browser and all the rest of typical smartphone applications. Besides, most of us probably already have a smartphone with a built-in GPS, so why carry another device?

What are your experiences? Would you buy a handheld GPS? Or perhaps you own one and tried the smartphone approach already?

Go shopping!

If you like any of the products mentioned above and trust my opinion, please consider purchasing through Amazon:

Garmin Montana 650t

Garmin Montana 650t
6.25

Toughness

9/10

    Ergonomics

    3/10

      Features

      8/10

        Reliability

        5/10

          Pros

          • Build quality
          • Battery life

          Cons

          • Poor camera
          • Unpredictable touchscreen
          • Unreliable software
          • Expensive maps