02. 24. 2006
Garmin's pocket-sized Nuvi GPS
As someone with absolutely no innate sense of direction, I think of GPS devices as no less miraculous than time machines. Several years ago, my brother gave me a Garmin GPS for my car, which I loved. Looking back, though, I remember how time-consuming it was to download maps and -- since it had no voice instructions -- how awkward it sometimes was to follow the maps. And, while it seemed small to me at the time, it was way too big and heavy to carry around. Now that these devices have become smaller and better, and now that there are more choices out there, I find that I'm almost impossibly demanding, though still in awe of the whole concept.
For me, the perfect GPS is one that I can use in my car and also carry around in my purse without weighing me down. Any new device I get has to share space with my Treo, a second cell phone, and an iPod, so size and weight definitely matter. Though I've been looking at GPS software for cell phones, I'm turned off by the idea of paying a monthly fee for GPS service, and I think I'd tire of looking at a tiny phone screen. I want something solid and powerful, but also very portable.
Garmin's Nuvi 350 is typically described as being about the size of a deck of cards, and I think that's about as tiny as I'd want a GPS to be. The Nuvi screen is still big enough that you don't have to strain your eyes to see the map. I mounted it on my windshield using the suction mount (which, unbelievably, did not slide off no matter how much I pulled at it), and each time I left the car for any length of time, I popped the unit off the mount and slipped it in into my purse. So, the Nuvi passed my test of easy portability.
Unlike my old Garmin, the Nuvi was incredibly easy to set up -- in that no setup is required. I literally took it out of the box, flipped up the antenna, turned it on and started using it. The only control on the outside of the device is the on/off switch, but the on-screen controls are so intuitive that I was able to use it without even looking at the manual. I can't think of anyone who couldn't figure out how to use this right out of the box (except maybe my mother). I like that the map gives you geographic context by zooming in and out: when you're driving on one road for a long stretch, it zooms out to a broader view of the surrounding roads and towns, then when you're in an area where you're making turns, usually closer to your destination, it zooms in closer. You can also control the size of the map yourself by touching buttons on the screen. When the sun goes down, you'll notice that the screen automatically changes to night-time mode. There are several voice options, all female (why?). The battery can be charged in your car or through your computer's USB port (after a full charge, the battery ran a little under 4 hours for me).
I used the Nuvi to take me to places I knew how to get to (like home) and also to places I'd never been to. In the suburbs of Maryland, it was a breeze to use, except for a couple of instances where the Nuvi insisted I take backroads when there was a much easier, quicker route via highway. When driving through and around New York City, I found that I couldn't really get by without having some general idea of where I was headed. Often, the street I had to turn on was already behind me once I heard the instruction to turn (which may say more about my own reaction time than the Nuvi's). Though the Nuvi is known for its quick reaction time and for maintaining a strong, consistent signal in most places, even cities with tall buildings, it may be that dense city streets are a little taxing on any GPS. Sometimes, I was instructed to turn on a street that didn't exist, which lead me to wonder how current the maps are. The lesson here is that no GPS can entirely substitute for having at least a modicum of navigational sense.
I initially winced at the suggested retail price of $969.22, but then remembered that a GPS installed in my car by the dealer would have cost more than $2,000, and would do me no good in any other car or when I'm on foot. And I'd still rather pay this price than pay an on-going monthly fee for GPS service on my cell phone.
The Nuvi has a number of additional features for the traveler. It works as an mp3 player, an audio book player for books from Audible.com, a picture viewer, a world time clock, a currency and measurement converter, and a calculator. You can also purchase a European language guide and European travel guides ($74.99 each), and a SaversGuide electronic coupon book ($49.99). While I don't particularly look for non-GPS features in a GPS, the travel guides might come in handy when I don't want to carry around heavy travel books. The option I'd really like to have? -- walking directions for big cities.