Sunday, October 15, 2006

Garmin's Nuvi 350 rocks!

I travel on business a lot, one symptom of which is light to non-existent posting during the weeks that I'm on the road, such as last week. Oftentimes I'm in an area I've never been before, which makes getting around difficult.

A few years back, I got a Garmin iQue 3600, which is a Palm OS-based GPS unit and provides turn-by-turn driving instructions. It worked great and served me well. The only ass-ache with the iQue was that it came with no detailed maps pre-loaded, a requirement for the turn-by-turn directions. In order to use detailed maps, one has to load "tiles" of maps for an area to an SD card. I got burned by this once this past summer when I had to visit customers in New England. I thought I had all of southern New England loaded on my SD and was a bit dismayed when I had to find a route from Hartford, Connecticut to East Providence, Rhode Island only to find that my detailed maps ended at the CT/RI state line.

When my iQue started acting up recently (short battery life, failing to acquire satellites), I decided it was time for a new unit. I knew Garmin had just introduced the Nuvi line of GPS units, and when I saw that I could get one with my Marriott Reward points, I ordered one. At a retail price of around $800, they're not cheap, but for 160,000 Marriott points, I considered it a "freebie". I couldn't be happier with my decision.

Another must-have gadget for me when I'm on the road is my MP3 player. I hate going somewhere and trying to find a decent radio station, so I always bring along my Creative Labs Zen Touch and an FM radio dongle to listen through the car radio. The combination of the iQue, MP3 player and various power adapters and external antenna for the GPS made for quite a mess in the rental car. So another attractive feature of the Nuvi 350 is its integrated MP3 player. While I can't put nearly my entire library of music on it, I was able to load around 120 of my favorite tracks, with a bit of room to spare. That's without resorting to loading up an SD card with music, which I can still do if I so choose.

Since my new toy arrived at home while I was in Houston and Dallas last week, I had to wait until yesterday to try it out. We had to take my son out to buy a new guitar strap, so I set a route to the music shop, and fired up the Nuvi. Of course, I wanted to try out the built-in MP3 player as well, so I ran a cable from the headphone jack of the Nuvi to the auxilliary input of my truck's stereo.

A quick word about the voice prompts available on the Nuvi. Most GPS units have natural-sounding voices preloaded in the unit. The limitation with that is you'll get a prompt telling you to "turn right in X feet/meters", but you must look at the display to see the name of the street you're supposed to turn to. The Nuvi supplies natural voices, but also offers "text to speech" voices which will also tell you the name of the street you're supposed to turn on. The only bad thing about the TTS voices is that they're synthesized, and they sound that way. I can't wait to try it out in places like California with a lot of Spanish street names.

When traveling with the iQue and MP3 player, I'd occasionally (OK, always) have the music up so loud that I'd frequently miss a voice prompt. This isn't a problem when using the Nuvi's MP3 player. I can have the Nuvi in nav mode while playing music through it. When it's time for the Nuvi to give a voice prompt, it pauses playback, gives the prompt, then resumes playing. Very cool feature. The only problem here is that the voice prompts seem to play at a considerably lower volume than the music. This can be a problem when the playback pauses and your ears are still ringing when the prompt is issued. A separate volume setting for MP3 and voice prompts would be a cool feature to add.

The interface with the computer is exceptionally easy. Just plug it into your computer's USB port, and the unit appears as an external USB drive. Drag and drop your MP3 files to the unit, and use your computer to make a complete backup of the unit in case you manage to trash a critical file.

Standard with the Nuvi 350:
  • Full-coverage detailed maps of Canada and the US pre-loaded
  • Massive points of interest (POI) database
  • Car kit, including suction cup window or dash mount
  • Car charger
  • AC charger
  • USB cable
The Nuvi also offers some nice traveler's tools:
  • Currency converter (built-in)
  • Measurement converter (built-in)
  • World clock (built-in)
  • Calculator (built-in)
  • Audio book listening (available on SD card)
  • Language translation (additional cost)
  • Travel guide (additional cost)
  • RDS traffic updates (optional antenna, subscription fee)
The Nuvi's integrated antenna sensitivity is pretty impressive, too. While it includes a jack for an external antenna, I've found that it's not really necessary. This is the first GPS unit I've had that picks up the satellite signals indoors.

Finally, there's the size. The Nuvi 350 is about the size of a deck of playing cards, so it's easy enough to pull from the provided car mount and take with you to prevent theft.

As mentioned above, the retail price for the Nuvi 350 is around $800, but shop around and you can get one for around $600. Or, spend around 100 nights a year with Marriott like I do and get one for "free".

No comments: