Sunday, August 7, 2016

Garmin 64st GPS, RAM mount, and mapping comments

The 60cs handheld GPS I've been using for about the last ten years finally crapped out and had to be replaced. Two years ago it came loose on a fast ride and hit the pavement at 100 km/hr, causing some kind of internal brain damage that made the unit randomly fade out and turn itself off except when connected to an external power source. That became a real nuisance (and potential risk) which I didn't want to deal with on an upcoming adventure ride (Round Algonquin Park - ride report coming soon).

It was hard choosing a new GPS: I was set on Garmin because I like their mapping tools (BaseCamp) and have found their hardware to be well made--if a little antiquated compared to even an average smart phone. The problem is Garmin offers far too many models where only minor software features differentiate many units. Most models contain a lot of unnecessary crap that is poorly designed from a usability perspective, and truly important features are either hard to use or left out altogether. The motorcycle-specific models are ridiculously overpriced: I refuse to pay ~$1100 for a device that has far less capability than a high-end smart phone that costs less. I also considered modifying a cheap car unit, but these typically lack the backcountry capabilities like displaying topo info that I want. 

So I settled on buying the updated version of my old model, now called the 64st, where the "t" refers to the splurge upgrade option for built-in detailed topo maps. There are many exhaustive reviews of this GPS online, so I'm not going to repeat that here except to add some observations based on my experience with both the older and newer models. 

First, the 64st has a significantly redesigned UI compared to its grandpa. It offers some ability to customize what screens display and in what order, as well as what details appear on each screen. This is good. However, the UI designers made a number of pointless animations and other "enhancements" that interfere with using the device efficiently. The most obvious and annoying of these is when pressing the Page button to scroll to the next screen (e.g. from Map view to Settings). There's a delay of a couple seconds while the screen animates the next view before expanding and showing it. This makes it tedious and slow to scroll through screens, especially if you're riding and quickly want to go back and forth between the Trip stats screen (speed, odometer, time, etc.) and the Map screen. Yeah, yeah, shouldn't play with the device while riding... but this is something I used to be able to do by touch, and then quickly verify through my peripheral vision. Now I have to look at the device for longer. There's more pointless interference like this throughout the design, and overall I'm not very happy with the combination of "improvements". Most seem to have been made for the sake of newness rather than making the device more functional or usable. Garmin either needs to hire User Experience designers with better skills, or let the ones they do have apply best practices that have long since been established in other industries. 

Although the 64st comes with a built-in shaded topo map of Canada, for my dual-sport riding needs I also sprung for the Backroads map on SD card. Backroads makes a series of generally excellent maps that cover all the little nooks and crannies worth exploring, and include many other details like snowmobile trails, dual-sport trails, hunting zones, and indications of Crown and private lands. It's worth carrying a printed version of the maps too. Backroads make them available printed on a tough plastic substrate that holds up well to trail abuse. Scrolling through the tiny, 1990's-resolution screen of the 64st is technically possible but not very helpful. It's a lot easier to find routes in the larger printed format. 

Another bonus is that the Backroads maps are officially supported by Garmin, so they are easily readable in Garmin's free BaseCamp software which I highly recommend for plotting adventures and reviewing tracks. However, there are some bugs in the maps that are hard to work around in BaseCamp. For instance, sometimes roads are shown as separate segments even when they should be contiguous. This is probably the result of how Backroads' mapping software automatically plots the map data. The problem is that when you try to create a route in BaseCamp that crosses one of these discontinuities, BaseCamp treats the discontinuity as impassable and plots a wild course around it. This is also a significant problem when using the 64st to follow a route you've defined and downloaded from BaseCamp: if you're not already on the route, the Garmin routing algorithm can sometimes go berserk and plot a course down a zillion side-roads. This problem isn't apparent if you're zoomed in--you only see that you're on the pink route. But if you zoom out, you see the spaghetti route and obviously something's wrong. This happened to me several times on my RAP adventure. 

I soon got into the habit of frequently zooming out on a route to make sure the algorithm hadn't gone berserk and sent me down some random path. Sometimes I found I needed to cancel my navigation altogether and re-load the route I was trying to follow, forcing the 64st to recalculate my path correctly. This is actually a significant software bug that is shared between the creators of the map datum (e.g. Backroads) and the routing algorithm designers at Garmin. 

Bottom line is that the routing feature is handy if well-planned, but don't rely on it to send you in the right direction. You need to double-check on paper or through other methods frequently to avoid potentially problematic wrong turns. It would be great if the planned (and downloaded) route never changed, and any routing changes calculated by the device showed up as a different colour so you could clearly see when you're deviating from the desired path. 

There's lots more to be said about using the combo of Garmin, BaseCamp, and Backroads effectively that could form the basis of a book. Email me if you have specific questions.

My order from GPSCity included a RAM mount cradle for the 62/64 series, arm, and triple-clamp bolt fixture for the arm. When I finally received everything on the eve of my big trip, I discovered that the cradle doesn't include a ball mount on the back. That's a separate part to order. Since there was no time to try to find one, my only option was to make one. Off to the lathe!

An aluminum table leg served as the raw material which I freehand-turned into a rough 1" ball. This is not precise machining--I had very little time to make something that did the job, so I could finish packing, tuning my route in BaseCamp, and setting up my GPS. 

Some filing and trimming made the ball look a little better, although I left it a bit rough to reduce slippage in the RAM arm. I also added some relief on the base to allow the ball to pivot in the RAM arm.

Next, I bored out a recessed hole for a 6mm bolt. 

After parting it off and some quick cleanup, the bolt fits great.

Now I needed to make a baseplate to attach the ball to the GPS holder. I rubbed some marker on the holder and then pressed it into paper to make a template, then transferred that to some 1/8" 6061 aluminum plate I keep on hand for projects like this. The aluminum was easy to cut with a jigsaw and a fine blade.

After some quick filing and drilling, the plate fit just fine with no sharp edges. 

Assembly time!

Everything fit perfectly and gripped well with the official RAM components. Just to be sure, I sprayed some bed liner rubbery stuff onto the ball for a bit of extra grip. 

As I discovered later, the cheesy little roller arm that facilitates mounting the GPS in the holder has a tendency to fall out. I got maybe 5 installation/removals before I lost the roller somewhere on the ground. RAM, you really need to fix this! Meanwhile, back to the lathe to make a more robust replacement from some scrap 1/8" threaded brass tubing I had salvaged from old electronic equipment.

First I turned it to length, then I filed a taper in the middle to match the shape of the GPS. 

This fit some tiny machine screws I had also salvaged, which I installed with blue Loctite to prevent them from vibrating out. Although my roller doesn't turn in the mount, the brass is slippery enough that the Garmin can slide right over it into place. And there's no way this roller is going to fall out! 

Making the ball mount took me an hour, and I spent another 45 minutes fiddling with different ways to make the roller from materials I had on hand.  Cheaper and faster than buying what I needed. 

Next up, putting the GPS in action on the Round Algonquin Park trip!

No comments:

Post a Comment