Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Garmin Foretrex® 401 GPS review

The 401 looking for signal

Why review a GPS that was released in 2006? And why is the Foretrex® still relevant today?

The Garmin Foretrex® 401 is the only wrist mounted navigation GPS that has user replaceable batteries. (The 401 has a smaller sibling in the 301. Please see the end of the review for a feature comparison chart. In my review here I only refer to the 401 which is the unit I have been using.)
This makes the Foretrex® hugely applicable for excursions where you are far away from power for extended periods like a navigation ultra, extended back country trips or for military applications.

Unique Selling Points:
The back of the unit showing user replaceable batteries
* User replaceable batteries (two AAA batteries)
* Wrist mounted
* Full GPS route tracking
* Easily see previous recorded or imported tracks on navigation screen without having to follow them.



The Foretrex® gives you all the tracking and standard GPS features the massive advantage of the 401 is that it has user replaceable batteries. So if you are going on a mission for longer than 10 hours most gps units run out of battery life. With the foretrex you just switch the unit off and insert two AAA batteries and start it up again. It remembers your location and previous track and just carries on as per normal.

Secondly it is super easy to view previous or imported tracks while you are on the move.
You don't need to follow them (this takes a lot more battery power) so it is super easy to see where you have gone before and follow that same route if you wish (See picture above). Awesome for when you are doing a self navigation event like Salomon Skyrun where you can find (and follow other's) many little short cuts that quicken your journey considerably.

Competitors:
Garmin fenix:
In many ways the fenix is the upgraded foretrex. The fenix has many more sports features and allows you to view tracks and waypoints the same way as the Foretrex® but it does not have a user replaceable battery. The fenix can be worn as a wrist watch and has a battery life of up to 60 hours (advertised). If your adventure lasts longer than that between recharges then the foretrex is still your best choice.

Suunto Ambit 2:
The Ambit 2 is much more of a sports watch with pretty good outdoor features. It does however not offer the same in depth level navigation features that the Foretrex® does
The Ambit 2 does have a feature where you can follow a downloaded route but this is far too basic to be of much use when out in technical terrain.

A huge range of Garmin units which stow in your pocket rather than on your wrist.

Other features:
Configure Data Fields: Main Screen can show a selection of several data. Other screens are fixed and these include altitude profile, map, etc

Electronic compass: Enables you to navigate with a map

Barometric Altimeter: Gives far higher altitude accuracy than GPS generated altitude. Pretty essential for serious navigation. Can also give you an indication of incoming weather systems.

Track back function: Super useful to retrace your steps if you have gotten lost. Just beware that this will take you back exactly the way you came and not work out the shortest distance back to the car.

WAAS/EGNOS enabled gives quicker finding and locking of GPS signal.

HotFix remembers where you have been and keeps a record of trail even in heavy tree cover

The Foretrex® does not have the most advanced features when it comes to sports functions. Does not have any multi sport functions. It is however waterproof to the IPX7 standard (more than enough for a wrist unit that is not designed as a day to day watch or swimming application)


It is compatible with HR belts and cadence and foot pods. It gives you speed but not pace when running.

The unit weighs 87g (very similar to the Suunto Ambit 2S) .
It shows battery life and GPS signal strength in the top left hand corner for constant reference. It has an advertised battery life of 17h but I found it to be more like 10h when in navigation use. If you are constantly using the compass the battery life will drop even more.

The unit does not look sexy by any stretch of the imagination but then it is there to do a job. The Masey Ferguson of outdoor GPS.


Connectivity:
The Foretrex® can upload data to your PC or Mac via a USB cable supplied and data analysed via garminconnect

You can also send waypoint and track data wirelessly to other 401 units. 


Ideal use:

Any adventure where you will be outdoors for a while and need an accurate record of where you were and potentially need to find your way back to the start of your track. 


Not ideal for:
Sports where you want to see your heart rate and pace and pacing strategy and want to have to-the-second accurate timing info. 
Certainly won't look the part in anything other than a rugged outdoor setting. Unlikely to make and appearance in Gucci mag. 

Full disclosure:
I bought this unit at a reduced price from retail at Trappers Fourways in 2009. 
I have used it on two Salomon Skyrun races and many off the beaten track recces into our mountains. 
It still remains my go to unit for technical navigation excursions but hardly gets used for much else.

Pros:
User replaceable batteries
This unit is super easy to use
Holds signal well
Plenty of storage for routes and waypoints. I have not had to delete data in years

Neg:
The timer at the start of a new track or recording session is a bit clumsy to start. Not as easy as just pressing start on your stopwatch.

from the Garmin user manual

Please leave your comment below if you liked/did not like this review and any suggestions for making reviews better.
Thanks





2 comments:

Neil Myburgh said...

Spot on Leo. It's worked well for me.
With Lithium batteries I got 23+ hours just tracking on Tuffer Puffer. On Skyrun with navigation I get 17+ hours.
Also used it sailing to monitor heading and bearing differences to find best spot to tack for layline.
Only downside - I now need reading glasses to read detail on some screens. Neil

Nandinho said...

foretrex 401 does NOT connect to foot pod, as you wrote, only heart rate monitor bike cadence and jump master.