Garminfone Skillfully Integrates Navigation Into an Android Phone
By John R. Quain
At a Glance
Unsurpassed navigation in a smartphone
Good integration of Android into navigation
Camera isn’t as good as that of competitors
CPU lags behind others in category and price range
Garmin’s GPS-equipped handset does a great job of combining navigation and phone features.
Garmin is known for its stand-alone GPS navigation devices, but not for its phone design. Now the company is stepping into the phone market with its Garminfone ($200 with a two-year T-Mobile contract, as of August 9, 2010), a device that distinguishes itself not in its physical design but in the excellent way it makes the navigation and smartphone features work together. It’s phones like this that may eventually spell the end of stand-alone navigation devices.
This is Garmin’s second try at putting a phone and GPS together; its first attempt was an unmitigated failure. But this time, the company has switched carriers and changed operating systems, and the results are positive.
Unlike free or subscription-based navigation services for phones, the Garminfone has the full functionality of a Garmin navigation device built in–plus all the advantages of an Android-based smartphone. In other words, it’s as good as any dedicated GPS device on the market, and it’s a better value than, say, buying a comparably priced Android phone and then paying another $100 for navigation software (which will lack the integration that Garmin has put into this phone). Its 3.5-inch, 320-by-480-pixel capacitive touchscreen is bright enough for the dashboard yet sensitive enough for flitting between apps. The phone is also svelte enough for most pockets, at 4.57 by 2.45 by 0.5.1 inches and just 4.8 ounces.
Inside, it has a 600MHz Qualcomm MSM7227 processor, which is not as zippy as the Snapdragon processor used in a number of comparably priced HTC Android-based phones, but it seemed able enough to juggle multiple apps. (Storage on MicroSDHC is expandable up to 32GB.) On the T-Mobile network, the phone does quad-band EDGE (850/900/1800/1900MHz) and dual-band 3G HSDPA 7.2 (1700/2100MHz), which covers most 3G networks here and abroad. The Garminfone can also connect via 802.11b/g Wi-Fi or stereo Bluetooth.
To make the navigation and phone functions work seamlessly, Garmin has customized the opening screen of the phone. Clearly designed to be visible from the driver’s seat, three large buttons appear: Call, Where To, and View Map. You access the standard array of widgets and Android apps by sliding out a tab on the side (or from the bottom, if you are holding the phone horizontally). As with most Android phones, you can customize the interface, putting favorite apps in a widgets tab and relegating the rest to a hidden screen.
I found it a pleasure to use the Where To and mapping functions. The phone comes with an excellent cradle that stuck firmly to the windshield (and the 12-volt adapter’s cable is long enough to accommodate any position). The navigation works as on a standard GPS device, using the Garmin software interface. You can select a route via address or point of interest, and even set waypoints; you can also input the address via voice and record over 60 of your own turn-by-turn spoken instructions to personalize the experience. The 2D and 3D maps are crisp and concise, with speed-limit and your-speed indicators plus the estimated time of arrival (which I am always trying to beat).
Side-by-side with Google’s free navigation service on an HTC Droid Incredible, the Garminfone was quicker and more accurate in showing the position of my vehicle. In comparison with other phone/navigation-software models, the Garminfone is better at picking up the GPS signal, something that Garmin’s designers say they worked hard to achieve. The free, lifetime traffic reports with warning icons are about as reliable as any others (meaning they are often too little, too late).
The best thing about the Garminfone is that all the maps for North America, including 6 million points of interest, are loaded on the phone. Even if you lose your cellular connection, the turn-by-turn directions continue; and should you make a wrong turn, there’s no waiting for new directions to download. And for those owners who experience senior moments, when you unhook the phone from its car cradle, the handset automatically marks the spot so that later, should you discover you’ve forgotten where you parked, it will lead you straight back to your car.
The integration aspect shines in several additional features. For example, you can map addresses directly from a contact file or Web search result. If a call comes in while you’re en route, tapping the answer button turns on the speakerphone and mutes the spoken turn-by-turn directions, but continues with all the visual directions and indicators. Some of the social aspects include geotagging a photo and then sending it to friend, who can then obtain directions to your location.
Taking photos and videos, however, is not the Garminfone’s strong suit. The 3-megapixel camera is adequate at best, with basic settings for resolution and lighting adjustment. The autofocus also needs work, as it produces slightly blurry images more often than not.
On a grueling trip to Canada and back, the Garminfone proved a comforting companion. Directions were clear, as were the inevitable “I’m running behind schedule” phone calls. Dialing on the touchscreen with haptic feedback was easy, and the call quality was generally good. Over the course of testing, I found that the talk time on a single charge was usually about 5 hours, matching the manufacturer’s rating.
The Garminfone comes with a solid package of accessories, including an AC adapter, a car charger, a car mount (windshield and dash), a 2GB MicroSD card, a USB cable, and a wired headset. It still uses the older Android 1.6 OS, but T-Mobile says the phone will be upgraded at some point in the future. What’s best about the Garminfone, though, is that it’s an excellent demonstration of just how flexible the Android OS can be, allowing developers to create phones tailored to specific needs. In this case, Garmin definitely got it right.