Review: Garmin GPSMap 78 handheld marine GPS

Does what it’s supposed to but too many tradeoffs

Full moon over the Götheborg, wintering in Barthelona

After 15 years of slow but reliable service, my Garmin GPSMap 76CX died. It was time to replace this 15 year old piece of technology with something more up to date. And by “more up to date” I mean 13 year old technology.


Pros & cons

What to expect

The GPSMap 78 originally came out in 2010. Same high price but less old technology.

GPSMap 78
Behold the Garmin GPSMap 78

What are the differences between the 76 and the 78? Not much, really.

What hasn’t changed since the 76CX

What has changed

The display

The display is small, only 6.5 cm/2.5 inches diagonally, and low resolution. But it’s reasonably sharp and clear. Unlike your smartphone’s display, the GPSMap 78 is easier to read in bright light. In broad daylight, you don’t even need the backlight, which gives you a bit more time on a battery charge.

Getting to the backlight control is unintuitive: press and hold the power button for a while to control screen brightness.

GPSMap 78 screen
The display looks great in sunlight

Connecting to the GPSMap 78

You get sockets for USB mini-B socket, antenna, and serial. Under the batteries you can slip in an SD card. They’re all under waterproof covers.

Interior of the GPSMap 78
Inside the Garmin GPSMap 78

The USB mini-B is old and rare. If you lose the included cable, you probably don’t have another lying around. If you see one next to the energy drinks at the gas station counter, buy a couple.

The serial port can be configured for NMEA and other connections.

Owner’s manual and software

The Owner’s Manual is terse and incomplete. For example, it omits crucial info about the map formats that it supports.

The manual mentions only the BaseCamp software to manage your device from your laptop or desktop computer. BaseCamp has a bunch of tools to manage maps, waypoints, tracks, routes, and so on.

But Basecamp is incomplete. You can customize it by choosing an Activity like Hiking, Driving, and so on. But marine navigation is conspicuously absent for a device marketed for marine use.

And Basecamp is clunky. Despite the bigger screen, keyboard, and trackpad/mouse on your computer, some tasks are actually easier to do on the device. I find it easier to create routes on my device. Another example: in the Device Information window, clicking the Check for Updates button opens the Garmin support page where you have to find the correct link for your device yourself. I spent too much money to figure out something that should be automatic.

The Owner's Manual doesn't mention Express software, another desktop app to manage your device. Express actually does the things that Basecamp doesn’t, like firmware updates.

You can use any useful charts, as long as they’re Garmin charts

You're pretty much locked in to Garmin’s nautical charts. And they aren’t cheap. And the only practical choice for most sailors is to use the even more expensive subscription.

As far as I can tell, there is something called Custom Maps, which is just a dismal feature for a small JPG file with geographical info in the form of KML.

I could be wrong about this because the BaseCamp online help is unclear. And the steps to create a custom map requires you to to download a 3rd party app to generate the KML info. Neither BaseCamp nor Express have features to do this.

Finding the right nautical charts is confusing. Navigating the choices (see what I did there?) and device compatibility on the Garmin online store takes time. For charts of the Great Lakes in Canada, I spent about 20 minutes before I chose what seems to be what I need. Even then I’m still not sure if I should have chosen a different digital chart. The BaseCamp software has a command to buy maps online but it just opens a tab in your web browser for the main Garmin page, again leaving me to navigate (ha!) the web page myself.

Buying digital charts from Garmin gives you the choice of waiting for the delivery of a physical microSD card with preloaded charts or download the charts yourself.

Speaking of waiting, downloading and installing at a marina with typical marina wifi performance (where “performance” means “a bit faster than a dial-up connection”) meant keeping my GPSMap 78 device on and plugged into my laptop for 10 hours (!) while Express takes its sweet time. Way to ignore that sailors have spotty online access, Garmin. At least the device is powered by USB while it’s plugged in. If you’re using a laptop, make sure it’s plugged into shore power.

For no obvious reason, Express won’t download a purchased chart onto your laptop unless a Garmin device is on and plugged into it.

And whatever you do, for the love off all beauty in this world, do not quit the Express app or let you computer go to sleep then expect Express to resume downloading your charts later. You’ll have to start over.

Despite several tries, I couldn’t get it downloaded. I contacted the Garmin support via chat. They told me it’s probably the SD card I bought. Back to store, another $30.

I still couldn’t get it downloaded. I contacted Garmin chat support again. This time I asked for an exchange for the preloaded SD card. They told me to call.

I called.

Phone Support.

Before I even finished explaining my problem, the kind support person was already suggesting an exchange for an SD card. She put me on hold for about a minute then proposed something even better: she would give me a refund for my digital chart and recommended, a third-party retailer that’s closer to Montreal with a lower price for a pre-loaded SD card.

Good enough, I guess

Yes, the Garmin GPSMap 78 does what it’s supposed to. It is indeed waterproof, with a long battery life, and it does its job competently despite its outdated, clunky user interface. But man alive, does Garmin enjoy charging a shitload of cash for a confusing, frustrating experience to set it up.

Garmin has discontinued the 78 and replaced it with the GPSMap 79. Unfortunately, this “latest” generation continues the pattern of a tiny update to its specs with an outsized price.

At your service

Humbly yours,
Supreme Purser