Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pilot Toys: Lowrance Airmap 600c GPS

For a long time I debated whether or not to buy a GPS once I had my certificate. They're certainly useful devices but I also wasn't ready to fork over $500 or more for one. Then a couple weeks ago all the major online retailers put the Lowrance Airmap 600c on sale for about $299. Combine that with a $50 rebate that was available from Lowrance through December 31st and you've got a color GPS for under $250. Knowing that I plan to do plenty of XC flying, coupled with how ridiculously good the price was, sealed the deal for me. The little device arrived a couple weeks ago and I figure it's time for a review now that I've used it on two local flights and one XC.

The 600c attached to the included RAM yoke mount

What do I like?
  • Color display + terrain awareness + 3D airspace depictions. Honestly, the increased situational awareness this GPS can provide is astounding... assuming, of course, that you don't spend all the time staring at it when you should have your eyes outside the cockpit.
  • It's very simple to use. I did read the manual and play around with it on the ground but most settings and operations are very intuitive. To switch between different displays (full map, HSI, terrain) is incredibly easy - just click the Pages button and scroll through.
  • Speaking of the displays, there's an excellent selection. Not only do you get a standard map display (to which you can add/subtract all sorts of aviation and non-aviation features) but there are numerous variations of the HSI and navigation information so everyone should find a version they like. I love the Map Panel, which gives you a moving map up top with a ground speed and altimeter tape-style readout on either side along with a compass below on which you get a CDI needle for navigating along a course. Sounds like a lot (and it a mouthful to say/write!) but it's organized so well that everything you need is easy to spot.
  • I'm going to mention terrain again because I think it's that nice a feature. Maybe it's not as useful for me in flat-as-a-board Ohio but aside from the Earth itself all obstructions like towers are included. When you are in terrain mode, they change colors (green/red/yellow) based on your altitude trend (level/climbing/descending) to indicate whether you are in danger along with being labeled L or R for their horizontal position in relation to the plane. Additionally, you can turn on terrain warnings that color the ground below (again in green/red/yellow, depending on your height) when you are less than 1,000 feet agl on all the map displays.
  • Signal reception is excellent. I've never before used a GPS that locked on to satellites so quickly. Even inside my apartment or other buildings (not next to windows) it manages to get a 3D (4+ satellites) lock with WAAS reception. Impressive.
  • The informational database (AFD + Navaids, mainly) is thorough and easy to use. Put the cursor over an airport, click Find -> Enter, and up pops all sorts of information. Frequencies, runway lengths, phone numbers... it's all there. Put your cursor inside any airspace and it is automatically highlighted, with the controlling agency and frequencies displayed if you press Find -> Enter. You can even enable runway extensions to help line you up with the extended centerline, which could be especially useful in locating a field at night.
  • All the included mounts and accessories. You get a yoke mount and a suction mount, along with the cradle for the unit. They are all very high-quality and made by RAM. An external antenna with suction mount is included as well, but I'm yet to use it aside from checking to see that it works. Haven't had to - see "reception" above.
  • Pretty simply, it works. Plug it in, enter the route, and off you go. You can make it as complex or basic as you want with how customizable all the displays are, but at the end of the day it provides basic navigation - and does so very well.

What could be better?
  • The display is not very readable if the backlight isn't on. Many pilots don't like this fact when it comes to the 600c, but it doesn't bother me. Every plane I rent and use for XC flying has a power jack, and the DC adapter is included in the box. If for some reason I want to use it in the Champ or Cub a set of batteries will easily last for a few hours with the backlight on - and I'll run out of gas before that.
  • Some of the menus require you to dig deep (press buttons more than 3-5 times) to get to what you're looking for. But that's also a function of the number of features packed into this thing. Anything you want quickly can be reached quickly, for the most part. I do wish it was quicker to access your saved routes, but even that only takes 5 seconds max.
  • The audio beeps for approaching airspace and timers are worthless. There's no way you could possibly hear them in an airplane with a headset on. However, all the audio alerts appear in conjunction with text on screen so the functionality is the same. And they are very noticeable when they pop up on the display. Just don't expect to hear any loud beeping warnings as you approach your local Class Bravo.
  • Some descriptions are left out of the manual. It explains how to use the thing, but in a few places the description is along the lines of, "to disable XX, press ENTER to turn XX Off." Well that's nice, but what the heck is XX?!? Just a pet peeve of mine, I suppose. For the record, most settings have help information that pops up on screen and is quite useful.

What am I leaving out?
  • Auto (land) navigation mode. I already have a GPS in my car so I've had no reason to try this thing out in that mode. You can download detailed maps to the memory card using the included software (PC only) and card reader, and I've heard from others it works pretty well. In my opinion, if you really want auto navigation it still makes a whole lot more sense to just go buy one designed for that purpose. The ease-of-use will be much improved over something that is really intended to be in the sky.
  • Recording your GPS track and saving it for export to create a Google Earth or Google Maps overlay. The 600c can create such track logs, but I already own an AMOD 3080 GPS Logger that I've been using since early on in my training to create Google Earth KML files.

Dual map/terrain awareness screen

Overall, it's an incredible value for a color aviation GPS. The terrain display is a great aid to any pilot's situational awareness as is a moving-map that where you are in relation to airspace in three dimensions. The display is very clear as long as the backlight is on. It picks up a signal incredibly fast, within 1 minute even when I've moved it over 200 miles since it was last powered up. As with any technological wizardry, you have to make sure you don't become too dependent on it. Yes, it's easy to follow the little purple line but you certainly don't want to (and shouldn't!) be lost if the batteries die.

Rating: 5/5 Cubs


  1. The 600C is a great little unit. I have a used Airmap 500 that I purchased for 225, about 4 weeks before this big blowout of the 600C units. I love it, and I'm glad to have it there on those XC flights. Easy to preprogram the route at home and have to keep as a double check of the chart and VOR's along the way. You can also export the trails to a USR file and use in Google, but I can't get altitudes with that, so your current system of saving your flights like you have been in training still would need to be done. Have fun flying!

  2. Rob,

    It really is a great investment for any pilot - whether as a backup to a fancy GPS or a standalone for a simple VFR dude like myself. Too bad you missed the sale but I've heard just as many good things about the 500. Do you have a standalone logger? Some time I'll probably try exporting the track log but the AMOD I've had for 6 months now does indeed to a great job for me.

  3. I missed the sale also. I'm gonna keep checking. For the price you paid, it seems like a whale of a deal.

  4. I definitely can't complain about the cost-benefit, Tony, that's for sure. But on the other hand it's still at least a month's worth of flying money...

  5. I also got in on the $250 deal after rebate. My primary airplane has a Garmin 496 so I haven't had a reason to use this until I finally got a chance to try it on a cross country last week in a rental C152. It was a very hazy day with only 3sm visibility, and I was going to a new (for me) airport in the middle of nowhere with few landmarks around. I used VOR nav as a backup, but appreciated the extra awareness this unit provided in such poor conditions to guide me to my destination and keep me out of nearby airspace.

    The unit is a great deal at $250. I have seen most online shops don't even it list it anymore, so perhaps it is now end of life.

    The accessories are great - the yoke mount is solid as a rock and quick to mount and dismount. I bought a real nice small bag on sale ($8) from Cabellas to hold all the gear, including a 7AH 12v battery to plug the 12v power cord into for long trips.

    The internal antenna worked great and never lost signal even in the high wing Cessna - I did not have to use the external antenna.

    As mentioned, the manual leaves very much to be desired - it is really not a quality manual. Some menu items don't make sense either. For instance there is a volume control (useless in an airplane) and a "line out volume" control. But there is no line out audio jack! If there was, it would be perfect to plug this into the AUX input jack of my Lightspeed headset. Of course the manual makes no mention of this menu item, or how to get line out audio.

    I agree that using it for land navigation is more trouble than it is worth, and a dedicated land unit makes much more sense.

    I used a screen protector made for the Nintendo DS - it fits right and works great to protect the screen without affecting the screen visibility. They are only a few dollars and will protect the original screen.

    Be sure to make a back up copy of the original Jepp files to your PC in case anything happens to corrupt them on the SD card!!!

  6. The 600c is above average from my experience. I use it for high level Navigation flying. The unit is reliable but loses signals when I'm performing aerobatics.Takes some seconds to get signals again. I even have to switch off and on attimes. In all, I'll give the unit an 85%...but for $ ripped lowrance off!