Following the success of their first handheld/screen based GPS, the PN-20, DeLorme has now started to ship the PN-40. While much about the PN-40 is the same, what has changed is almost entirely for the better, and will leave PN-20 owners drooling for the new device. I’ve logged over a hundred hours of time with the PN-40 taking it geocaching, hiking, kayaking, and even driving. Here is what you can expect to find.
PN-20 owners will notice that very little has changed on the new PN-40. In fact from the outside the only different you will notice is that the PN-40 is orange and the PN-20 was yellow. DeLorme had a fairly solid design so they stuck with it. The buttons are large enough for gloved fingers, although some of the buttons might be a tiny bit small for ski gloves. They stick out quite a bit from the housing, but that makes them easier to use when you are going by feel or are using a glove. The sides and back have a rubberized coating which makes it feel very rugged, and indeed though a year of use with the PN-20 the device is extremely durable.
The battery compartment is locked in by a pair of small screws which can be tightened or loosened by hand thanks to the rings on the screw head. After use with under heavy wave sea kayaking conditions, being dropped in rivers, and even being dragged behind a kayak for about a mile no water entered the battery compartment.
You can use a DeLorme Lithium-ion battery, AA NiMH batteries, or AA Alkaline batteries. I tend to most often use the Li-Ion battery or NiMH batteries as I keep charged spares with me at all times. Some of the higher capacity Alkaline batteries can extend your battery life more. With the 1300mAh Lithium battery available from DeLorme I would consistently get nine hours of battery life from a single charge under typical usage. This compares to about 11 hours with the same battery in the PN-20. With alternative battery types you can do much better than that, up to around 18 hours in my tests. Despite the addition of a second processor, an electronic compass, higher sensitivity GPS chipset, and a barometric altimeter the PN-40 doesn’t seem to have any reduced battery life much from the PN-20… Don’t know how they managed that, but battery life of the PN-40 was roughly 85% of what the PN-20 had.
Also on the back of the device are eight metal connectors, flush with the housing that are used to initiate a computer connection to the PN-40 for downloading maps, transferring waypoints, and the like. This is one of my few gripes with the hardware as those contact points need to be periodically cleaned to get a consistent USB connection. It isn’t difficult to do and the way they designed these contacts contributes to the incredible water-proof characteristics over a typical rubber gasket covered USB port, but it is occasionally frustrating.
The biggest point of debate with the PN-40 will undoubtedly be the screen. In most ways the screen is fantastic. It is extremely readable in direct sunlight, and when light is low you can turn on the backlight. I wish it had a tiny bit more contrast, or if the contrast was adjustable. I’ve noticed if you hold the device facing you and the top is slightly closer to you than the bottom the contrast looks perfect, but when viewed straight on I wish there was a little more contrast or some of the screen “themes” were a little darker.
But the debatable point of the screen will be the size. In comparison to where Garmin is going with the Colorado and Oregon devices, the PN-40 has a small screen. About 2.25 inches tall and 1.5 inches wide this is not the HD version of a GPS device. I’ve never found the screen size a significant deterring factor though. Most of the activities people will use the GPS for are during activities where you can bring the screen closer to you in your hand if need be. And since the screen is much more readable in direct sunlight than other devices with larger screens you should factor in both of those qualities… size versus all conditions clarity.
Someone in a DeLorme forum recently said this (paraphrasing):
“Would you rather watch the Jerry Springer show in HD or the National Geographic Channel in standard-def?”
The point they are making, and perhaps rightfully so for many people, is that how well you can read the screen, and the quality of the data on the screen is more important than the size of the display. So while we are here, let’s talk about the maps.
Maps, Maps, Maps, and More Maps
The number one reason anyone might consider the DeLorme PN-40 is because of the maps. While slightly newer to the mainstream GPS market, DeLorme’s roots are as a mapping company, and it really shows with the PN-40. Most good handheld GPS devices will come with vector based topo maps covering the USA in 1:100,000 scale. DeLorme has you covered there and you get that out of the box. In addition those maps contain routable roads.
What sets the PN-40 apart is the availability of other types of maps. For a $29 annual subscription you can download unlimited maps from their map library. One of the biggest complaints about the PN-20 when it was released was just how expensive the additional maps were. No more– all you can eat for $29 per year. So what types of maps can you get?
Official NOAA marine charts, high resolution aerial photography in color or black and white, satellite imagery, and scanned USGS topo maps in 1:24,000 scale. All of these can be downloaded to your computer then cut and installed on your GPS. Being able to pull up multiple types of maps for a given area can be critical for situational awareness, as I’ve previously discussed in our Why Aerial Images are Important article. Having multiple types of maps on the GPS has provided me with important information about my surroundings a number of times that was an important decision making factor during a trip. No other GPS on the market today offers this many options of map type in such a convenient package.
While not available at the time the PN-20 was introduced, the PN-40 (and now the PN-20) can also display a “hybrid” map. This takes the line based vector parts of a traditional topo map such as roads and contour lines and overlays those lines on top of an aerial image or other raster image. This can give you the best of both worlds on one map display… detailed color aerial imagery along with contour lines from the topo data.
The older PN-20 came with a 12 channel chipset which performed quite well. I never considered it as strong as say the Garmin 60CSx, however there were a few who would have debated that issue with me. The PN-40 steps up to a 32 channel chipset, and delivers a good performance boost. (See our article titled Do Chipset Channels Matter? for more information.) Consider this video I put together which was using an older beta version of the PN-40.
In my testing on a recent production device I would consistently get a satellite signal from cold starts in under two minutes, with warm starts taking 30 seconds or less. Indoors I’d typically get a fix within a minute. Tracklogs I recorded looked impressive as well with little drifting. I live on a narrow street and could tell by the tracklogs which side of the road I was walking on– most impressive.
DeLorme might have also let it slip to me that they are working on “predictive ephemeris” to help with even faster satellite acquisition times. Okay, so they did let that piece of info slip out to me, I’ve seen it in action, and it appears to work incredibly well. Devices I saw that were running the updated software were frequently getting a 3D fix before the device finished booting. Look for it as a free firmware update to the PN-40 soon.
Electronic Compass, Barometric Altimeter
The PN-40 gains two sensors the PN-20 didn’t have, an electronic compass and a barometric altimeter. From a personal standpoint I’ve never seen the need for either of those features. Since using more and more devices that have them my dislike for the feature has subdued a little bit. There two reasons I don’t like them. First, they suck down battery life. Thankfully most GPS devices including the PN-40 give you a way to turn it off. Second is that I’ll never rely on the GPS to provide a compass direction for navigation to anything but a geocache. Always carry a backup map and compass.
But for those who do want and appreciate the feature, it is now available. It actually works quite well once it is calibrated. You will want to periodically calibrate the compass over time, as well as any time you change batteries. (Each battery has a unique magnetic field). The calibration method involves rotating the device around multiple axis points and can be done in the field. There are a couple of nice aspects of DeLorme’s implementation of the electronic compass, first is that it will tell you if it needs calibration. Second is that since it is a tri-axis compass the GPS doesn’t need to be flat to read an accurate direction. Often while kayaking or mountain biking it is difficult to keep the GPS in a flat position– the PN-40 doesn’t require it.
Topo USA Software
One of the best (and worst) aspects of the PN-40 is the included Topo USA software. The software existed long before the PN series of GPS devices. It includes topo maps, a large POI database, routable roads, and numerous geeky map features. There are tools for managing/joining/breaking tracklogs, building trail networks, adding in new roads, sharing routes and trip plans over the internet with other users, 3D map views, elevation profiles of lines and trails. You can build custom polygons representing things like property boundaries, measure acreage, tools for managing waypoints and geocaches, the ability to geocode photos to specific locations from a tracklog, view BML or WMD data that is of interest to fishermen and hunters… The list goes on and on. Topo USA is an incredibly powerful piece of software.
So why do I also think it is one of the downsides to the PN-40? All of that power comes at the expense of complexity. While some users will utilize quite a bit of that software, it is a bit intimidating to the casual GPS user. One of DeLorme’s taglines for the PN-40 is “Serious Tool”. The Topo USA software certainly is a serious tool. While I appreciate the power it provides; I’m not really an average GPS user. 😉 I wish the software had a “easy” mode where most of the functions were invisible to the interface and you could focus just on managing data back and forth between the PN-40 and the maps. Don’t get me wrong, the software is not impossible to learn. At first I thought many of the user interface elements were illogical, but the more time you spend with the software the more you understand how those elements make it very flexible and powerful.
It is also worthy of noting that the Topo USA software is PC only right now. While it works great under Parallels and Boot Camp for Mac users, there isn’t any native Mac software currently. DeLorme has announced they are working on a Mac version of some geocaching software that will be compatible with the PN series devices, and there are hints that more sophisticated Mac GPS software could be in the works.
One of the best aspects of the Topo USA software is the extensive trail network. As a bonus, those trails are routable! Place a starting point at a trailhead, pick your ending point, add via points, and the device will create a route that follows an existing trail network. This will provide you with more realistic distance estimates, the ability to view a profile of the route to see just how steep it is, and you can share your trip plan over the internet with anyone that has web access.
Of course you can download those routes to your GPS and be able to monitor your progress along the trip with much greater precision than just bunch of long joined straight likes like you might do with other GPS devices.
With the new dual processor design, one processor is dedicated to graphics (map drawing) while the other is dedicated to the GPS chip and device operation. I don’t think anyone would argue that a common adjective for the PN-20 is “sluggish”. This was acceptable for most people because the device is designed for tasks that are typically slower activities such as hiking, hunting, or kayaking.
Sluggish will now only define how you feel after your day outside. The PN-40 screams with speed. I loaded up the PN-40 with color aerial imagery and took off down the interstate. The cursor stays centered in the map and the map refreshes every second or two. Watching the color aerial imagery scream by at highway speeds is pretty fun, and illustrates the PN-40’s new found speed.
Like the PN-20, there are plenty of fields and pages you can customize with just the data you want. The primary map display can show anything from zero fields to maximize the map view, or four fields to monitor things like battery life, reception, distance to the destination, compass headings, etc. After spending quite a bit of time with the Garmin Colorado and Oregon devices this summer I do miss the concept of profiles. For example I like the GPS setup one way for geocaching, another way for hiking, and yet another way for kayaking. As I bounce back and forth between activities it takes a few minutes to get everything setup the way I like it for those tasks.
While the PN-20 could perform road routing I found it to be a worthless feature. Routes took an extremely long time to create, and if you missed a turn and had to wait for it to recalculate you might as well pull over and have a snack. The PN-40 is much, much faster at road routing. Even the PN-20 will reportedly get a little faster with an upcoming firmware update. With the new faster dual-processor design you now stay centered on the map, better able to anticipate upcoming turns. Displaying the name of the next street on the map, along with the distance to the turn you get a fairly clear idea of where to go. Since there are no voice prompts you just get “dings” to warn of upcoming turns.
But I still wouldn’t purchase the PN-40 for the task of anything but infrequent road navigation. Without a touch screen interface, the small screen, and no voice prompts makes road navigation a bit unfriendly still. With decent auto GPS devices at around $125 or less right now you might as well get a dedicated auto device in addition to the PN-40 if you will frequently use road navigation.
While certainly not exclusive to the PN-40, this DeLorme GPS also comes with sun and moon charts, tide charts, as well as suggestions of good times for hunting and fishing. DeLorme is also preparing to release software to facilitate managing geocaching. A plugin for the geocaching.com website is in development to download waypoints directly from the geocaching website to the PN series devices. Additional software packages are also being developed to help manage caches. Finally a firmware update is planned that will facilitate geocaching directly on the device. It will support all of the geocaching icons, display full cache description information, as well as provide driving and then direct routes to caches from a single management system.
The Final Fix
If you are a PN-20 owner debating an upgrade to the PN-40 ask yourself this one question. “Do I want a PN-20, but one that is blazingly fast?”. If you do, you won’t be disappointed with the PN-40.
If you are a Garmin 60CSx owner (or similar) and have been waiting for something new, but were turned off by the Colorado or Oregon for some reason, yet needing to maintain the supreme accuracy the 60CSx offered, the PN-40 won’t likely disappoint you either. The PN-40 enjoys accuracy on par with the 60CSx and better than what I’ve experienced with the Colorado. It doesn’t have the big screen, but what is on the screen is better.
The only group of people that I continue to hesitate pushing towards the DeLorme are those people that don’t have as good of computer skills. You will need to spend some time working with the Topo USA software to get the most out of the PN-40, and infrequent/casual GPS users might not spend the time.
Nobody in the market today comes close to the availability of rich map options in a rock solid handheld GPS.