Garmin eTrex 30x

Navigation Unit or Time Machine?

Garmin eTrex 30x image

Use Case:
Bicycle Touring
Don’t Buy
Primary navigation unit on 2,500-mile bicycle tour from Billings, Montana to York, Maine.
  • Provides precise location
  • Satisfactorily records tracks
  • Replaceable batteries
  • Battery life of 3-4 days on 2xAA Li-Ion
  • Enables mindless navigation when pre-loaded with routes
  • Tolerates rain well
  • Operable with gloved fingers
  • Joystick-based menus are tedious, frustrating
  • Computationally underpowered —
    • Map display refreshes on geologic timescales
    • Frequently fails to respond to user inputs
    • Joystick center-press often misinterpreted
    • No diagonal display area panning — N, S, E, W only
    • Glacial display area panning speed
    • Failed to load maps for multiple countries near international borders
    • Map detail varied between countries in default set
    • Abhorrent search functionality

Navigation methodologies fall on a broad spectrum, and so must the contented user of the Garmin eTrex 30x fall on a spectrum of their own; that colloquially known as “the spectrum” to be specific.  These methodologies vary by personal preference, logistical constraints, travel pace, map data availability, and governmental regulation, among a number of other variables.  Personal preference may guide some cyclists to a paper map, others to ordered lists of instructions, such as cue sheets, and others still to electronic devices to satisfy individual navigational requirements.  Each solution has its own merits and demerits.  There is a certain assuredness to the tactile feel of a paper map in the hand, a sense of excitement for all the possible adventures densely packed within its planar extent, and the promise of deeply engaging conversation among co-adventurers gathered around a map to trace by finger proposed routes over and around topographical projections of the surrounding landscape.  The paper map is to adventure what the town square was to towns before citizens siloed up in personal automobiles and stopped interacting with one another in public, except to honk and flip each other “the bird” when deemed necessary.  Thanks Henry Ford, you dick.

A paper map will never run out of power and is not a valuable item that beckons thieves.  A paper map may be a circumstantial necessity due to lack of access to reliable power, either from a sparsity of proper batteries or unreliable infrastructure in a developing country.  Cycling in the absence of specific spatial or temporal constraints, i.e. without a destination or particular time frame, may obviate the need for navigation altogether.  Not all geographic areas are suitably mapped, so the data necessary for navigating electronically may not even exist.  Oppressive governments view the open flow of information, to include accurate mapping and geolocation, as a threat to established subjugation of citizenry and carrying capable navigation equipment may garner unwanted and unwarranted suspicion.  Perhaps hauling four-hundred pounds of paper maps for a transcontinental tour does not leave adequate room for food, water and clothing.  Hence my primary reason for using the Garmin eTrex 30x on a 40-day, 2,500-mile bicycle tour from Billings, Montana to York, Maine across the northern United States and portions of southern Canada.  A viable navigation solution must provide the answer to three questions: “Where am I?”, “Where am I going?”, and “How do I get there?”.  This review details the extent to which the Garmin eTrex 30x was able to answer these questions.


Garmin eTrex 30x
The Garmin eTrex 30x in grayscale color scheme.

Aesthetics play no role in answering the aforementioned questions of a device’s suitability for use in navigation. If aesthetics are important to you, this probably will not find its way into your gear. Simply, it looks and feels like it can handle a drop from a significant height. Further, the eTrex 30x features a simple, soft tri-color design based on a black, dark gray and light gray palette, is sufficiently substantial in the hand to allow single-handed operation, and possesses gradually rounded edges to ease the transition to its gently rounded depth.  The front of the device is flat with the LCD screen central to its width, and occupying the lower two-thirds of its height.  The surface of the screen is prominent enough to invite scratches, so a custom screen protector is recommended.  Below the screen and inset within its surrounding black border is the Garmin company name in trademarked font.  A five-way joystick is centered in a light gray ring inset within the black border to bisect the remaining space above the screen.  The device series and model number,  “etrex 30x” is vertically aligned with the joystick to remind users what device they own, and to eliminate the need for observers so impressed by its appearance to ask its make and model.  The balance of the front of the device is a light gray textured plastic with dark gray labels indicating the functionality of the nearby buttons.  The rounded edges mark the beginning of the dark gray rubberized sides of the device.  Along the edge on the top half of the device are the remainder of the buttons of the user interface; three on the left, two on the right.  The buttons are located in the top half of the device to allow manipulation with the thumb, index and middle finger, assuming the latter is not occupied by the noble work of communicating with motorists, when held in the palm. The back of the device consists of a two-tone, dual-purpose panel that acts as a battery compartment cover and a slide rail for affixing the device to clip or mount accessories, and a stiff rubber flap covering a Mini-USB connector that enables data transfer between the device and a host computer. A recess in the plastic along the edge of the USB cover allows it to be easily lifted by finger.

Hardware Description
A sturdy wire bail attached to a quarter-turn fastener secures the removable battery cover to the main body, providing quick, easy access to the batteries, and, beneath the batteries, a hinged SD card connector, the SD card containing the maps and device data housed within.  The friction of the bail attachment to the quarter-turn post holds it tightly against the body of the device when not in use, and firmly away from the body when accessing the batteries.  The bail does not fall back into place under its own weight, so there is no awkwardness in removing the cover.  The task of removing the cover is trivial and easy to perform by feel.

The Garmin eTrex 30x battery cover secured by quarter-turn fastener.

The user interface of the Garmin eTrex 30x consists of five buttons, a five-function joystick and a 1.4″ x 1.7″ adjustably bright backlit color LCD screen.  The screen is easily viewable in bright daylight, automatically switches to a dark color themed night mode by default, and can be easily adjusted manually to a minimum functional brightness to conserve battery power.  Each of the five buttons on the device protrudes slightly from the body; enough to be distinguishable by feel, but not so much as to snag on material when stored in or retrieved from bags or pockets.  Each is rectangular in shape with radiused corners and all but the device power button are smooth on the surface.  The power button is subtly imprinted with the ubiquitous IEC 60417-5009 stand-by symbol to, according to the text of the standard, “…identify the switch or switch position by means of which part of the equipment is switched on in order to bring it into the stand-by condition, and to identify the control to shift to or to indicate the state of low power consumption…”.  You recognize it as a circle with a line through it, and, as I did previously, you call it the power button — cue NBC’s mid-90s “The More You Know” PSA sound byte.

The buttons are sufficiently separated to allow operation with a thinly-gloved hand, e.g. full-fingered cycling gloves, and are modestly rubberized to provide a confident feel when either the device or the operating finger is wet without regard for why either is so.  Beneath each button is a tactile pushbutton switch that provides a distinct clicking sensation and sound when pressed and again when released.  The feedback from the five-way tactile switch, i.e. the joystick, is more pronounced than the buttons along the perimeter of the device as the overlaid rubberized material substantially mutes both the tactile and aural feedback.

Firmware Description
From a hardware perspective, all GPS devices within the consumer market are basically the same.  Perhaps GPS receiver sensitivity varies by a few dBm among commercially available models, or the antenna characteristics of one device are slightly enhanced relative to others on the market, but the preponderance of suitability of a device for use in navigation for touring is determined by the architecture of the embedded computer system and the firmware with which it is programmed.  This is where the majority of weaknesses were identified with this device.  Some weaknesses were tolerable annoyances, some legitimately prevented me from reaching my destination and confirmed that the eTrex 30x is not viable as a stand-alone navigation solution for long distance touring.  At least in the default factory configuration.  The eTrex 30x provides easy, mindless navigation when it is pre-loaded with destinations and desired routes.  In the absence of pre-loaded routes or routable maps its usefulness as a navigation solution diminishes rapidly owing to the unpardonable sluggishness of the user interface, and a characteristic unresponsiveness to user inputs.

Interface Inadequacy
It is expected that such a simple user interface — pushbuttons — would be a fool-proof and more-than-adequate way to navigate the hierarchical menus of the device software. Indeed, that was my expectation, but it did not take long to realize that this expectation would go unmet.  The first time a user presses a button and the device fails to acknowledge the input, he or she assumes responsibility and reasons that the button was perhaps not pressed properly. After dozens of such missed inputs the user comes to realize that the blame rightfully belongs to the manufacturer, Garmin, for botching one of the most basic user interface tasks: registering button presses by a user.  In a reservoir of users accustomed to low-latency, high-fidelity touchscreen interfaces, a device utilizing the more primitive tactile pushbutton switch to receive user inputs must be very carefully designed.  This does not imply that the design is complex.  It is not.  It just means that the solution must be responsive and accurately register the desired inputs.  The designers of the Garmin eTrex 30x failed miserably in this task, which, as an engineer aware of the simplicity of the required solution, I consider unacceptable.

The switches inside the device are tactile pushbutton momentary switches that rely on mechanical deflections of electrical contacts to momentarily establish a conduction path between two nodes in an electrical circuit.  Tactile pushbuttons are mechanical switches.  Any mechanical switch suffers from a phenomenon known as switch bounce. When the switch is thrown, the separation or joining of the physical contacts inside the device is not perfect. The contacts touch and separate many times in rapid succession, which, if not properly accounted for, may lead to false interpretations of user input.  A single user press may go undetected and unprocessed by the device, or may be falsely interpreted as multiple successive inputs.   The Garmin eTrex 30x suffers substantially from the former as repeated pressing of the buttons is often required to obtain the expected response from the device.

Search Functionality
On a pre-tour fishing trip to Fort Peck Lake in northeastern Montana, I ventured to see if the eTrex 30x could provide driving directions for our return trip to Bozeman.  In short, it could not because it was not loaded with routable maps.  But the process of trying revealed the tremendously poor design of the search functionality.  I selected Where To? —> Cities  from the available menus and a list of cities appeared in order of decreasing proximity. Jordan, Montana, 20-miles away, was the closest. Bozeman was  roughly 240-miles, as the crow flies, from our location at Fort Peck, and selecting Bozeman as the destination would require scrolling through a list of indeterminate length containing every single city, including duplicates of some, within that 240-mile radius at an approximate rate of one city per second. Life is too short for such a task. I tried, then, to select Bozeman using the search function, assuming it would filter the previously populated list of cities alphabetically.  This assumption was wrong.  Tediously using the joystick to select the first letter, ‘B’, from the on-screen keyboard, I waited for the computationally deficient device to display the list of filtered results.  As it searched, a circular icon showed on-screen, but the icon’s frozen state gave the impression that all processing activity had ceased.  When the list finally updated it was a real F-me-in-the-A moment — B Gwari, NGA, an abbreviation of Birnin Gwari, Nigeria, only 6,720 miles to the northeast topped the list. Innumerable similarly obscure B-towns from around the globe followed.  This is a massive design failure on the part of Garmin and it is surprising that this implementation made it into production code.  The consequence of this is that the user must manually enter the majority of the name of the desired destination before it can be selected from the list.  Selecting destinations is a fundamental step in navigation, and the way it is implemented in the eTrex 30x is unsatisfactory.  What should be a thirty-second task takes several minutes, which is not good when you are standing alongside a busy road in rapidly diminishing daylight at the end of a long day of touring.  As a feature suggestion to Garmin, consider the markedly superior utility of an alphabetically-sorted, proximity-based list of destination results.

Terrible search functionality of the eTrex 30x. Inability to filter proximity-based results alphabetically makes finding a destination a chore.

Routable Maps
The day I arrived in Syracuse was when I learned that the eTrex 30x was not a viable standalone navigation solution, at least in its default factory configuration.  Admittedly, routable maps may dramatically improve the usefulness, but without such maps the device does not offer the ability to easily find the way to a desired destination.  Coupled with a lacking point-of-interest database, the eTrex 30x proved useless in finding my way to my destination.

It was near the end of the day when I decided I would rather stay in a cheap hotel than try to find a place to pitch a tent in the Syracuse area.  I had a room reserved at an America’s Best Value Inn.  The accuracy of the moniker is debatable.  At four years old, the battery in my cell phone was nearing the end of its useful life, and was routinely dead by the end of each day on the tour.  On this day this was a problem because it was dead an I had no idea where the hotel was in Syracuse, aside from being somewhere near the airport.  Still, I had no idea how to get to the airport.  Follow the planes?  Initially, that is what I did, but only after attempting to find directions using the eTrex 30x first.

I navigated into the searchable point-of-interest database in the device and selected “Lodging” from the available options.  I searched for America’s Best Value Inn, and the nearest result was 44-miles away.  The hotel I was looking for was not in the database.  Fortunately, the airport was, so I was at least able to put a destination point on the map.  Keeping it on the map required leaving the device in an intermediate state between finding the point-of-interest and selecting it as the destination.  Selecting it as the destination threw a routable maps error.  Returning from this error to the main map screen, the point-of-interest, in this case the airport, was gone.  Navigation required constantly panning the viewing area to keep the location marker within view, zooming out to see my location relative to the airport, then zooming back in on my location and guessing at the best route between the two.  Manually navigating with the eTrex 30x whilst navigating the shit-show that is riding through a major city is unpleasant and dangerous.  Ultimately I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts, bought a Coca Cola to gain status as a paying customer, and waited for my phone to charge enough to power up so I could jot down navigation instructions on the back of my receipt.  My faith in the Garmin was lost.  Perhaps it will be regained once I take the time to load it with maps and data that is not useless.  I object to Garmin selling the device and the maps that make it worth a shit separately, and given the ineptitude with which the basic search functionality is implemented I do not hold much hope for the usability of the automatic route calculation.  A lack of routable maps, which are available at additional cost, or possibly free for more industrious users as open source files, renders the device basically useless for answering the question “how do I get there?”.

International Borders
Approaching Canada I noticed that portions of the United States within the display area were populated with a map as expected, but portions of Canada were displayed as a featureless white region, perhaps a nod to its pop cultural identity as the Great White North, which, though respectable, is a useless representation when it comes to navigation. Two things were evident: there was not an adequately detailed map of Canada loaded into the device and the device firmware has problems loading maps when the viewing area spans maps stored in multiple files. As the Bluewater Ferry sailed me and my gear from Marine City, MI, USA to Sombra ON, Canada I had time to fiddle with the eTrex 30x and found that zooming out extremely far would cause a map of Canada to load. I could then zoom back in to see the roads. Frustratingly, the level of detail on the maps of Canada differed from the maps of the United States. For most of the ride through Canada I followed a purple navigation route on roads that, according to the GPS unit, did not exist. Such a drastic difference in the level of detail between two countries within the same default map set was extremely disappointing. It is a mark against the device and the manufacturer in my opinion, but easily rectified by loading custom maps.

The eTrex 30x preferentially loads U.S. maps over Canada maps near the international border. Once loaded, it is discovered that the maps of Canada are far less detailed their U.S. counterparts in the same set.

Display Area Rendering
The rendering of the display area on the unit takes forever. There is no way to gussy it up either. It sucks. To see upcoming turns, measure approximate distances to destinations ahead, or to explore alternative routes on the map requires use of the joystick to scroll the viewing area from the current location. Actuating the joystick results in a cursor appearing on the screen. Regardless of the level of zoom the cursor moves in 36 discrete steps horizontally across the screen. The map does not scroll until the cursor reaches the edge of the viewing area, and when it finally does scroll it does so in very coarse steps as the map lurches across the screen. This lurching gives the impression that the processor is working hard at its task yet only the map area that was originally displayed remains populated as the cursor scrolls. The new screen area remains blank until the scrolling stops, then it populates with map content in a piecewise, fragmented manner. Once the map loads it takes several more seconds for the roads, programmed routes, labels, etc. to render. The first map is of very coarse detail with finer detail rastering in over several seconds. The programmer in me finds this process painful to watch, and it demonstrates that Garmin opted for a massively underperforming microprocessor solution to save production costs and maximize margins at the expense of user experience. It is highly reminiscent of dial-up connections in the early days of the Internet. If it’s not the processor that is inadequate then it’s the memory bandwidth between the processor and the SD card. If that is the case, it seems like Garmin should have ponied up the cash to implement the full SD communication interface rather than bit-banging it over an SPI bus. It should not take a cursor more than 3-seconds to scroll across a 240-pixel screen. For the price, the performance should be much better.

The Garmin eTrex 30x is a hybrid device:  equal parts navigation unit and time machine. In addition to providing rudimentary navigational capabilities, answering well the question “Where am I?”, it transports the user back in time to the mid- to late-1990s as it renders cartographic images the same way, so I am told, a Pentium-II on dial-up displayed pornographic images: top to bottom, in iteratively refined detail, and with erection-neutralizing latency. If you possessed the discipline and focus to keep rigid back in the 90s then perhaps you have the requisite patience to be a satisfied owner of this device. Though the default maps of the U.S. were adequately detailed, the maps of Canada omitted all the major surface streets. This necessitated blindly following pre-loaded routes and hoping for the best, which did not always work out as planned. The Garmin eTrex 30x in the factory configuration cannot be relied upon to answer the question “How do I get there?”, and was sporadic in its ability to answer the question “Where am I going?”. Over the course of the trip I consistently relied on my cell phone for navigational decisions, and used the eTrex 30x to stay on course, record my daily tracks, and to monitor my riding statistics (moving time, stopped time, distance, speed, etc.). Given that a little work on the part of the user can likely increase its suitability as a primary navigation unit, my recommendation not to buy the device is not adamant, but users expecting a pleasant experience out of the box will be sorely disappointed. Disappointed by the unresponsiveness of the user interface, the sluggishness of the processor, and a basically useless destination search function that compromises users’ ability to get wherever it is they seek to go.

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