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.
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.
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