Garmin GI 275 Finds a Home in the PA-46

Those of us with an analog attitude indicator in our PA-46 most likely have a KI 256. The Ki 256 developed a reputation over the years of wearing out – sometimes when you needed it most! This left many of us in an unenviable position. Either we swallow the hard financial pill of a full-glass upgrade to something like a G500 TXi, or we keep limping along by searching for overhauled KI 256 units. The Garmin GI 275 now gives us an in-between option: solid-state reliability in a form factor, and at a cost, that is more incremental than overwhelming.

The Garmin GI 275 can replace just about any instrument in your panel. It comes in attitude indicator, HSI, CDI, MDF, and EIS variants. If Garmin had its way, you would be buying six of them at a time!

I had the opportunity to fly a PA-46 (a 1997 Mirage) with not one, not two, but three Garmin GI 275 units installed. Here are my thoughts after spending a few hours with the units.

What I like

The units come with a crystal-clear, 2.7 inch, 480×433 resolution LCD display. This bright, high resolution eases the transition from retina display devices like iPhones and iPads at which most of us spend our time gazing. The high resolution also allows Garmin to pack the display with a nearly infinite number of features, though it’s unclear if this is an advantage (see below). Still, the brightness and resolution are impressive.

The unit’s primary interface used to control the instrument is Garmin’s traditional concentric knob arrangement. I’ve often found this interface, with its clean haptic feedback, to be both quick and satisfying. If you’ve become accustomed to navigating this way, the Garmin GI 275 will be very intuitive indeed. The lack of screen real estate relative to some of Garmin’s other products leads to awkwardness at times, but it is hard to imagine a better interface given only 2.7 inches of screen.

Things to Know

The downside to the high resolution screen is that you can cram a lot of information into a small space. This is the first thing I noticed about the primary Garmin GI 275 display. It can contain an attitude indicator, altimeter, airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, and course deviation indicator all in the same 2.7″ space! It’s truly a lot to take in when the instrument is playing it’s full role in your panel. Did I mention that you can also use the unit to control the roll and pitch modes of your autopilot?

The crammed version of the display sacrifices a lot of context that you get with larger glass panel options like the G500 or G1000. If money were no object, I might lean towards multiple Garmin GI 275 units, each playing a more specific role. Then again, if money were no object, upgrade to a G500 TXi!

The unit integrates a GPS steering function, which drives the heading mode of legacy autopilots to enable features like turn anticipation and building / flying holding patterns. While the GPS steering works well, the feature is buried in the menu system (at least by default) and takes a bit of cognitive effort to engage/disengage. When you consider that you often need to toggle this functionality in high workload terminal environments, it’s not clear whether this is an improvement on other solutions which simply mount a toggle button on the panel.

Finally, although not unique to the Garmin GI 275, the instrument supports touch screen interaction. I’ve long been skeptical of rigidly-mounted touch screens in cockpits as I find them difficult to use in rough air. Units such as Garmin’s GTN-series multifunction navigation products have offered touch interface for years. I often find myself turning the knob whenever I can in order to navigate when my finger is having trouble hitting the target in the bumps, and some features are downright inaccessible without touching the screen.

I wonder whether the interface designers at Garmin could have continued with a softkey-based design that supplements the touch screen interface? We will never know.

In Summary…

The Garmin GI 275 can be a good investment if you focus on what you are getting for the money. For example, if your KI 256 spins itself out of existence and you’re facing a replacement anyway, the Garmin GI 275 is a good bet. It might even be less expensive. Similarly, in models other than the PA-46 the Garmin GI 275 might enable you to remove the vacuum infrastructure entirely, resulting in reduced maintenance costs down the line. Who doesn’t like that?

However, if your primary motivation is to move towards a more “glass” cockpit for the sake of itself, the Garmin GI 275 probably won’t impress. For the most part, it provides no more information than you have in a standard six-pack.

Still, given the design constraints, the Garmin GI 275 is a very versatile and capable instrument. Like most instruments, what matters most is what you do with it!