User Review: DeLorme Earthmate GPS PN-40
Price Paid: $399
This is a solid, but frustrating, GPS with high bang-for-the-buck value.
It has a bright display and the option to use all sorts of maps, including aerial photography and USGS topos, but it and the PC software to use its biggest features are somewhat cumbersome.
I bought the predecessor to this, the PN-20 (which was my first GPS), and it was very nifty but v-e-r-y s-l-o-w. (When I can hike faster than the screen can update, that's slow.) When DeLorme announced the PN-40, I switched and have been using it off and on for more than a year, for a combination of day hikes and backpacking trips. One of the PN-40's big selling points is its paperless geocaching, but I don't geocache.
Things I like about the PN-40:
- bright screen: the screen is bright and clear and easy to read.
- free road routing: the unit includes 1:100K topo maps of the entire US including routable roads. The included software (Topo USA) will do routing on roads and trails and transfer those routes to the PN-40.
- lots of map imagery: The unit comes with a coupon for free data imagery and you can buy a subscription from DeLorme, to have real (scanned) USGS topos, aerial imagery, etc displayed on the unit. It's really cool to have your GPS show you exactly where you are on a USGS topo, and then be able to switch to an aerial view.
- dedicated waypoint button: makes it really easy to place a waypoint Right Here.
- customer/technical support is GREAT. Sadly, I had problems with my unit, but DeLorme tech support was really knowledgable and easy to deal with.
Things I don't like about the PN-40:
- signal acquisition and retention: hiking in the SF Bay Area, which is pretty thickly forested, I have lost GPS reception or never been able to (re)acquire it several times. It's particularly bad when I haven't used the unit in more than a few days, which is most of the time -- I'm lucky if I can get out once a week (sigh). This has improved through the various software releases but it's still not as good or as reliable as my Garmin Oregon. (It has worked fine in the Sierra Nevada.)
- battery life is AWFUL. I have used both AAs and the DeLorme Li-Ion rechargeable battery in this unit. Usually a day hike (not a full day, mind you) is enough to drain a pair of AAs and I might get an overnight backpacking trip out of the Li-Ion if I'm really careful. On the plus side, it has a built-in charger for the Li-Ion so you can recharge the battery in your car while driving to and from the trailhead.
- The unit really forces you to use the DeLorme Topo USA software. If you geocache (again, I don't), they have mechanisms to get geocache data on and off the unit, but to transfer maps, routes, waypoints, etc. you need to use Topo USA. Topo USA is Windows-only (I use a Mac) and while it is incredibly powerful, it's also really hard to learn and get started with. You can't even get GPX files (standard for transferring GPS info) on and off the unit without using Topo USA, and it's not really obvious how to do so.
- You can install different imagery types, but you're restricted to what DeLorme provides. There is a mechanism to install custom user data but it requires buying DeLorme's XMap Pro software for another $100.
Things that bug me but aren't really THAT important:
- Typing (to enter waypoint names, descriptions, etc) is annoyingly slow. You have to scroll around to select each letter/number/etc. DeLorme's done the best they could by having shortcuts but that only ameliorates the pain a bit. But every GPS has this problem except for the Garmin touchscreen units.
- It's not "pretty." I find this embarrassing to admit, but my Garmin does a really nice job of presenting map information visually; it's a nice-looking map and it's easy to understand what it's presenting. The DeLorme maps are just not as smooth, not as easy to read. It's like comparing a Windows 95 display to Windows 7, or even XP -- there's nothing wrong with the former, it just doesn't look as good.
- Continuing with that theme, the 'feel' of the device is similarly clunky; this device was created by a bunch of GPS geeks who are not UI designers. There are lots of options and lots of controls and you can get the unit to work exactly the way you want it-- but there's a learning curve to get there.
In the end, I found myself liking the unit but frustrated enough by its flaws (especially the battery life) and annoyances that I wound up buying a Garmin Oregon, and I find myself using that a lot more. But the Oregon is easily twice the cost, even before you include all the map data that you get for free with the DeLorme. (And you can get a lot of legal, free mapping data for the Garmin units if you're willing to hunt a bit on the Internet.)
As I said above: the value of what DeLorme provides with the PN-40 make this a great buy, but it also has some serious drawbacks. If you can deal with those, you will find the PN-40 to be a really good unit.