Archive for January 2008

Despite its GPS, is Garmin losing its way?

31 January 2008
Categories: Rants

Garmin wants to become the name everyone thinks of when they think of the Global Positioning System. It’s not the oldest GPS company around—Magellan is 3 years older—and TomTom is bigger in Europe, but Garmin is striving to be the “kleenex” of GPS, while constantly looking for the next great innovation. And though I appreciate the quality of their hardware, I think Garmin needs to spend more time focussing on the limitations of its products, not their innovations.

I got my first Garmin, a GPS II, as a gift from my dad for Christmas 1996. It was terrific. Its display was monochrome and it didn’t contain any maps, so it really amounted to an electronic “bread crumb trail.” But it could track 8 satellites and store 250 waypoints, and after I’d spent some time driving around the suburbs I’d marked dozens of select locations to keep me oriented at all times. It even got me safely home from a funeral in Michigan when a lake-effect blizzard shut down the expressway and coated every road sign with opaque sleet, as it kept me on course while I navigated unfamiliar white-out terrain. It was probably pretty expensive at the time—perhaps 2 or 3 times the cost of a similar model today—but it was rugged, easy to use, and convenient to carry.

It’s eleven years old now, but the GPS II still works as well as it ever did… mostly. For some reason it only runs when powered from an external source, and not from batteries. Maybe it finally broke a contact.

In 2002 I bought a brand-new Garmin StreetPilot III, which was awfully pricey at $800. I was wowed by the colour screen, the built-in maps, and the voice directions, but nevertheless it has always been a source of buyer’s remorse for me. There are so many reasons, among them:

  • The voice speaker is not internal, it is part of the cigarette lighter power adapter. Even with the built-in hinge, this means a large, ungainly speaker hanging off my dashboard.
  • A basic carrying case cost extra—some $25 from a “discount” store. It’s too small to comfortably hold the unit, the speaker/power adapter, and the suction-cup antenna all together, and can’t hold the beanbag dash-top friction mount at all.
  • The memory cards were expensive, and Garmin-exclusive. Even the biggest available memory card (128MB) only holds a fraction of the entire U.S. map.

The unit has its quirks, too. One is that it always presumes that you’re driving. It’s a “StreetPilot,” after all. I tried using it on a train one time, and it kept trying to position me along the minor access roads that run parallel to the tracks. I’d appear to zoom along some side road, and it would peter out, and suddenly I’d be on another road, on the other side of the tracks, and so on. There is no way to tell it, “show me exactly where I am, rather than what road you think I’m on.”

The routing calculation can be flawed, too, like most available GPS units. This is mostly the result of faulty map data, but sometimes it just seems like a hole in the logic. More than once it has led me off the highway, up the exit ramp, across the intervening street, and down the entrance ramp to merge onto the highway again. Its choice of routes has more than once led to bitter front seat arguments when it picked the “best” route, but not necessarily the right one.

Worst of all, though, and the reason I have been seriously considering replacement of this unit for the past few years, is this: when the StreetPilot III is busy calculating a route, it suspends updates of the on-screen map. The image freezes, and a little graphic in the corner depicts an on-going route calculation, and until the algorithm is complete or the job is cancelled, that is all that appears on the screen.

Why is this so annoying? Take this example: I’m driving in unfamiliar terrain, trying to get home, and I know the best way to do so is to get on the highway… and I’m guessing the highway is “over there” somewhere. While the GPS unit is busy figuring out how to get me there, I could easily miss a turn that would easily take me onto the highway—one that might be obvious to me if I had the local map available. If I miss the turn, which may well have been the first step along the as-yet-unrevealed route, then the unit will start recalculating—further delaying the map redraw.

The route calculation seems to take forever, too. My friend has a factory-installed navigation system in his Lexus, and it comes up with an answer within just a few seconds. If he misses a turn, it recalculates almost instantly. Why must I wait 30 seconds or more to receive route instruction from my StreetPilot? It’s a specialized tool and that’s its primary purpose!

As an aside, a couple of years ago I went shopping for a new handheld unit, one with pretty much the current basics: at least 12 channels, WAAS-enabled, built-in maps, rugged and waterproof. I wound up buying a Magellan eXplorist 200, rather than one of the Garmin eTrex models, because it was better priced for similar features. The maps are rudimentary (especially beyond U.S. borders), the available satellites schematic is much less intuitive and informative than Garmin’s, and the computer interface port is hidden behind a super-secret panel and requires a specialized connector only available via mail order from Hong Kong. The eXplorist is really just a very slight upgrade to the electronic bread crumb trail of my old, semi-defunct GPS II. But it has served well its basic function, which is to raise my confidence level that no matter where I go, I’ll always be able to find my hotel and the airport. It was indispensable during our 2006 trip to China and Thailand.

Now Garmin has come out with their next generation: nüvi. They have addressed many of the issues I found with the StreetPilot. The unit is much smaller, to the point that it’s truly portable (though not waterproof). Entire U.S. maps are pre-loaded, so I would never find myself in San Francisco trying to get to Napa and finding that I’d deleted the California map to give space to someplace else. The speaker is internal. It accepts SD cards for further memory space. And it has two tracking modes in addition to automotive—cyclist and pedestrian—so it presumably could handle a ride on the train.

And yet. I tried out a nüvi 780 (a nearly top-of-the-line model) last week. I gave it a bit of a challenge, asking it to find Taylor’s Refresher in St. Helena, CA, even though the unit knew it was sitting in the Garmin store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It found my destination fine—but then it did the exact same thing as the StreetPilot. It suspended map updates as it calculated the route, and it took nearly as long to complete as the old model would have. That one issue is sufficient for me to decide that I will never purchase a current-generation nüvi. Maybe when the next generation comes out.

Even then, it might be doubtful. As much as I’ve benefited from its products in the past, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe Garmin might be doomed. And that’s not just because their stock price has gone into the crapper since Christmas.

It’s because with all the convergence in handheld devices, Garmin’s position of being a specialty device manufacturer may have limited scope.

Sure, they’re working hard to find new and novel ways that GPS can enhance everyday life. Their Forerunner wristwatch devices are fantastic for joggers and cyclists. And if I had a hunting dog—heck, if I had a dog period—the Astro collar-mounted dog tracker would be a must-have.

They’re also working hard to cram as many new functions as possible into their automotive systems: Bluetooth, traffic radio receiver, MP3 player, FM transmitter, etc. etc. And this is where we begin to ask the question: when is it no longer a GPS unit?

There’s a rumour afoot that the next-generation Apple iPhone, due out (perhaps) some time later this year, will contain a GPS chip. The rumoured chipset is said to be the SiRFstar III, the very same chip used in many Garmin devices. It can handle 20 channels at once—enough to track every GPS satellite that can possibly be overhead at one time—and its “time to first fix” is said to be exceptional.

Big deal? Perhaps. Consider the iPhone’s data transfer capabilities. Rather than tie up its memory with pre-loaded maps, the iPhone could determine its location using the GPS chip, then download just the detailed map for where it happens to be at that moment. The map would not be last year’s pre-loads, or even the manual download pulled off the Internet last month. It would be the very latest, up-to-the-minute map, with brand-new points of interest, and maybe even current traffic data.

And if it finds itself somewhere new—for example, after a long flight—it would be able to dump the old maps at the user’s will, saving space for a detailed map of the new location.

Apple is planning to make it possible for third-party developers to start building accessories for the iPhone. If Apple doesn’t put a GPS chip in an iPhone soon, Garmin needs to market a plug-in adapter as soon as possible. (TomTom is said to be working on the same.) Otherwise, I don’t think they stand a chance.