Sat
Jun 23 2007
12:57 pm

We had been talking about getting a portable GPS for a while (we get lost a lot!). On long road trips we've used notebook PC based systems that you can get for around $100 with a GPS antenna and software (e.g. Microsoft Streets or DeLorme Street Atlas). They're OK (and great for trip planning) but not very convenient to use in the car.

Some friends who travel a lot got a portable touchscreen GPS a year or so ago, and it was pretty neat but I wasn't yet convinced.

Factory installed navigation systems were options on the last couple of cars we bought, but cost anywhere from $1500 on up and aren't portable. Plus in one vehicle you had to buy a package that included a backseat DVD player that we would never use and that I would never buy just on principle (look out the window or read a book if you're bored!).

After getting lost a couple of times recently (and saying "maybe we should have gotten the GPS navigator option"), even the Mrs. was enthusiastic about the idea. So I got to looking at the latest crop of handheld portable GPS systems.

The Garmin nüvi looks to be a breakthrough consumer GPS product, and fits the bill nicely for us.

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From everything I read, Garmin seems to have the best offerings. I had pretty much settled on the entry-level Garmin nüvi 200, but the Mrs. wanted to see it and play with some different models to be sure, so we went to Best Buy to check out the lineup. Sure enough, the nüvi 200 screen is smaller and a little harder to use than I expected. The nüvi 600 series has a larger "wide screen" display and some extra features that were appealing. So we ended up with a nüvi 650.

The package comes with a dashboard mounting kit (which we don't use), a USB cable, and a 12 volt cigarette lighter power adapter. The lithium-ion battery is built-in, and charges up quickly on the 12 volt adapter. It also charges via the USB cable when hooked up to your computer.

It works out of the box, with no software downloading or configuring or anything. Just turn it on, tell it where you want to go, and a few seconds later it tells you how to get there.

All of the Garmin nüvi models use the same basic software, touchscreen menus, maps, and points of interest database (with more than 6 million entries!). All have a USB adapter and SD card slots for memory expansion or plug-in maps and travel guides. As you go up in models (and price) they add features such as more built-in maps, MP3 players, JPG picture viewers, real-time traffic updates, and more.

Garmin has recently added a "widescreen" version of the 200 series, which solves our main complaint about the screen size. The feature that sold us on the 650, though, was that it includes the street name on audible driving instructions. So it says, for example, "Turn Right onto Kingston Pike in 100 feet" instead of "Turn right in 100 feet." That may not sound like a big deal, but when you're approaching a busy intersection past multiple side streets, it's a huge advantage being able to verify which street by looking at the street signs instead of guessing, especially in unfamiliar territory.

Another nice feature is an aux/headphone out jack that lets you plug it in to your car stereo to play MP3 files and hear driving instructions over your car speakers. This is handy, especially if you plan to use the MP3 player (which I probably won't). The built-in speakers work fine for driving instructions and there are a variety of voices from which you can choose. One tip: to get street names in your driving instructions, you have to select a voice that has "TTS" (text to speech) in the name, or you won't hear the street names. We accidentally set it to one that didn't have TTS and thought our unit was defective.

The "Travel Kit" has a proprietary subscription-based books-on-audio player, a rudimentary MP3 player, picture viewer, calculator, currency converter, unit converter, world clock, and optional language dictionaries and travel guides. Some of that seems useful, especially the language dictionaries if you're traveling overseas.

Note: If you don't need the wide screen option, the nüvi 350 model is otherwise identical in features, including the spoken street names (highly recommended) for about $100 less.

The next models up from the 650 also include a Bluetooth interface that lets you use it as a speakerphone for your cellphone and download your cellphone address book for touchscreen calling, and an FM transmitter for sending MP3 and driving direction audio to your car radio. I don't need the Bluetooth or the FM option, so we saved about $200. Yes, the upgrades from model to model are expensive!

It comes with Garmin's City Navigator North America NT v8 maps preloaded, which are based on Navteq maps. The maps seem pretty accurate, but they are about two years old. Garmin says they will be updating them later in the year. I'm not clear on whether there will be a charge for the update.

The nüvi provides just about every imaginable way possible to pick your destination. You can enter an address, pick a city, enter the latitude/longitude, find it on the map, select from the millions of points of interest such as hotels, restaurants, banks/ATMs, parks, tourist attractions, etc. (either near where you are, in another city, along your route, or at your destination), or select from optional travel guides, your stored "favorites" or recent destinations. There's also a button for "home", so no matter where you are you can find your way back with one touch.

As with any mapping/routing software, it's not perfect. It doesn't know about roads that have closed or new roads that have opened since the map database was created, so it can get confused. But overall it does a pretty good job, and recovers eventually if it (or you) get lost. (Garmin has a web page where users can submit errors and updates.) The web-based GPS Magazine tested the routing software for Garmin v. the two top competitors, and Garmin came out on top in all their tests.

One complaint is the number of "waypoints" it provides. It advertises "500 waypoints," but there's a problem with the terminology. To me, this means how many stops you can include in a trip route. Unfortunately, Garmin calls these "via stops" and only allows one. What it calls "waypoints" are simply remembered locations (or "favorites"). With PC based systems (and some other handhelds) you can plan a road trip with, for example, all your vacation stops mapped out in one big round-trip route. This is not possible with the nüvi. Instead, you navigate to the first one, set your next destination, and so on.

This sounds limiting at first, but the reality is that whenever we've planned a complicated trip like that we usually throw out the plan after a day or two, taking side trips, skipping destination, etc. So the nüvi is a practical solution that works fine for how you will likely use it, and it makes the software less complicated, too. On the plus side, you can easily pick from the built-in points of interest and add them to your favorites, and they have free software to download your own POIs or POIs from other providers.

The Tour Guide feature looks interesting, too. And for the seriously obsessed/paranoid, you can even subscribe to red-light camera and speed trap databases, and the nüvi will announce when you're nearing one.

The only other minor complaint is that it doesn't show your elevation on any of the map or driving displays. I discovered, though, that you can touch the satellite signal strength meter and it shows the location of all the satellites it is using and their location, along with your current latitude, longitude, and elevation. This info should be more easily accessible.

So overall we are very pleased with the Garmin nüvi, and would highly recommend it if you are looking for a sophisticated, easy to use handheld GPS navigation toy. Shop around, though. You can do a lot better on price than you will at Best Buy. We got ours there anyway, because they had lots of brands and models to play around with and someone who could answer our questions, and I don't mind paying for that.

UPDATE: Donald Sensing reviews a less expensive alternative. Michael Silence don't need no stinkin' directions.

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APBIDDLE's picture

Garmin 650

I am a recently retired airline pilot, and flew planes with GPS systems. That completely revolutionizes how you navigate, and I find the 650 does the same for driving. I find I don't have to allow as much extra time to fumble for a new address, though as in flying, you need to keep situational awareness. I have never had it do a bad routing, but sometimes it will pick one which is by a small amount not the quickest. Also, the return route on rare occasions may be very different from the way you got there. Recently, I found that to get to the same destination, I got a different routing from the motel than from a restaurant 200 ft from the motel which you had to drive by. Both good routings though. Be sure to check for software updates monthly or so, as they are rapidly fixing bugs and adding a few features.

michael kaplan's picture

"After getting lost a couple

"After getting lost a couple of times recently .."

you may either be travelling too much or going to the wrong places ..

R. Neal's picture

you may either be traveling

you may either be traveling too much or going to the wrong places ..

Heh. Probably. But truth is I have absolutely no sense of direction. You could take me 20 feet off the trail, blindfold me and spin me around three times and let me loose, and the bears would find my body before the rescuers.

Most of the cars we've owned recently at least had an electronic compass that would tell you the general direction you were traveling. That helped me get back to civilization on many occasions.

Our Prius has nothing (unless you buy the expensive nav system), so I get lost more frequently in it. That's probably what got me interested in GPS, although I did consider one of those $5 floating dashboard compass deals.

P.S. The DeLorme Gazetteer roadmap/atlas books are great. I keep one for Tennessee in the car all the time. I've also got them for Montana and Florida, although those are out of date. Not sure I'll need them any more with the GPS toy, but they do have more detail about parks, campgrounds, boat launches, wildlife preserves, backroads, dirt roads, logging roads, and the like.

michael kaplan's picture

"Our Prius has nothing

"Our Prius has nothing (unless you buy the expensive nav system)"

But the Prius has a back-up camera, so at least you won't get lost going in reverse ..

Seriously, I need to take back what I said previously. Your Redflex alert is the best use I've ever heard for one of these devices. I can already imagine the Aussies going bankrupt. Have you patented the invention as a system?

Socialist With A Gold Card's picture

Garmin rocks

Excellent review. I've been a fan of Garmin products for a while now; I've owned an iQue 3600 for several years, and it's never steered me wrong (except, as you noted, when the map database is out of date). The iQue is Palm-based, so it integrates the GPS database with the Palm address book and calendar (which can be synchronized with Outlook). The device simply rocks, and it continues to amaze me that it's never been all that popular. Although the 3600 has been discontinued, the current iQue 3000 follows the same design idea.

As you noted, the "via stops" are intended to be little more than markers along a trip route; these are handy for marking out a customized route or modifying the route calculated by the GPS software. It's a shame the nüvi won't let you plan out a route beforehand and store it.

Once you've followed a route, though, does it give you the option to save that route (or track) for future re-use? That's been a super-handy feature on the iQue.

I've driven extensively with my iQue both in the US and all over Europe; it's been dependable, accurate, stable, and well-performing for almost five years now. I'm a Garmin convert. Maps are soooo 20th century ...

Side note: Min Kao, the CEO and founder of Garmin, is an alumnus of UT-Knoxville. He just donated scads of money for the new engineering building; his $17.5 million gift was the largest private donation in UT's history.

--Socialist With A Gold Card


"I'm a socialist with a gold card. I firmly believe we need a revolution; I'm just concerned that I won't be able to get good moisturizer afterwards." -- Brett Butler

R. Neal's picture

Once you've followed a

Once you've followed a route, though, does it give you the option to save that route (or track) for future re-use?

Nope. Doesn't have "tracking" of any kind or any way to save routes. You can, however, easily save your current location to "favorites" as a waypoint at any point along the route.

Wow, I had forgotten all about Min Kao. I remember reading about that, thanks for the reminder.

Opinari's picture

TomTom Navigator

I use TomTom Navigator and a Bluetooth GPS unit mounted to my dash. The TomTom maps run off an SD card on my Treo. The system allows me to save routes, locations, and even downloads weather and traffic information. When I bought a GPS, I was looking mainly for PDA/Bluetooth solutions, but judging from your review, if I ever need a dedicated unit, the Garmin line will be a good place to start.

R. Neal's picture

The main advantage of the

The main advantage of the TomTom handheld unit seems to be that it has many (most) of the features of the higher end Garmin units for a much lower price. The main complaint I've seen is the quality of the maps and the routing software, and the support. It still sounds like a pretty good value for the money, though.

Eleanor A's picture

Excellent. Thanks Randy.

Excellent. Thanks Randy. I've been idly considering buying one of these, due also to the no-sense-of-direction thing. How much did the 650 set you back, if you don't mind me asking?

R. Neal's picture

$599 at At Best

$599 at At Best Buy: (link...)

$467 at Amazon: (link...)

($749 "suggested retail" by Garmin: (link...))

Like I said, shop around for the best price.

NOTE: If you don't need the wide screen option, the 350 model is otherwise identical in features, including the spoken street names (highly recommended). Amazon has it for $362: (link...)

Carole Borges's picture

My GPS system seems to work just fine and it's free.

It's also easy to use.

Press function button #1--This puts a good map in the car or downloads directions before you go. I downloaded directions to places I wanted to go in Ireland weeks before I went there.

Press function button #2--This allows you to seek specialized information you can't find on a map or to clarify confusion about rouites. It brings you into a gas station or firehouse or lets you ask some human who happens to be in their yard.

Press function Button #3---This is the ultimate resource. If all else fails, it uses your cell to call someone at your destination. If you ask they will usually guide you right in.

I know a lot of people can't read maps anymore. I fear the GPS will do to map reading what calculators did to math skills--basically eliminate them.

Also, I like stopping to talk to locals about directions and best places to go. There's info there you might never get from a machine.

Besides I can't afford paying for a toy that costs hundereds of dollars.

Sometimes getting lost is fun. We don't "get lost" in my family, we call it exploring new territories.

This is a is all tongue in cheek of course. If I had a lot of money I'd probably want one.

Anonymous's picture

i'm not impressed with the

i'm not impressed with the 650. the worst thing is it doesn't always find the fastest route and wont let you input a trip with specific points of way points. furthermore, my unit freezes up and then crashes when i try to recover. im definitely returning this product.

Anonymous's picture

I think Garmin Nuvi 350 is

I think Garmin Nuvi 350 is the best GPS navigation system in my opinion.

reform4's picture

Street Pilot 650

My StreetPilot Seems to have similar features, and probably costs about $100 less. I will agree that the Garmin routing doesn't do a great job of taking into account the slower drive time on secondary roads (it often routes me on Kingston Pike to go from Bearden to Farragut, when jumping on I-40 is much faster). The Bluetooth speakphone is better than my Jawbone headset, and I love the ability to one-button dial the business I located.

Do not EVER EVER EVER buy a Magellan product.

-----------------------------------------
Fighting for Reform and Representation, Fourth District
Steve Drevik, Commission Seat 4-B
(link...)

R. Neal's picture

The Nuvi 350 and 650 are

The Nuvi 350 and 650 are virtually identical as far as features, maps, software, etc. The difference is the 650 is a "wide screen" format, which costs more.

tin cup's picture

I travel throughout North

I travel throughout North America in my job every week. I usually rent a car after I fly in. I bought the Garmin nuvi 200W model ($250-ish). It works great. I used to go on Mapquest. Now, I just plug in the address before I leave and all I have to do is push a button when I land. Yesterday, a co-worker in Baltimore had a Magellin (sp?). It seemed to compare closely with the Garmin.

reform4's picture

My Magellan Experience

Had old maps, so bought a DVD with an update ($40?). Loaded the update, rebooted the unit and it was dead. Power button wouldn't even bring it up.

Searched the web, come to find out that 300+ other users had the same problem- a problem known to Magellan, but they continued to sell the update disks.

Spent 4 hours on the phone to get a replacement. Finally got one with the old old maps, so I gave it to a friend who doesn't use it as much, and bought my RoadMate 650.

Google 'Magellan customer service' and you'll see that you never want to give them $0.01.

I love the internet. I only wish I had used it before I shopped.

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