GPSMap 66s Mini-Review

This mini-review is aimed at anyone who is already familiar with Garmin outdoor devices or fitness trackers, and is looking to upgrade an older model like the GPSMap 64 or 62. I’ve used Garmin devices to plan road trips and monitor my fitness for many years, and as such this piece is aimed at people with similar experience rather than those who are altogether new to the brand. I’m reviewing a production unit with latest firmware approximately one year after the model was released, and paid for it with my own money. Finally, I’m not going to cover all the features nor go into great detail as there are already plenty of reviews out there which do just that. Let’s get started.

Front-on image of Garmin's new GPSMap 66s
Bigger screen, more pixels.

Surprise! More Awful Software

Anybody who’s owned a Garmin device of any kind will be familiar with the company’s approach of rolling out new features quickly rather than testing them properly, and the 66 is no exception. When this unit was released a year ago it was barely useable, leading to a glut of negative YouTube videos and angry reviews. 12 months on and we’re on version 3.40, with the list of bugs squashed (and more later) in each interim release as long as your arm. Still, at least it no longer switches itself off randomly.

Now we get FIT files too!

There is however one fly in the ointment, and it’s a whopper: the 66 thinks it’s a fitness tracker. Instead of just recording GPX tracks whenever it’s turned on, the GPSMap 66 also records an “Activity” – like running, cycling or driving, but mostly just ‘other’. This is by design, and it’s extremely frustrating because I already have a preferred device for all of those things, a device which in most cases is infinitely better suited to that task. Why the frustration? Because you can’t make use of any of the device’s connectivity features – Bluetooth and Wifi – without it uploading a constant stream of ‘activities’ to your Garmin Connect profile, which then pushes the data out to any linked accounts like My Fitness Pal or Apple Health.

To make matters worse, there are three internal counters which can’t be reset unless you perform a full hardware blitz: total ascent, total descent, and calories. In practical terms this means that if you use the GPSMap 66 to record a non-physical activity like a ride in a hot air balloon or a cross-country drive then you are awarded an absurd amount of calories for something you didn’t do. And those calories pile up. Keep your GPS on during a 6 hour game drive because you want to geotag the safari photos later in Lightroom, and My Fitness Pal tells all your buddies you’ve burned 16,000 calories doing ‘other’. Use the GPSMap 66 for a 2 mile hike next day and that activity alone burns 16,350 calories instead of 350, because you’re still carrying the ‘gains’ from that game drive, and every single thing you ever did with the device.

Now if you don’t use a fitness tracker then you probably don’t care about the constant influx of erroneous calories, and may happily use the 66’s connected features to display notifications or perform wireless firmware updates. But I do use a fitness tracker, an expensive Garmin one at that, and can’t be doing with the constant stream of physiological fantasy that the 66 pukes into my activity stream, doing christ-knows-what with my hard-earned VO2 Max and Lactate Threshold metrics.

Screenshot showing a choice between FIT and FIT with GPX as output format on Garmin's GPSMap 66
No GPX only option. Damn you, Garmin.

Until Garmin sort this mess out I’m leaving Bluetooth and WiFi switched off, which is a real shame since I was hoping to use the device to follow GPX routes downloaded / created with my iOS devices. Bizarrely I didn’t see a single mention of this shift in approach from outdoor GPS to fitness tracker in any of my pre-purchase research, presumably most reviewers go too deep and miss the wood for the trees, or simply regurgitate spec sheets in the endless quest for content.

Either way, with wireless communications disabled you’re back to good old USB for transferring data or performing the endless god-I-hope-they’ve-fixed-it-this-time software updates, and on that note there’s a tiny little ray of sunshine. Because Garmin Express allows you to specify a Connect account for each device that’s registered with Express, as opposed to one account for the whole application – as you might reasonably expect.

Originally I thought that the renewed authentication requests coming from Express when adding a device was just another undocumented feature, but it’s turned out to be my salvation. Now I have two Garmin accounts; one for use with production devices that I care about, and one for the GPSMap 66, allowing me to record and save GPX tracks, ignore those unwanted activities, and still check for software updates. Sadly this only seems to work on MacOS Garmin Express and not on iOS Garmin Connect, where any wireless devices paired with your phone are added to whichever Connect account the app is signed into.

The Good Stuff

Happily, Garmin’s hardware team is on a totally different planet from their software division, and has managed to crank out some sterling work in the GPSMap 66. The new unit is rugged as ever, retains the familiar button layout on the front panel and external quad-helix antenna on top, as well as the useful mounting rail round the back – though sadly now it’s made of plastic rather than aluminium.

A new Screen

Headlining the way is a much improved screen, pushing resolution to 240 x 400 pixels / 3.8 x 6.3 cm from the predecessor’s 160 x 240 pixels / 3.6 x 5.5 cm and thereby narrowing the usability gap between the rugged GPSMap series and ubiquitous, fragile smartphones. And, although we’re not quite on par with the automotive GPS units suction-cupped to many windscreens, for me this screen upgrade means that I can use the 66 to navigate routes created in Basecamp. Previously I’d have lugged along my Motorrad Navigator + suction mount in order to follow predefined routes, or fudged my way along using a more basic point-to-point mapping app on the smartphone, since the low resolution screen of the 64 series just didn’t work in real world traffic. The GPSMap 66 however lets me do both, provided I’ve downloaded some routable maps in advance.

Clearer screen with permanent satellite signal and battery level indicators – nice!

Although the LCD is still covered by a relatively soft plastic panel, it’s now sufficiently recessed to allow the addition of a cheap, tempered glass screen protector without protruding from the surrounding bezels, addressing a major niggle I had with the 64 series. I’ve added such a screen protector and also a silicone skin to further increase this screen recess, because I usually forget that I’ve clipped my GPS to a backpack strap until I take off said backpack only to dump it GPS-first onto gravel. Although my 64 series remained functional, it aged pretty quickly thanks to my clumsiness, and the design of the 66 looks like it’ll do well here.

The only critical aspect of the new screen is the user interface, which is a mix of older Garmins’ matrix layout and the page ribbon we’re used to from the 64. It’s hard to say exactly what’s up with this, but it has the vague feel of being churned out by a tired designer on their way home one evening, and they haven’t gotten around to polishing it yet. Hopefully one day.

Improved Buttons

Thankfully we’ve not been given a touchscreen interface on this new unit, which is great news if you like to wear gloves or need to be out in all weather. The layout and functionality of the main buttons is the same as before, with the only real change being the relocation of the power button from the right-hand side to the top of the unit, next to the antenna. When I first read that this button would be the only way to wake the device from power save mode or unlock a locked screen I wasn’t sure how well that would work in practice, but I’m pleased to say that it appears to be an improvement over previous GPSMap series. I often use a handheld GPS to record tracks for geotagging photos, tossing the unit into my camera bag after switching it into power save mode at the start of the day, and not having it ‘wake up’ whenever any button is pressed conserves valuable battery power.

Live Stuff

If you pair the 66 with your smartphone you get access to a number of online features, like weather forecasts and the ability to search for and log live geocaches, but I don’t see any real value here. Most people already have a preferred weather service on their smartphone if they care about that kind of thing, and the geocaching feature is not much use unless you enjoy the excruciating process of entering text using Garmin’s joystick keyboard. Although, since we now have Bluetooth, maybe support for external keyboards is only a firmware update away?

Wrapping up the online offerings is the inclusion of BirdsEye Imagery, now free of charge, either directly from the unit or via Basecamp. I’ve used it on and off with the 64 during the first year of device ownership, but only because it was free at the time. There may be times when access to low-resolution aerial imagery is useful, but I’m guessing that Garmin made so little money from it that they decided there was more value in crowing about the fact that it’s now free with the 66.

Small Stuff

The ancient mini-USB connector from previous iterations has been updated to … micro-USB. And will be seen as equally ancient in a year or two. Why couldn’t we have USB-C instead?

The last thing I can think of for this mini-review is the addition of a small LED torch around the back, which is operated exclusively via a menu and comes with several flashing modes, including an SOS pattern. I guess this might be useful in a pinch, though most folks spending this kind of money on a ruggedised outdoor GPS tend to already own a flashlight.

Wrapping Up

Garmin’s GPSMap 66 is a mixed-bag upgrade from the 64 series. The hardware is significantly improved and includes a whole host of new connectivity, but it’s held back by half-baked features and poorly written software. If you’re looking for a solid handheld GPS device for hiking or just tagging your photos, the 64 series is still available and makes a lot more sense for the money. If you already own the 64 series and are thinking of upgrading because you want a bigger screen and connected features, be aware that the 66 will mess with your existing Garmin Connect profile and cause you to swear a lot.