With high-end GPS capabilities and a 3in touchscreen display, the Magellan eXplorist 610 is one of a new breed of satellite navigation devices designed to go where smartphones fear to tread.
The popularity of standalone GPS units has been on the wane since GPS-equipped smartphones first appeared – and it’s a decline that has accelerated as Google Maps adds more functionality to mobile handsets.
But there’s a lot to be said for a standalone device like the eXplorist 610. It’s robust, waterproof, and has a screen that’s designed for easy reading outdoors. And just as the capabilities of smartphone GPS software have grown, so the manufacturers of standalone units have hit back by adding a raft of new functions to their units.
While the integrated SiRFstarIII GPS chipset is impressive enough, Magellan has packed a bunch of additional sensors into the mix to help improve the eXplorist 610′s accuracy still further. A three-axis electronic compass allows the device to figure out what direction you’re facing at low speeds – or even while you’re stood still – while a barometer allows the device to more accurately gauge your altitude.
A 3in resistive touchscreen display dominates the front of the device, and while the resolution of 240×400 – WQVGA – isn’t great, the transreflective display is easily readable in sunlight. This, combined with the eXplorist 610′s IPX7-rated water resistance, is perhaps the biggest advantage of this device over a smartphone with in-built GPS capabilities.
The eXplorist 610 offers 4GB of internal storage, which comes pre-loaded with low-detail world maps and street-level European maps, which also include impressive topographical detail. Even with these maps loaded, there’s still 500MB of internal storage free for user data – and a microSD slot for expansion.
Perhaps the most surprising addition to the eXplorist’s feature set – especially for those who last bought a GPS unit in the days of monochrome screens and serial port connectivity – is the presence of a camera on the rear. While the quality isn’t great – behind the autofocus lens is a somewhat disappointing 3.2 megapixel sensor – it’s an interesting addition nevertheless.
In camera mode – which is easily accessible, although the device takes a few seconds to get ready for snapping – you can take photographs which are ‘geo-tagged’ with the current location as reported by the GPS receiver. There’s also a built-in microphone, which allows the user to create voice notes, which are again tagged with the current location.
Build and usability
The build quality of the eXplorist 610 is impressive, with a metal casing and a recessed screen in case the unit is dropped or otherwise bashed around. This does, however, make the eXplorist bulky: if you’re used to carrying around a slim smartphone, you’ll need to prepare yourself for bigger pockets.
The rear of the device’s body includes a quick-release mechanism for optional belt clips and specialist mounts. It also provides a twist-sealing mechanism that locks the cover of the device’s battery compartment. According to Magellan, two AA batteries should power the device for around 16 hours – although it’s worth mentioning at this point that our brand-name alkalines managed around ten before they conked out altogether.
The screen is bright and easily readable in sunlight or darkness, although if you’re used to modern, large-screen smartphones you’ll likely find it a little ‘compact and bijou’. The recessed nature of the screen, while handy from the perspective of not having the screen shatter when it’s dropped, also makes it slightly awkward to activate some of the corner buttons in a hurry.
The rubberised buttons on the sides of the device, by contrast, are much more comfortable to use. Providing quick access to common functions such as waypoint marking and power, they’re easy to find and respond well to prodding.
The integrated software in the eXplorist 610 is pretty capable, although we did find ourselves wishing that Magellan had plumped for a more powerful processor. The ‘boot’ time from cold is depressingly long, and the map is sometimes worryingly unresponsive when set to its highest level of complexity.
Despite this, the Magellan eXplorist 610 still impressed. As well as the detailed base maps with turn-by-turn routing for pedestrian, cycle, and car use – which can be used where there is no mobile phone reception, unlike Google Maps or similar – the software includes paperless Geocaching support.
While it won’t be a deal-clincher for those who don’t participate in the hobby, the ability to download geocaches into the handset and view them on the go – complete with hints and comments – is a great feature for ‘cachers, and makes the whole experience a lot nicer. Sadly, without mobile connectivity, there’s no way to update the geocache list without connecting the eXplorist to a PC or Mac.
The eXplorist’s software also features impressive potential for customisation: Magellan’s OneTouch favourites menu, long a feature of the company’s in-car satnav systems, makes the transition to handheld devices in the 610 – and very welcome it is, too. Twelve different icons can be customised to create your own searches, quickly route to specific locations, or just jump to your most commonly used screens.
Other features of the software are a little less helpful. In particular, the ’3D Maps’ mode rendered the display almost unreadable, making it significantly harder to navigate than it should have been. Its false-perspective track-up viewpoint may be of more use for in-car use, but when you’re out walking we’d recommend you keep it switched off.
eXplorist 610 vs. smartphone
To really test the capabilities of the eXplorist 610, we placed it head-to-head against the GPS capabilities of Samsung’s flagship Android smartphone, the Galaxy S II.
Boot times from cold were near-identical for both devices, although in reality it’s rare that you’d be switching your smartphone on from a completely off state. Once booted, both devices were quick to lock on to the GPS satellites and provide a location, with the dedicated eXplorist 610 edging a slight lead on the Galaxy S II.
Accuracy in the wilderness was pretty similar, although we found the Galaxy S II had the edge in urban environments, thanks to its use of assisted GPS technologies and Wi-Fi location information. Both, however, were perfectly accurate during testing.
Where the eXplorist begins to move ahead of its smartphone competitor became clear when we moved off the beaten path. Because Google Maps, the mapping application used by Android smartphones, relies on a data connection to download maps, once we’d lost mobile signal the Galaxy S II was all but useless. The eXplorist, by comparison, kept on going.
While a recent update to Google Maps has added the ability to download maps for offline use, it still doesn’t allow turn-by-turn routing to be calculated unless there’s an active data connection. In an urban environment, that’s not too much of a problem – but if you find yourself in remote locations more often than not, then a dedicated GPS like the eXplorist 610 comes highly recommended.
- The software is fully-featured and the build quality is great.
- The slow processor can become frustrating when you're quickly switching modes or calculating a route.
If you already own a smartphone, check out its GPS capabilities before spending money on another device. If you're looking for something robust to take into the backwoods, however, the Magellan eXplorist 610 is unlikely to let you down - so long as you don't mind the occasional wait while the under-powered processor catches up to your demands.
If you decide to plump for the Magellan, we strongly recommend shopping around to beat Magellan's surprisingly steep £480 recommended retail price. We found the eXplorist 610 available online for around £300.