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Review: Garmin Montana 650t Multi-Purpose GPS

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Garmin Montana GPS boating

The Garmin Montana GPS is waterproof, so it may be used without worry while boating, or during wet weather.

Fred Zahradnik

Price: Three Montana models, ranging from $470 to $620, depending on model and source. Montana 650t model reviewed here: $630 - $699.

Pros:

  • True multi-purpose GPS - car, backcountry, water sports.
  • Built-in waterproof camera.
  • Dual-battery capability: Rechargeable li-ion, plus AAs.

Cons:

  • Heavy (10.2 oz) and somewhat bulky (2.9" x 5.7" x 1.4") compared to single-purpose devices.

A True Multi-Purpose GPS

I've often been asked by readers to recommend a GPS device that can be used in a car for street navigation, but will also serve as a proficient backcountry and boating navigator. Until recently, I had to advise that there were some devices that could cross over some uses, but with a lot of compromises. Then, along came the Garmin Montana, and now the recommendation is easy.

I was fortunate to be able to use the Garmin Montana 650t on an extended backcountry trip in western Wyoming, and then in the heart of the Idaho wilderness, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. My trip spanned every mode the Montana is designed for, plus some bush flying.

The bottom line here is that the Montana does what Garmin claims it will do: Provide spoken-street-name, turn-by-turn directions while mounted on a car windshield mount; serve as a proficient backcountry navigator, showing detailed topograhpic maps on a color, moving-map display; and serving as a ruggedized, waterproof GPS for just about any other activity you can do outdoors.

This all comes at a price, both in terms of the hardware itself, and the extra maps you'll need to bring out the best in the Montana. The Montana comes in three versions: The 600, 650, and the 650t. The physical specs for these models are nearly identical. The differences come in the built-in camera (the 600 model doesn't have one), memory (the 650t has 3.5GB built in, vs. 3.0GB for the others) and preloaded maps. The 600 model sells for as low as $470, while the 650t sells for about $650, including topo maps.

Garmin Montana 650t GPS Battery Life, Functions

Garmin Montana GPS topo map - moving map display

The Garmin Montana GPS shows detailed topo maps on its color, moving-map display.

Garmin

One of the problems of creating a crossover GPS has been battery life. Car GPS devices don't need much battery life because they are usually plugged into the power port. A backcountry GPS needs as much battery life as you can get, and your life may depend on it. Garmin neatly solved this in the Montana line by using a rechargeable (and easily removable and replaceable) lithium-ion battery pack with a 16-hour charge, in addition to having the capability to accept three AA batteries with a 22-hour lifespan. You may also charge the li-ion from a USB car power port charger. If you start your trip with a full charge on the li-ion battery, and carry spare AAs, you can power the Montana for a very long time. I extend battery life in the field by using the GPS only when I need it, rather than keeping it on all of the time. These battery options add weight and bulk to the Montana, but they are worth the tradeoff.

The Montanas have a 4-inch (diagonal) color-mapping resistive touchscreen that I found to be amply bright and with reasonably good resolution. Garmin wisely placed all of the functions in a scrollable home screen, including map, "where to?", compass, and mark waypoint on the first screen. Scrolling down takes you to setup, trip computer, camera, elevation plot, 3D view, photo viewer, geocaching, and more. Additional screens open up a wealth of options, including a waypoint manager, route planner, and sun-and-moon calendar. The Montana is billed as an "everything including the kitchen sink" GPS, and I certainly have to agree with that.

Using the Garmin Montana

The Garmin Montana 650t version I tested comes with Garmin's TOPO U.S. 100K maps, and I added an SD card version of Garmin's City Navigator mapset ($79) to fully enable turn-by-turn street directions and points-of-interest. You may also install a wide range of maps, from more-detailed regional topos, to whitewater and equestrian maps, to trail maps, to marine charts (see link list for maps below).

In keeping with the multi-use theme, the Montana screen automatically switches between portrait and landscape screen modes. I used the Montana in the landscape mode while driving, and its screen looked and behaved much like a Garmin auto GPS. Once you reach your destination, it's easy to switch to mapping mode, and perform all the functions you'd expect from a good color-mapping-screen handheld, including waypoints, tracks, trip computer, elevation plots, and detailed topo maps. You may also buy and download Garmin satellite imagery.

The Montana 650 and 650t models have a built-in 5-megapixel camera. The lens is on the back of the unit, and is somewhat shielded by being recessed into the case. The Camera function is easily accessible from the main menu. Tap on camera, and you are presented with a simple viewfinder with adjustable zoom. I took a number of photos with the camera and found the quality to be acceptable. The big advantage of the camera is the fact that it's always with you, and completely waterproof, unlike smartphone cameras.

Summing Up

Overall, the Garmin Montana fulfills its promise as a true, rugged and durable, multi-purpose GPS. It is nice to have one unit all set up for a big trip, with one set of charging cables and mounts to serve all nav functions, plus assurance that you'll have the battery power (with spare AAs) to go the full distance. Its construction truly is rugged and waterproof. The Montana took plenty of abuse while I used it, including ending up at the bottom of a drift boat getting kicked around, and immersed in gritty water, and it kept on working flawlessly.

The Montanas seem ideal also for off-road-vehicle trips, and any trip with any combination of road, back/dirt road, trail, river, lake or ocean travel. You just need to invest in the right set of maps and mounts (several mounts are available) to lock the Montana in to suit your needs. Backpackers need to consider the Montana's weight (10.2oz), compared with a lightweight color-mapping handheld, such as the Garmin Dakota (5.3 oz)

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