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Electronics Review

Chock full of features in a handheld GPS package, the Garmin eTrex Vista

Date: 12/09/03
Tackle type: Electronics
Manufacturer: Garmin
Reviewer: Zander

Total Score: 8.33

Introduction: Just a few years ago finding your secret fishing locations involved a map with some hand scribbled notes. Today advances in GPS navigation allow anglers to return to the exact same spot, log their adventures in the backcountry, and venture out into new territories without fear of getting lost. Built for the outdoor enthusiast on the go the Garmin Vista represents the top of the line in the company's popular eTrex series of portable GPS units. 

Garmin eTrex Vista Specifications

Chassis Plastic, Rubber
Unit Size 4.4 x 2.0 x 1.2
Weight 5.3 oz.
Receiver 12 Channel
Display Size 2.1 x 1.1
Display type 4 Level Gray LCD
Backlit Yes (Single Level)
Audible Alarms No
Batt. Life 12hr (2AA)
Number of Waypoints 1000
Built in Memory 24MB
Additional Memory Capable No
Database & Basemap Americas Highway
Additional Features WAAS Capability, Built in Electronic Compass, Barometric Altimeter. Hunting/Fishing Calculator, Celestial Information, Calendar
MSRP $321.41

Impressions: GPS units have increased in features and have become easier to use then ever since their introduction a decade ago. I have been using GPS units since the original Motorola models appeared on consumer shelves. In stark comparison to those cumbersome units the Vista is exceptionally portable. This attractive silver unit runs on 2 AA batteries and serves up a cornucopia of information. The Garmin eTrex family is extremely popular among outdoor enthusiasts because of the many various models, all of which include a array of features. The entry level eTrex units feature coordinates but lack mapping systems, mid range units include basic mapping with reduced memory capacity and no electronic compass or altimeter, but if you are looking for a unit that has it all, then the high end Vista eTrex is your unsurpassed choice. The Vista combines the features of all the other five models into one familiar package.


Introducing the feature rich Garmin eTrex Vista (The following are examples of just some of the menus that can be accessed with this unit)


The Field Test: The best way to test a GPS is to hit the road running. We took the Vista on an interstate drive, a backpacking trip, and a cruise on the California Delta. We opted for some additional equipment in our tests to fully experience the Garmin offering. These accessories included a dash mounting kit for cars/boats, a protective soft clip case for backpacking, and additional Garmin maps.


Using the included data cable, and optional MapSource discs the Vista is capable of delivering extremely detailed fishing lake information


Extreme Portability: Most impressive is that Garmin was able to include all the functions of the entire eTrex family into the Vista while still maintaining the exact same dimensions and weight (5.3oz). This tiny unit can fit in a pocket, be strapped to a backpack, clamped on a bike, mounted on a car dash, or bolted to a boat console. Garmin sells various mounting kit options that all snap into the unit via it's interchangeable battery cover backing. This system allows this single unit to be used for a range of different vehicles and applications. Compared to competitor units there is no other handheld GPS on the market that is able to supply so many rich features in such a compact package.


With the optional mounting kit the Vista can be mounted on your car dash or boat console, though the screen is somewhat small for use while driving

Ergonomically the Vista is a work of art. This tiny unit features six easy to use buttons. The entire casing is ruggedized with additional rubber insulation. This rubber also provides a extensive seal over the buttons helping make the unit waterproof up to IPX7 standard, which means that
the GPS case can withstand accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes, but not continuous use. So while the Vista will survive splashes on the boat, don't plan to go diving with anytime soon. The entire unit fits comfortably in your hand, and there are surface ridges to help improve your grip on the unit, even when wet. Every menu can be accessed with just one handed operation, making it possible for you to fish or operate a vehicle while navigating; Though it is highly recommended that you get the optional mounting stand when driving or boating.


As far as handhelds go the 288 x 160 pixel grayscale screen is excellent and crisp in appearance. While this unit is ultra portable the screen is somewhat undersized for use in cars. I found myself squinting to read the map, even when zoomed in. The reason is that when mounted on the dash the screen is quite far away from the normal driver position, this combined with glare makes reading the unit challenging. This unit is designed to be portable and flexible in application, not to be a full time vehicle navigation system, Garmin has other models that are better suited for this.


The Vista features waterproof buttons and a handy navigational joystick, a feature not found on most of the lower end eTrex models


Mapping: While some GPS units can be intimidating to operate at first, the Vista is extremely painless to navigate from the first minute you turn it on. After initial calibration, which takes less then a minute, the GPS begins to work immediately. The GPS can be adjusted to be used lying flat or vertically positioned, and while the Vista obviously works best on clear sunny days it also performed well on cloudy days. I was impressed by the internal antenna and found that it even functioned inside our office when there was no clear view of the sky!


After the 12 channel receiver locks onto the positions of at least 3 satellites the Vista brings up your location on a map which can be zoomed from a map of the entire country all the way down to your 20ft surroundings. This unit does a fantastic job of holding satellites once they have been acquired. The Vista comes with the Americas Highway basemap and features the major highways for the entire country. Additional tracking can be done without a map, using tracking and setting up of waypoints. Overall the detail of the standard map is somewhat disappointing. But make use of the Garmin MapSource CD and fill the 24MB of internal memory with your region's maps and the Vista takes on a whole new life.


The same maps that can be used in your Garmin fish finder GPS combos will also work in the Vista. By using the "Fishing Hot Spots" add on disk (sold separately, or they come with Garmin Fish Finders) you can access detailed lake information for hundreds of the most popular lakes in the US and Canada. The information is transferred into the Vista with the included PC interface cable. These detailed maps contain information on the shoreline, depth contours, and even lake structure. But even without this mapping software you can always mark your favorite fishing spots on the GPS and return to the exact same location. This is particularly useful in large bodies of water like the Great lakes or Oceans. 


The Vista is an excellent backpacker's GPS thanks to it's lightweight and durable construction (Upper left: the optional GPS protective sleeve has a handy belt clip)


Capabilities: There is a abundance of information available to you via the Vista's multiple menus and screens. In addition to accurate mapping the Vista provides anglers with a customizable trip computer which can track speed, avg speed, odometer, moving time, stopped time, and much more.


I found the barometric altimeter extremely useful when backpacking in the Yosemite High Country, and I was able to track the daily elevation losses and gains. The Vista was able to calculate the Max elevation that I reached, as well as generate the total ascent during the backpacking trip. The Vista's handy digital compass also helps when you combine the information of the GPS with field maps. The feature package that the Vista supports right out of the box is particularly impressive.


The customizable trip computer uses various windows to convey your information in real time


Bonus Features: As if the basic features of the Vista weren't enough the GPS also features 4 "accessory" features to help sweeten the pie. These include:


1) Sun & Moon: Celestial information and sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and moonset forecasts. This information is very accurate and benefits anglers as they plan their days in the field.


2) Calendar: While not a substitute for a PDA, the Vista is capable of acting as a organizer of sorts with a complete calendar and basic note capabilities. Anglers could possibly use this as a fishing log.


3) Area Calculation: By using algorithms the GPS is able to make area calculations on the map to determine how much area between destinations ahead of you, or those that have been already traversed.


4) Hunting and Fishing Predictors: This is a feature that is interesting and amusing, but doesn't necessarily provide very useful data. Based on your location and date the GPS will make 2 best time, and 2 good time predictions for when hunting and fishing will be at it's peak.

The digital compass is very accurate, and good when on large bodies of water or in the wilderness


Limitations: While there are not too many, the Vista is not without flaws. While the unit is feature packed the price that you pay is a drastically reduced battery life in comparison to the lower eTrex units. The entry level eTrex units achieve 18-22 hours battery life while the Vista runs out of juice every 12 hours.


To fully take advantage of the Vista's capabilities we highly recommend using additional MapSource maps from Garmin, but these additional discs are expensive. A set of the MetroGuide and Fishing HotSpots will cost you over 200 dollars. The next problem is that 24MB, while the largest in the eTrex class, is still not enough to handle a generous region of maps. I was only able to install the maps for Northern California before I ran out of space. Unfortunately the Vista does not make use of any additional storage, as a small SD or compact flash would make the map storage basically unlimited.


Finally, once high quality maps are installed you will have access to everything from fishing marinas to McDonalds, but the Vista is not capable of giving any step by step driving directions via mapping or text to your destination. You will have to navigate the map yourself, and follow the compass to your selected target.


The California Delta consists of hundreds of waterways and the Vista serves as an excellent backup solution to help navigate and mark fishing hotspots


Price: The MSRP for this unit is 321.41, but it is possible to buy this unit online for under 300 dollars. We wish that for this price the unit would come with the additional mapping software, or at least a certificate for one region. While the package is excellent, the price is still somewhat expensive. The Vista represents the best that there is right now for an ultra portable GPS, but newer units that feature color screens, improved internal memory, and expandable memory systems will soon be arriving. For the time being the Vista is reasonably priced, but before throwing down the 300 to buy this unit, and an additional 200 for maps, you should ask yourself what are the actual features that you really need from a GPS. If basic mapping or coordinates is all you need an entry level eTrex will fit the bill nicely, while costing 100-200 dollars less.



Garmin eTrex Vista Ratings (?/10)

Construction/Quality Nice construction and good use of rubber to help make this small GPS unit durable and rugged. 9
Performance The Vista performed excellently in all our tests. Whether it was backpacking, cruising in the car, or speeding along in the boat the Vista delivered quality mapping while tracking, and marking key waypoints. The wealth of information available to anglers is impressive, but the basic basemap lacks the details most anglers are looking for. Buy the additional maps and all that changes. 8
Price Reasonably priced for the features you are getting, but expensive if you are just looking for basic GPS functionality. Ask yourself what are the features you really want from your handheld GPS, maybe a lower model will fit your requirements. But if your looking for the most feature rich offering, this is it. 7
Features Tons of features doesn't begin to describe the package. Various menus allow access to very rich data. 9
Design (Ergonomics) A lightweight GPS that fits comfortably in your hand. This unit is along the best when it comes to easy one handed operation 9
Application A excellent backpacking GPS, or backup solution for boaters or drivers. Somewhat small screen for larger vehicles. 8

Total Score


Pluses and Minuses:

                 Plus                                    Minus

J Great durability L A bit expensive
J Easy operation L Need additional maps for detail
J Accurate L Screen too small for vehicles
J Flexible applications  
J Tons of information  

Conclusion:  Looking for a great handheld GPS chock full of features and information? The Garmin eTrex Vista is an admirable solution. This GPS unit brings more features into a ultra small and lightweight package then ever before. The small screen makes it somewhat hard to read in large vehicles, where the size of the unit makes better suited for backpacking or as a backup unit for anglers that fish in the untamed wilderness or on large bodies of water. The only other major downside to the unit is that you require the additional maps for truly detailed navigation, and the unit is not capable of step by step directions. Overall the unit is impressive and for the most part we recommend the Garmin eTrex Vista for anglers who are looking for a GPS that will deliver accurate performance and a full suite of additional features. If you are an angler just looking for basic coordinates or simplified mapping with routes and waypoints then you should consider other less pricey units, as they will deliver the features you desire and save you a pretty penny.










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