Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Satmap Active 12 Review

Satmap Active 12 - Cost including full UK 1:50K mapping £400.00 Current retail price around £450.00

I bought this Satmap Active 12 prior to release as part of the Beta Testing program in November 2013.

Buying Experience
I got the Satmap 12 from Above and Beyond and found the buying process was good.  I have to say however, I was not too happy about the fact they took payment from my credit card before they got the unit in stock.  In fact I received my credit card bill with the unit on it well before delivery!
First Impressions
To start with my experience was not good due to the fact it had to go back twice when the update process caused a fatal issue with the unit.  Satmap however were quick to deal with the problem. 

This incidentally brings me to the subject of Beta testing.  At no stage was I asked for an opinion about the unit, nor was any form of verbal, or written feedback requested.  In reality Beta testing for me simply meant buying a GPS with unfinished software on it and then uploading updates as they became available.  

Review based on 1 year of regular use since November 2013
The first thing I need to say is I am no GPS expert and I actually enjoy map reading using paper maps and as such have resisted using GPS mapping software for years.  That said I do a lot of mountain walking on my own, very often in the dark, either when heading up a mountain to catch the early morning light, or indeed, heading down in the dark after a sunset.  I therefore got the Satmap 12 to make life that little bit easier and to use as a backup for the inevitable navigation difficulties (ok cock ups) I sometimes experience when navigating in the mountains at night. 

The unit has also been used for the odd Geocache and for road/mountain biking.

Hunting down the odd Geocache was a good way to get to know the unit

In Use
On the whole it is a decent piece of kit, although there are several niggles.

For example in anything bordering on wet weather damp easily gets between screen protector and the screen itself, which obviously affects viewing the unit.  Removing the protective screen is not that easy in the field so you either put up with it, or remove the protector altogether and then risk scratching the screen.  It is not a serious issue as far as reading the mapping goes, but does mean you have to remove the cover at some stage to ensure the screen has dried out.  The unit of course is only weather resistant, not waterproof, but even so if the screen cover joint is hit by a few drops it becomes a problem. It can also be an issue in damp misty conditions as well.  If it bothers you too much then a separate protective case can be purchased at additional cost.

Another associated problem is that dust and other debris can easily get between the screen protector and the screen.  This really hacks me off as I find it distracting in certain light conditions.  Would it really have been so difficult and expensive to add a seal?

The unit comes supplied with a rechargeable battery unit and a separate battery carrier, in which you can add 3AA batteries should the rechargeable battery become discharged.  One of the concerns I have with the plugging and unplugging of each battery pack is that the plug is so tiny you end up pulling on the wires rather than the plug.  It is also rather fiddly and a complete pain when it is cold and windy.  Why a simpler click system, similar to say a camera, or mobile phone was not used I don't know. 

Charging/Download cable
This has a 90-degree bend at the Satmap end of the plug and is of very poor quality and has already split.  I do not incidentally unplug it by pulling on the cable itself. To deal with this I have simply swapped it for a cable with a straight plug.  

On the subject of charging, the unit also switches on and goes through the full boot process when you plug in the charger instead of simply charging the unit.  I got caught out the first time when I simply put the unit away after charging only to find out the battery was flat when I came to use it.     

Having read a number of magazine reviews, many of which appear to have been written quite soon after the release, it amazes me that nobody has mentioned some of these niggles.  Actually no it doesn't, using something for a couple of weeks is not really a review is it.

Unit Operation
The OS mapping software comes on SD card which simply clicks into the side of the unit.  The clarity of the High-Resolution HVGA screen is excellent.  A pal of mine has the  Active10 and there is a clear improvement here. 

Using the large orange buttons to navigate the various menus is pretty straight-forward and fairly intuitive once you understand the terminology.

The unit is also relatively quick to boot up, load mapping from the card and find satellites (average 2-4 minutes).  This does appear to be an improvement when compared to the Active 10 a friend of mine has.

One slight negative is that sometimes the software seems to run very slowly for no identifiable reason and navigating around the map can be frustrating when you move the joystick, but the map hardly scrolls.  Tiling is also quite bad when this happens.  That said I use this unit week in week out and it has not become a serious issue for me.  I assume this will be resolved in future software upgrades.

Testing Limitations
I only use a fraction of the functions available on this unit and therefore cannot comment on such things as paperless geocaching, detailed route planning, barometric elevation, bluetooth and peer-to-peer sharing for example.

My experience of the mapping software is limited to the OS 1:50,000 maps.

I have yet to try updating the software and as I mentioned earlier I did have some serious issues with the upgrade process during beta testing and the unit had to go back twice.  However this was using a different "Light" update process to the Satsync process users now go through and I was assured this would no longer pose a problem. 

In Short

  • The high res screen also means I don't have to keep putting reading glasses on to see the detail.
  • Orange buttons are easy to see in the dark and fairly easy to use with gloves that are not too bulky
  • Software and mapping fairly straight forward to operate
  • Additional mapping such as OS 1:25K is available on SD cards
  • Rechargeable battery life is good and once discharged it is possible to replace this with 3 AA standard, or Lithium batteries using a separate carrier (supplied with the unit)
  • Compass can be calibrated for use on a bike.

  • Relatively high cost of unit
  • Additional mapping seems expensive.
  • Changing the battery carrier is a pain due to the tiny plug and you end up pulling on the wires.
  • Screen protector is poorly designed and allows dust, damp and water between it and the screen.
  • Design of the charging/power cable is poor quality and design
  • The unit also switches on and goes through the full boot process when charging instead of simply charging the unit. 

All said I think this is a decent unit and the positives certainly outweigh any negatives.

Rating 4 out of 5

Important information for those new to mountain navigation.
If you are new to walking, especially in a mountain environment, it is important to recognise a GPS unit of any kind is not a replacement for a paper map and compass, along with the ability to navigate using them.

Batteries will discharge quicker in cold weather and you need to carry spares.

If only using the 1:50 mapping software that comes with the unit as standard, a lot of detail such as steep ground and crags for example will not necessarily be obvious.

Regardless of the mapping just like a paper map you still need the ability to read map contours, recognise slope aspect and be able to plan your route, taking into consideration your speed and the fact you may need to navigate around hazards rather than walk on straight A to B bearings to reach your objective.

Text/imagery copyright David Forster


  1. Good and useful review.

    I prefer map and compass but there's no doubt GPSs have their uses and having used the SatMap10 for some years I too recently bought the 12 from Above and Beyond. The first one died a few hours after charging and wouldn’t work with AA batteries either, so I returned it and got a replacement within two days.

    I've not experienced the problems you've had with the screen protectors and on my unit at least, removing them is very easy - pull the top away and the rest follows. I completely agree about the fragility and awkwardness of connectors for the battery cradle and rechargeable Li-Pol which really needs addressing. Likewise the charging/power cable: the SatMap10 came with a straight connector and why they changed it is beyond me.

    In wet weather I use an Aquapac.

    When I tried to update the software on the 12 using Satsync it failed time and time again but I got excellent service from SatMap who sent the update on SD card and even included one for the 10 which my wife uses. I noticed while using it the following day that all my settings had been changed which, I suppose, I should have checked after the updating process, but didn’t.

    One feature I do like is the ability to get a magnetic bearing quickly (the update had reverted the reading to Grid) by moving the location icon to where you want to go. The reading can then be transferred to a compass and I’ve found useful in wild weather.

    As you rightly point out though, having a GPS doesn’t negate the need for navigational skills. A few years back a group got lost descending Ben Lomond and although they had a GPS unit with them and were able to give the MRT their location, they had no idea how to use this information to extricate themselves!

    1. Thanks for the info regarding your own experience with the Active 12. Glad I am not the only one who had update issues either. The removal of the cover on mine takes a fair bit of force and I am wondering if I may have a dodgy cover, especially if you don't suffer from dust problems. That said my mate has a 10 and he experiences dust between protector and cover as well, although not as bad as me. I am much more careful in wet weather and now cover the unit at the first hint of rain. I think I expected weather resistant to mean coping with the odd light shower though. Good tip regarding the magnetic bearing, thanks for that.
      Cheers, David

  2. I have the 10 and it still won't work expedition on my Mac. The number of times Satmap have tried to fix it are endless and it still doesn't work. Although my unit works OK I know a blogger, who may comment himself if he reads it, but in short 2 useless 12 units and numerous useless and incorrectly labeled SD cards. Satmap have failed to sort out all the issues so he has bought a different GPS units and given up with Satmap. All rather sad.

    1. Hi Alan, sorry to read of your issues, it really is a pain when you pay out a fair amount for kit that does not do what you expect. I have read a couple of reviews where the buyer has had problems straight out of the box. It brings into question just how much genuine testing prior to release is actually done.

  3. I would be interested to know how long it takes from switching it on to gaining Full satellite lock. Mine takes about 3 minutes but JJ’s took about 14. (And sorry it was a 10 and not a 12 that he bought). You can read the horror story here.

    1. Hi Alan, my Active 12 takes 2-4 minutes. I have just tested it in the house placed on a windowsill and it has taken a few seconds under 3 minutes including satellites. I have had some occasions where it's taken a great deal longer and assumed it to be atmospherics, trees in a car park or whatever. In general I switch it on while lacing up my boots, have a gear faff and its good to go. My mates active 10 on the other hand sometimes takes 10 minutes plus.

      Just had a look at the link, crikey, it would appear their build quality is rather variable. I would have thought with issues like that he should have been given a full refund. Very worrying.

      Cheers, David