I have long resisted the use of GPS technology for any serious or sustained navigating. This is partly because I don't like the notion of depending on an array of satellites managed by the US Air Force just to get where I'm going - to whatever degree I have any simplicity left in my life, it's one more way to add complexity and hidden costs to basic everyday tasks. I've also resisted GPS because I like the idea of being able to navigate with basic tools, instinct, and luck.
For my recent road trip, however, I got over these hesitations (for better or worse) enough to want to give the use of GPS a real spin, and I did in the form of the Garmin Nuvi 360. Here's my review.
In short, traveling with the Nuvi was like having Google Maps at my fingertips, all the time. I could always quickly try out different scenarios for directions and distances to different spots from wherever I was, and see what kinds of attractions and services were available along the way. Pre-GPS, I would have sat down at home and done the same thing on Google Maps and on an atlas, and then printed out/written down my desired routes. But, once I was on the road, I would have had to stick to that plan unless I was ready to get out the map and recalculate by hand, or find Internet access to research alternatives. With the Nuvi in hand, I literally left all of that behind, got on the road, and left the rest up to realtime navigation.
As a result, I often changed plans, destinations, or routes on a whimsy. Want to drive down that road without knowing where it goes? No problem! The Nuvi will know how to eventually get you to your final destination without a lot of backtracking. Want to find a local bookstore or restaurant somewhere between here and there? No problem, the Nuvi will provide an array of options, how far they are away from your current location, and in what direction. (At some points, I was literally navigating by looking at this little screen in front of me, instead of out my windshield - not good driving practice, I know.) Whereas on past trips I might have mapped out where I would camp or rent a room for a night well in advance, with the Nuvi in hand I would just drive until I was about ready to stop, and then find a suitable option up ahead.
The user interface to the Nuvi was probably my biggest potential concern because, well, user interfaces are rarely done right in the world of consumer electronics. But Garmin did get it right, with intuitive buttons, clear and useful displays, and a quite reasonable set of default settings. I appreciated that they went out of their way to not just make it functional, but to make it a pleasure to use.
A favorite feature (which completely blows us out of simplicity-land, I know) was the Bluetooth interface to my mobile phone and the built-in handsfree system on the Nuvi. I could not only look up a possible destination, but tell the Nuvi to call it on my phone, and then talk to the person on the other end without ever fumbling with a headset or the phone itself. The Nuvi had full access to my phone's addressbook and call history, so I could easily navigate other calls as well. Sometimes the sound quality wasn't great, but I think this was a Bluetooth issue, not a product issue.
Another favorite feature is that the Nuvi's own internal data set can be expanded with custom data sets, injected via the use of an SD memory card. The data format is open and easily created, so I quickly found online resources that let me download all sorts of interesting waypoints - wacky tourist attractions, wifi hotspots, rest areas with certain amenities, etc. Kudos to Garmin for not forcing customers to purchase or download this data from them.
The Nuvi came out of the box with a versatile windshield mount, which I just assumed I was going to have to pay some ridiculous amount extra for as an accessory. It also came with a nice carrying case, and a number of power options.
I haven't yet used the Nuvi for navigating significant routes on a bike, or for other extra-curiccular activities like Geocaching, but I'm told by my fellow users posting reviews online that the Nuvi has great modes/features for these things, so I'm looking forward to that too.
Areas for Improvement
Now, for some of my gripes, which may not be particular to this model of GPS, but are worth mentioning anyway:
- Even with the "2009 map data" uploaded prior to my departure, the Nuvi still had significantly out of date information. In one instance, it tried to guide me to a bookstore that had apparently been gone for 2 years or more. In another, an interstate exit system had clearly been completely reworked since the Garmin folks visited, and if I'd followed the Nuvi's directions I would have ended up going the wrong way on an exit ramp. I can't complain too much - it is a huge data set to maintain and this is the kind of complexity that I wish didn't exist at all - but it's still worth noting.
- For some busy and complex highway systems, the Nuvi didn't do a good enough job giving me the notice I needed to navigate successfully, and in a few cases where poor highway signage was also a factor, I missed various ramps or turns. In most cases, it actually tends to overcommunicate about upcoming turns, so I guess it's just a testament to how insane some highways are.
- The Nuvi doesn't provide any way to let you access the route you've travelled after you're done with your trip. Many GPS units will let you download your route for display on a computer or even posting online, and the Nuvi was known to be able to do this at one point, so this seems to be an intentional limitation placed by Garmin, probably to avoid hurting sales of other units that do provide this feature. This was probably one of the most disappointing flaws for me.
- The suite of software that is available to interface with the Garmin, at least on Mac OS X, is a little too confusing for my tastes. It includes "Garmin Bobcat," "Garmin Map Update," "Garmin MapInstall," "Garmin MapManager," "Garmin POI Loader," and "Garmin Web Updater." Now, just looking at the list, how are you supposed to know what application does what? It turns out there's really only 1 or 2 you need to use, but and fortunately in addition to the somewhat clunky mapping software package that comes standard, you can also use a web browser plugin to just send information straight from Google Maps to the GPS unit, bypassing the clunking software. Yes!
All in all, the Nuvi became an essential and much-appreciated part of the trip. Despite my initial hesitations, I really did just give myself over to its advice, and I think that turned out fine. Whereas in the past I might have been stressing out over missing a turn, finding the best route, or searching for interesting attractions along the way, I was instead enjoying the scenery and thinking happy thoughts.
It's still a luxury and a ridiculous privilege, I know. I don't use the Nuvi for navigating around town or on short trips in the region, but for now I know that if I'm going into territory that is at all unfamiliar, I'll probably have it along (at least until the satellites stop working).