Can evolution be revolution? The new Garmin GPSMap276Cx

Our director of training and GPS connoisseur Graham Jackson has remained faithful to his long-discontinued Garmin 276C, insisting that nothing better has ever been produced—until now. Here's his review of the much anticipated 276Cx. - Jonathan Hanson

Defying time is not done easily, especially in the fast-moving world of technology. Certain things defy the odds by defying time and their reasonable expiration date. Consider the Land Rover Defender for example. In its various incarnations as a 90 or a 110, later as the Defender brands of both of those, and even reaching back to the Series III, IIA, II and I, its lineage has spanned a significant portion of motorized overlanding history, yet it is still iconic and well recognized today as a highly desired overland vehicle. 

When looking at electronic technology, we can’t expect timeframes to match those of automobiles, but still there are standouts. Consider the Garmin GPSmap 276C, the best overlanding navigation GPS device ever made. Introduced in 2004 as a direct descendant of the GPSmap 176, the 276C boasted a ruggedized, water-resistant frame, a gorgeous (for the time) high-resolution color display, new (again at the time) USB connectivity and support of external memory cards. Added to this was an intuitive operating system, actual buttons that could be manipulated by feel when driving or riding, even when wearing gloves, and genuinely useful functions such as a trip computer, track back (reversing a track log), tide charts (good for camping on beaches), sunset and sunrise times (good for planning sundowners and game drives), and customizable data fields that could display an appropriate level of information for genuine navigation, and Garmin had a winner. One that has not been matched since by the company, to the point that a GPSmap 276Cs can still fetch in excess of $500 on eBay. When Garmin stopped production I bought myself a back-up unit—which may have been prescient as my original 276C was stolen in Utah on the way to military training. That unit, and the back-up, have done dozens of expeditions with me, from a London-to-Cape-Town journey, to guiding in Central America, Southern Africa, Australia, and South America—always with unassuming and steady reliability while recording hundreds of thousands of track points and thousands of waypoints, providing unerring navigation confidence from dead reckoning in the Sahara to turn-by-turn guidance in Guatemala City. 

Lest you think the 276C had no flaws, let’s look at some. Early firmware had issues acquiring satellites; later firmware would parse and truncate saved track logs. The memory cards pre-dated SD card technology of a reasonable physical size, so Garmin produced propriety cards in the then acceptable memory capacities of 64, 128 and 512 megabytes. Enough at the time, but with maps getting ever larger, even the 512MB cards have long outstayed their useful life, and with transfer speeds from the computer to the 276C of 12 hours or more to fill the largest cards, it seems there is some low-level USB protocol issue at work. Yet despite these shortcomings, I was unwilling to give up the 276C in favor of the more modern offerings for mobile devices. I’ve used the Hema maps app in Australia and Gaia Maps for the iPad alongside my 276C looking for a successor, but the schizophrenic multi-tasking world we demand our mobile devices live in is no place for a navigation platform. Both Hema and Gaia lose signal and crash at random times that are probably more to do with the GoPro app, mail, and WiFi than to do with them, but leave distressing if not dangerous holes in the track log. Sure, I use my iPhone and iPad for navigating around cities and finding breweries, but for crossing deserts or recording tracks to guide clients on, neither has shown the robust reliability that the 276C displayed on every outing. 

Less than a year ago my good friend Nick Taylor and I discussed this whole problem over a beer (yes, at a brewery found and navigated to by iPhone). As often happens when beer is involved, our solutions got grander and grander, from starting a company that would build a 276C emulation app for mobile devices all the way to actually producing the 276 with modern technology like SD cards and support for GLONASS. This was our Garmin GPSmap 276C version of bringing the Land Rover Defender back to life. It seemed like an entirely plausible and reasonable plan, the only issue being getting the rights out of Garmin. 

Well, maybe someone from Garmin was at that same brewery and overheard us, because in October Garmin released the GPSmap 276Cx. It is a complete update of the 276, retains the buttons and the interface of the original, yet incorporates just about every update we thought of and more. Needless to say, as soon as it was available I had one on the way.

Once again it has a beautiful high-resolution sunlight-readable color display, this time larger at five inches, housed in a slightly larger, but still ruggedized case. Garmin rates the water resistance to IPX7 which is great for motorcycle applications. The proprietary Garmin memory cards have been replaced with micro SD cards (hooray!) up to 32GB in size (64GB cards may be compatible, but Garmin admits to not having tested them) to complement the eight GB of internal memory. The purchase of a 276Cx includes a one-year subscription to Garmin Birds-Eye Satellite Imagery, which is like having Google Earth on your GPS and is well worth of the high memory demands it entails. 

On-board power can be provided by either the rechargeable lithium-ion battery included, or three AA batteries. Line power can either come from the USB connector or from the touch contacts on the AMPS mount provided with the GPS. Compatibility for external GPS antennas is standard, though I found the on-board antenna to be very sensitive even through a Defender windscreen, and using the HotFix ability satellite acquisition was incredibly quick. After losing reception through the Eisenhower tunnel in Colorado, the 276Cx re-acquired satellites in less than a second after exiting the tunnel. Satellite capabilities have been expanded to include the Russian GLONASS constellation, a welcome addition, though no word yet on Galileo (European constellation) compatibility. All of the customizable data fields present on the old 276 are still there, with the addition of fields for external sensors as well as the new onboard barometric altimeter and electronic compass. The trip computer, sunrise and sunset and tide information are all still in their familiar places, so no capabilities have been lost on that front. A full 250 track logs can now be stored on the GPS (the 276C could only handle 14). In addition the 276Cx can interface with mobile devices running Garmin Connect via Bluetooth. This allows real-time weather information to be displayed (so long as your mobile device has a data connection), which is a fantastic feature. With WiFi capabilities now included the 276Cx can get firmware updates (needed, see below), can update live position information on the internet, and can connect to other WiFi-capable Garmin GPS units for sharing data. Data transfer for maps can still be done over USB, on modern drivers so that gigabytes of data can be transferred at realistic speeds (minutes) rather than the days required for the last 276. All great additions to what was already a leading device. 

The trusty trip computer is still there, perfect for dead-reckoning navigation

However, as with all new things, there are already some issues with the 276Cx shown during my testing. Thefirst is somewhat cosmetic, but I find annoying, and involves the re-draw rate of the display. When driving, the screen does not refresh in the nice smooth flow we have come accustomed to on phones and tablets, but rather each re-draw is a bit of jerky, and, while not functionally problematic, it is unfortunate for a brand new device with an otherwise very nice display.

The firmware that came loaded was version 2.1, and I found I could not calibrate the electronic compass without it crashing software. Updating to version 2.3 of the firmware solved that issue, but there are still some others. One of the most-used functions on the old 276C was the Enter/Mark button that could be held down to drop a waypoint at the current location. I used it all the time for marking intersections, gates, restaurants, embassies, you name it. While the function exists on the 276Cx, the waypoint is, bizarrely, not created at your current location, rather at some other random-seeming location back on your track log, sometimes miles back. The only way I found to fix this was to offset the current location by a few meters using the cursor, and then drop the waypoint at that location. Certainly not the easy seamless feature it was on the original 276. Also, worryingly, I found that the track log would stop recording when I switched from the map page to any other page, such as the trip computer. When I returned to the map page the track log would resume, but my seamless track log (one of my most lauded 276 features) was broken. 

 New is the on-board barometric altimeter and its elevation profile page

My final gripe is the information provided for the active track log. I love the addition of elapsed time, moving average, min and max elevation etc., but I really miss the progress bar that marks how near-to-full the active track log is. Even a percentage would be welcome, but the new active track page does not show anything like that except total track points—which we can relate to the 20,000 point maximum for a saved track if we remember the 20,000 part. 

I really hope these issues can be fixed in software and will just require a firmware update. On the hardware side, I’m a little leery of the touch contacts interface on the on the mounting bracket. It provides power and communication to the GPS, but I have never been a big fan of touch contacts as opposed to a proven plug and pin contact for reliable connection on overland vehicles. Only time will tell on that, and I will report back because I think the 276Cx is going to replace my 276C as the primary navigation tool on all my upcoming trips.

If Land Rover could produce as solid a contender for the new Defender as the 276Cx is for the 276C, then all would be right with the world. Small issues notwithstanding, the GPSmap 276Cx is now the best GPS on the market for overlanding; a direct replacement of the GPSmap 276C. Bravo Garmin.

Find the 276Cx here.