Review: Garmin eTrex Legend HCx

Back in 2002 I bought my first GPS: a Garmin eTrex.  Since then I’ve had a lot of fun with it going Geocaching, geotagging photos, and general geeky finding things and logging my movements.

This week I upgraded to what I consider the best bang-for-your-buck replacement: the eTrex Legend HCx from Garmin.  I’m not going to review everything, but rather take the eTrex as a given, and see what’s changed.


Garmin eTrex Legend HCxWhy change?  The old eTrex is a great device!  But there were a few points which bugged me:

  • Limited track storage: This is the main motivator! The memory on the old eTrex is full after about a days hiking.  I want to log our entire Alaska trip this summer without having to upload to a PC between.
  • Short battery life: a pair of 2000mAh NiMh batteries last a day.
  • Limited way-point names: This is a bit of a niggly point.  In the old eTrex, way-points can only have 5 characters… this means that many of the geocaching IDs are cut off, and you have to think up naming schemes to remember e.g. a shop which you marked.
  • Proprietary cable:  I already bought the cable for ~30EUR when I got the GPS (man did that piss me off – having to pay that much for a serial cable!), but it is annoying that all data transfer is serial (what PC has Serial these days?  I had to get a USB/Serial adapter, and they are not without errors), and that the power supply pin isn’t connected, so I can’t use an external power supply (like a 12V car adapter).
  • And finally – do you ever need an excuse to get a new toy?

It’s really cool because…

  • MicroSD card! I think you can add maps and data with this too, but I’m thrilled that I can now put in a card (2GB for $12) which can store all the track data I could generate over years! The track data is stored as one GPX file per day, including time data for every point.  I haven’t worked it out yet, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever fill 2GB of tracking data.
  • USB interface – at last they have a standard interface for quick data transfer and power supply!  Plugged into a PC it is on “Garmin” (a proprietary, but documented data transfer protocol) mode which allows programs like gpsbabel to easily upload/download way-points and tracks.  In the settings, you can change to “Storage Device”, and then it is recognised by your computer as a USB mass storage device, and you have direct access to the MicroSD card within to copy the daily log files.  To top it off, it recognises when power is available over the USB cable (adapters for car are available for $6), and switches its power supply automatically – prolonging your battery life.
  • High sensitivity receiver, and WAAS enabled.  This means that under heavy foliage or between buildings signal reception is much better than with the old unit, and the WAAS means that in North America, accuracy can be up to 3m!  Even now, sitting inside the building at my desk, it still has a (weak) signal!  I’m looking forward to trying this out geocaching – so many of the caches here are in the woods, where I was lucky to get anything less than 30m accuracy, and finding a cache within a 60m diameter circle is not easy!
  • Support for Geocaching.  It’s a small bonus, but it sorts all way-points marked with the symbol “Geocache” into a separate section, and when you find it, you can click a little button which will change the symbol to “Geocache Found”, and it will disappear from the list.
  • It has the belt/bike clip as standard.  I already bought the handlebar clip mount for my old one, and this one comes with a little screw-on addition with which I can just continue using the old one.
  • Customised layout: there are loads of fields to choose from, and you can decide which ones you want to have on the screen.

Not so hot…

  • The new navigation nipple: it does make navigation the many new options much easier, and held in the left hand, the array of buttons combined with the nipple is great, but try and use it with your right hand, and you have to stretch your thumb across the front, blocking part of the display (and I have long fingers!).
  • Battery connectors: both sides are leaf springs.  Maybe they’re better now, but in my old one, after a lot of use, the leaf springs pushed back, got weak, and occasionally (when attached to the bike and hitting a bump), would disconnect completely… rather annoying.  I hope these hold up better!
  • Display isn’t very good in low light conditions.  The old display was very readable without the back-light, even in low-light conditions.  The new one is fine in sunshine, but even just indoors you have to turn on the back-light (which presumably will dramatically lower the battery life) to be able to read the display…

Data transfer

As I mentioned earlier, gpsbabel is a great little program (available for Windows, Linux, Mac, …) to transfer data to/from your GPS, or even to convert geo data between various formats (gpx, loc, kml, …).  If you’re into GPS’s and haven’t tried it yet – you should!

I’m using mine with Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex), and apart from one minor issue, everything works fine. The problem was that my user didn’t have read/write permissions for the device when it was connected, but adding this line to /etc/udev/rules.d/51-garmin.rules fixed that:

SYSFS{idVendor}=="091e", SYSFS{idProduct}=="0003", MODE="666"

For sale!

Who wants a much loved Garmin eTrex? Like I said – it’s a good solid GPS, and even comes with a data cable.  No reasonable offer will be refused!

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5 Responses to “Review: Garmin eTrex Legend HCx”

  1. Sounds like the perfect new toy for you! 🙂 *thumbsup*

  2. Thanks for the review.

    Did you push the Ubuntu patch upstream?

  3. Thanks for the tip – have entered a bug report for it:

  4. I’m contemplating getting this GPS unit, and I use Ubuntu. After using it for a few months, would you still recommend it?

  5. Only two issues I’ve had with my GPS are:

    • The glue binding the rubber grip around the GPS has turned into a sticky goo, and the rubber is coming off: a bad reaction to alkaline salt from a week in the desert (but GPS is still working fine – just not so waterproof any more till I fix it)
    • Transfer to/from the card on the built in USB is very slow (USB1.0). It’s fine for transferring the GPX files, but if you want to transfer e.g. 1GB of map data, you should take out the card and connect it with an external SD card reader.