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Magellan eXplorist 710 GPS Review

The flagship in 's eXplorist series, the 710 is a robust and feature-heavy GPS receiver that does everything you could possibly want from a handheld GPS, and a lot more besides. Dan Bailey is a simple soul at heart, and high tech gizmos make his head hurt. But could Magellan's top of the range GPS receiver convert this clueless GPS virgin to 21st Century navigation technology?


It'd be quicker to list what the 710 can't do than what it can, but for the record there's: a high-resolution 3-inch touchscreen; 3GB of memory and SD card port for even more; a variety of pre-loaded world mapping and the facility to download OS maps; a 3.2MP camera with geotagging; inbuilt dictaphone; in-car navigation with voice prompt; GPX compatibility; barometric altimeter; 3-axis electronic compass; paperless geocaching facility; tough, waterproof casing and a robust metal mounting slot for cyclists or drivers. It'll give you the times of sunrise and moonrise in your current location; it'll let you build a geofence (I had to look it up too); it's even got an alarm clock.

With this wealth of functions comes an inevitable trade-off in terms of weight and battery hunger. That may be forgivable, but why did Magellan have to make it so damn hard to use?

Of all the desks in all the world the Magellan eXplorist 710 had to navigate its way onto mine. Is there anyone less qualified to talk about a thingummy whatsit? If so they're probably lost in a wood because they forgot their sextant and astrolabe. I'm the late adopter that's still got a cassette collection under the bed in case the CD proves a mere fad. It's odd that I write online. Computers confuse me; I don't know my app from my elbow; technobabble makes my brain bleed and my eyes roll back into my head.

This goes double when hillwalking. The outdoors is my refuge from the fiddly annoyances of modern life, and the more I'm asking technology to do for me in the field the less liberated I feel. You won't be surprised then that I've never knowingly used a GPS. Well I saw one once, but I didn't inhale.

So given free run of the eXplorist 710, the state of the gizmo-makers' art, how would I react? Might I finally decide to change my old stuck record? Nice try, but no. This is a piece of hand-held hi-tech so top of the range that I couldn't fail to find it utterly mindnumbing. I've spent too many hours of my life trying to fathom its complexities, and torn out half my remaining hair in the process.

And after all that I'm just left with a renewed appreciation of the simple beauty of a map and compass. But that's just me. For everyone else the eXplorist 710 is a highly impressive box of tricks with enough whistles and bells to start its own orchestra. If you want a GPS that does it all then this could be it.

Interface

And so, to work. Booting up takes about one minute, which strikes me as slow. Once it's got a fix on the satellites though I've yet to notice it lose itself. The map screen is the starting point and default point when using the receiver. Its 'four-corner' menu should be a clever touch, grouping the functions under four subdivisions (one in each corner of the screen) so that nothing is more than a few taps away. Unfortunately it's just so multi-layered that I don't find navigating around the menu remotely intuitive, and the function names don't mean much to me.

As a complete GPS virgin I'm not always sure what it is I'm supposed to be looking for in the first place, but even basic tasks like cancelling a route mid-way seem to require several clicks, and are far from obvious or free-flowing. I sometimes get so lost that I've had to resort to turning the unit off halfway through the day and leaving it in my bag in exasperation. The more techno-savvy would probably be baffled by my bafflement, but I don't think even the most ardent geek would call this particular GPS unit simple or intuitive.

Touchscreen

The touchscreen is described as high res, but its resolution isn't as good as that of your average smartphone. For just viewing maps I'm not sure this matters. When scrolling through a drop-down menu it can be very hard to avoid opening items without wanting to, perhaps because the slider bar is so narrow. Despite having fairly dainty fingers for a chap I can't seem to consistently manage the precision required and false clicks are commonplace; some sort of stylus might help.

"...If it's sunny then presumably you'll be able to see where you're going, in which case why even turn the unit on (or am I missing something here?)?"

It can be particularly hard to navigate the screen with cold hands, and for year-round mountain use this is a fairly annoying drawback. Weirdly I find scrolling around and clicking can be more accurate when wearing some sorts of thinner glove, but even still it's far from smooth or reliable enough. Personally I'd prefer a lower-tech push-button system to this too-flash touchscreen. But perhaps I'm just a 1990s throwback (just 'perhaps'? Ed.). Magellan have gone some way to meeting my geriatric needs by including two push buttons on the side of the unit which can be assigned to match frequently-used functions, but to complete any multi-stage task you still have to end up using the touch screen at some point.

I've heard some reports that the high res screen is hard to read in direct sunlight, but for hillwalking this isn't something I'd be unduly worried about. If it's sunny then presumably you'll be able to see where you're going, in which case why even turn the unit on (or am I missing something here?)?

Mapping

Aside from various world maps for which I can see no hillwalking application my test model is loaded with zoomable OS road mapping, and with the voice prompt it makes a decent in-car satnav. To this I added 1:50K Landranger-style mapping of the whole UK, which can be bought from Magellan for £199.99 (or £79.99 for a single UK region).

With all the mapping loaded this one device can steer me right both on the drive to the hills and on the walk too; perhaps that's fairly commonplace these days but as a newcomer to GPS I'm definitely impressed. In the wide open spaces of the Scottish mountains that I tend to haunt, 1:50K is the ideal scale for most situations, but in the lowlands with its profusion of paths, buildings, copses and field boundaries I have on occasion wished for closer detail. OS mapping of National Parks at 1:25K is available from Magellan - at £129.99 per park.

You might think an on-screen map is all the map you need, but the screen size is so limited that at 1:50K your view of the world is very blinkered and it's hard to grasp the bigger picture of an all-day walk. You can of course scroll around or zoom out for an overview, but neither option matches the at-a-glance comprehensiveness of an old fashioned paper map. Furthermore the position/direction arrow is so big that at smaller scales it sometimes obscures too much of the map; if there's a way to turn it off then I've not found it.

On the other hand with countrywide coverage I'm never going to walk off the edge of a sheet. The eXplorist 710 contains the equivalent of hundreds of paper maps, and I guess in that sense it's far lighter and less bulky (and cheaper?) than the printed version. Great if you're walking from Land's End to John o' Groats perhaps, but it does weigh a damn sight more than the one or two OS sheets that you'd generally need to carry on a day walk. This is just my opinion, but on a serious hillwalk I'd never treat GPS as a substitute for hard copies and would always carry a backup map and compass too.

On a mist-covered moor or a cliff-ringed summit plateau in a whiteout the potential consequences of battery or electronic failure are just too obvious. If you carry a map and compass then you should know how to use them; and given that ability then why bother with GPS at all, it could be asked? If you started from zero knowledge of either I wager it'd take as long to master the ins and outs of the eXplorist 710 as it would to learn the basics of good old fashioned navigation.

"...Because you're tracking your progress on the map in real time and can see which direction you are facing in, you hardly even need to follow a compass bearing or a GPS direction heading to get there."

That said I genuinely welcomed the on-screen map recently when out looking for an unrecorded crag in a dense dark pine plantation, the sort of ground that's particularly hard to navigate traditionally. Fighting through the foliage I'd soon lost all sense of direction, but the eXplorist 710 led me unerringly to my quarry (in the prey sense). It turned out the crag hadn't been climbed on for a reason, but thanks to the GPS it hadn't been too onerous finding out.

Some traditionalist hillgoers only carry a GPS (if at all) in case they need to establish a precise grid reference in a tight spot; well with the latest on-screen mapping this basic self-location is now even easier. You know where you are at a glance; you can see where you're heading next; and because you're tracking your progress on the map in real time and can see which direction you are facing in, you hardly even need to follow a compass bearing or a GPS direction heading to get there. I'm almost inclined to say that the odd glance at the on-screen map is all I'd ever want from the eXplorist 710.

Waypoints, routes etc

I tried following a route made with a set of pre-programmed waypoints, and the suspicion that this was not for me was soon confirmed. If I were topping out on a winter climb in the dark then I might welcome the reassurance of a key waypoint or two, but in general use I find them way too prescriptive. I don't like being dictated to by a glorified pocket calculator, even if it's just doing what I've programmed it to. Since you can see where you are on the on-screen map in real time (as above) then the older style of waypoint-to-waypoint GPS navigation seems rather anachronistic in any case.

Geocaching is beyond my ken (what it is, what the point is...) , so all I can say about it is that enthusiasts seem to rate the eXplorist 710 pretty highly for this pastime. GPX on the other hand; that for me is a different story. As a writer of guidebooks and UKH Route Cards the ability to track my day's precise course and then upload it to different media is very welcome, and this is what the eXplorist's GPX facility allows me to do. I can record my walk, and then share the route with the owner of a different make of GPS unit, or turn it into the basis of a UKH Route Card. It's rather more precise than drawing my course on mapping software from memory after the event. Only time would tell if that's something I could get into the habit of doing.

Camera and the rest

My main question is, why? The quality isn't impressive compared to even a rubbish dedicated digital camera. Yes you can attach a photo to a waypoint, geocache or route from the options menu, and I suppose some people would find that useful. I took two test shots, and could see the battery power indicator draining away as I did so. I then forgot all about the camera. Ditto the video and voice memo functions; they are all wasted on me.

Batteries

The eXplorist 710 takes two AA batteries. A unit with this sort of spec is bound to be power hungry, and the batteries do indeed drain quite fast. Officially there's 16 hours' worth of use in a set of batteries but my experience suggests you'd be doing well to get half this, and on all-day walks I've felt obliged to carry spares. This adds to the weight of an already-quite-heavy piece of kit (see below), so in that sense the multitude of functions on this unit has a measurable downside. Before first using it outdoors I loaded it with brand new reasonable quality Duracell alkaline batteries, mucked about with the unit for an hour or two and then left it turned off. When I next came to use it the batteries were flat. It turned out the unit has to be set for the correct type of battery (alkaline or whatever...who knew?). There are various power saving settings but it's all so complicated that I literally cannot bring myself to read them up; life is just too short. Regular users would want rechargeable batteries.

Build, size and weight

When you're hillwalking or mountaineering you don't want to have to handle your kit with kid gloves, and the rugged construction of the eXplorist will certainly take some knocks. It's supposedly waterproof too, and though I've not dared test the limits of this claim it is clearly happy being used in the rain. The eXplorist 710 sits happily enough in the palm or in a jacket pocket; it isn't a huge brick, but it could certainly be smaller. I presume the big plastic hoop at the bottom of the unit is an attachment point for clipping it to a rucksack strap or whatever, but if you don't use it then the hoop just makes the unit larger than it needs to be. At about 250g (including batteries) I think it's on the heavy side - especially given the need for spare batteries.

Is this the GPS for me?

The user manual is more than 40 pages long, and seems to be worded in a way that assumes a basic level of familiarity with GPS units; I'd have appreciated a step by step guide spelled out for total dummies. Without the manual I can barely use this device even after hours of practise, but lugging what's effectively a big paper map of the eXplorist 710's labyrinthine software along for the ride is ironically self-defeating.

Navigating in the real world is comparatively easy but I struggle to find my way around the eXplorist 710 to the extent that it took me 20 minutes of trial and error just to change the altitude data to metric, and almost an hour of random fiddling to turn off an old route and simply revert to my present position. The faff I've suffered is partly thanks to my own utter incompetence; but by no means all of it. Ours is a dysfunctional relationship defined by mutual incompatibility. I'll happily shoulder some of the blame, but how could I ever get to know it properly when it simply wouldn't let me in? The



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