Now that pretty much every Android phone includes free turn-by-turn spoken directions, one that specializes in navigation seems like a tough sell. But the Garminfone, as the second device to hit the U.S. from Garmin-ASUS, has the goods for those who spend a lot of time in the car, offering a friendly interface, real-time traffic, and an included windshield mount. And although the Garminfone runs a dated version of Android (1.6), it integrates GPS more deeply than its competitors. You can even record your own voice (or someone else’s) to personalize the navigation experience. Yes, the Garminfone is better than its poor Linux-based predecessor, the Nuvifone G60 for AT&T. But is this niche handset worth $199 when you can get a faster Android device running the latest version of the OS for the same price?
The Garminfone feels solid and well made. At 0.5 inches thick and 4.9 ounces, this device is a tenth of an ounce heavier than the iPhone 3GS but has nicely rounded edges with a soft-touch back. The bright and decently sized 3.5-inch capacitive display (480 x 320 pixels) dominates the front of the device. Beneath the screen is a D-pad along with four backlit LED buttons that vibrate when pressed: Back, Call, Menu, and Home. The brushed metal strip on the back of the phone with the Garmin ASUS logo adds a touch of class, and we appreciate the matching dark chrome-like accents on the top, bottom, and side of the device.
On top of the Garminfone is the power button, and the right side of the handset houses two narrow volume buttons along with a camera launch/shutter button. On the left you’ll find a car dock connector. The bottom of the device has a mini-USB jack; this is used for both charging the device and attaching the included headphone adapter. That’s right, there’s no 3.5mm jack, which is pretty much unforgiveable in 2010. Well, at least the adapter has an in-line volume control and playback buttons.
For better or worse, the Garminfone looks like a GPS navigator with an Android smart phone tacked on. It sports a Breeze user interface with three large icons front and center: Call, Where To?, and View Map. Interestingly, the phone switches from day to night mode at sunset, adding a darker background color not just to your driving experience but also to the home screen.
Call and View Map are self-explanatory, but Where To has a lot of goodies inside. Touching this icon launches a menu of options that let you search near you current location in multiple ways. Choices include Points of Interest Google, Address (which you manually enter), Points of Interest (Food, Lodging, Shopping, etc.), Gas Prices, and Upcoming Events.
To the right of these large icons is a sidebar of apps you can scroll through vertically, including Contacts, Messaging, Browser, and Widgets, although you can easily move items on and off this list. How? Just slide the little tab you see to the left to reveal all the other included apps. Just like other Android phones, pressing and holding an icon lets you position it wherever you like. Well, almost everywhere: the three main icons on the Home menu cannot be changed.
Unlike other Android phones, you don’t get more than one home screen. Only once you select Widgets do you get five screens to play with. Thankfully, Garmin-ASUS kept the top notification drawer intact. Just slide your finger down from the top of the screen at any time to see your notifications. The pinch-to-zoom gesture works in the browser and photos, as well as Garmin’s map program, but not in Google’s Map app.
Overall, the UI on the Garminfone is straightforward, but it may be too simple for some users.
Usually smart phones that provide haptic feedback have trouble keeping up with our pecks, but the Garminfone’s portrait and landscape keyboards did a respectable job when we practiced typing text messages as top speed. However, we recommend landscape mode for better accuracy. We also like how the keyboard pops up a bigger blue version of the letter you’re attempting to type, similar to the iPhone.
Specs and Performance
The Garminfone runs Android 1.6, an older version of the OS that doesn’t include new features such as voice-to-text or the improved photo gallery. That also means you can’t run apps that are designed to run on Android 2.1 devices, such as the new Twitter app. These trade-offs are not deal-breakers by any stretch, but this is the price you pay for using a phone that’s as heavily skinned as this one.
Equipped with a 600-MHz Qualcomm MSM7227 processor and a mere 256MB of RAM (compared to 512MB for the Droid Incredible), the Garminfone gets the job done but just doesn’t feel as snappy as some of the latest Android phones that rock a 1-GHz Snapdragon CPU. We especially noticed a delay with the accelerometer. In most cases, the screen goes fuzzy for a second before changing orientation, which is meant to be a transition effect but only serves as a reminder that this device doesn’t have the most cutting edge hardware.
We also noticed some sluggishness with multiple programs running. For instance, maps were slow to render when we had Pandora streaming in the background. Still, the Garminfone was quick to get us back to the home screen in most cases (usually 1 second or less) and do things like launch the camera (2 seconds).Pinch-to-zoom also worked fairly smoothly, both in the browser and the photo gallery app.
The Garminfone comes with 4GB of onboard memory, but you can expand that via microSD Cards.
GPS and Navigation
Although the free Google Maps Navigation does a good enough job for most users, we prefer the Garmin navigation experience on this phone to the Motorola Droid. For starters, T-Mobile includes a dashboard mount that was easy to set up (Verizon charges an extra $30 for the Droid’s window mount.) We also found the GPS reception to be stronger. The device comes loaded with North American Maps, and the look and feel of the interface when driving is pretty much identical to a dedicated in-car unit. We especially like how large the type was for the distance to the next turn, and that the Garminfone displayed a realistic-looking highway N.J. Turnpike sign just before we were supposed to turn right onto its entrance ramp.
Our only major beef with the Garminfone’s navigation is that you have to separately enter the street number, the street, and then the city, just like a typical GPS device (pictured below, rightside). Since this is a smart phone, you should be able to enter all of that information in one string, just like you can in Google.
Another perk is address recognition. The Garminfone recognizes street addresses in text messages, calendar items, and contacts, and just a touch will let you navigate to that location. This feature worked, but only when we sent a text to the phone that separated the street address, city, and state with a return. If you use the dash mount, the device will also remember where you parked and direct you back to spot later.
One of our favorite features is Garmin Voice Studio, which enables users to record and also share custom voice directions. Although we found the process of recording 65 phrases tedious (“Left,” “Right,” “Board ferry,” etc.), you can spice things up with the five seconds you’re given for each phrase. For instance, instead of just recording “Recalculating,” we said in a sarcastic tone “Recalculating...way to go”).
Lastly, the Garminfone lets you answer calls when the device is docked in the dash mount. All you have to do is tap the Answer button and the phone will enter speaker mode for hands-free gabbing.
In general, the Garminfone was accurate and recalculated routes quickly. However, during a traffic jam outside of New York’s Lincoln Tunnel, the device underestimated the length of our delay. The good news is that it provided a brief detour that helped shave a few minutes off our morning commute, and that the directions were clear and loud (and slightly less tinny than the Droid’s free solution).
When it comes to local search, you can choose Garmin’s 6 million-plus points of interest or you can pull up Google Maps. In both cases you’ll see a helpful cursor pointing in the direction you’re facing. Anyone who owns an iPhone 3GS knows that having a digital compass can be a godsend.
If you’ve seen one Android browser you’ve seen them all, right? Unfortunately not. The Garminfone needlessly wastes precious screen real estate with a bar of icons you can’t move. These options include back, forward, a star for marking a site as a favorite, a favorites folder, and a shortcut that lets you see up to four pages at once. Annoyingly, you can’t move this bar or make it disappear.
On the plus side, browsing was fast over T-Mobile’s 3G network: CNN.com loaded in 5 seconds, NYTimes.com in 4 seconds, and ESPN in 6 seconds. Then again, the Garminfone kind of cheats; the browser loads mobile versions of sites by default, which you can’t change. Laptopmag.com, which doesn’t have a mobile version, took 14 seconds, which is good. Still, we would recommend downloading an alternative browser like Dolphin.
E-mail and Messaging
Business users will appreciate that the Garminfone has Microsoft Exchange support via Exchange ActiveSync. All you need to enter the first time you log in is your corporate e-mail address, password, domain, and server, and you should be good to go. We used the Gmail option for a Google Apps account, which was a cinch to set up.
The text messaging app is pretty straightforward and sent and received messages quickly during our tests with a Verizon Wireless BlackBerry Curve. The only real stand-out feature here is the ability of the Garminfone to recognize complete addresses for one-touch routing.
Camera and Camcorder
These days a 3-megapixel camera on a $199 smart phone is far from the cutting edge. For example, the similarly priced Droid Incredible includes a 5-MP camera, and the upcoming Evo 4G features an 8-MP camera. You also don’t get a flash, so expect low-light shots to come out fuzzy. Still, color saturation was good outdoors, and the shutter delay with autofocus enabled was tolerable. The level of on-screen detail was fair but suffered when we viewed images on the desktop, which means you’ll be sharing but not printing these pics.
Speaking of sharing, the Garminfone geotags images so you can share the location of your shots. Would we share the low-resolution (320 x 240 pixels) videos this device captures? Nope. At full screen, playback looked pixelated and blurry, especially on the desktop. For this price we would expect at least VGA quality.
With more than 38,000 apps at your disposal in the Android Market, the Garminfone has access to everything from Pandora and NYTimes to Foursquare and Google Googles (pictured above). Garmin-ASUS preloads the device with YouTube, Facebook, Flight Status, Movie Times, and Ciao (Garmin’s location-based social network). We like that the Garmin weather app automatically delivers the five-day forecast based on where you are.
You also get Garmin’s Where Am I? (to view your location and nearby gas stations, police stations, hospitals, and more) and Where To? (for searching 6 million nearby points of interest, as well as programming a home address and navigating back to recent locations). The included Panoramio app lets you navigate to nearby geo-tagged images of tourist attractions by foot or car.
Music and Video
Like most Android phones, the Garminfone has direct access to the Amazon MP3 store for music downloads—but not movies or TV shows. The music player is pretty bare-bones but worked fine. We dragged and dropped a few tracks from Windows and they played back with album art displayed to the right. Transferred videos wind up in the Gallery app, and our 720p MPEG-4 clip recorded with a Sanyo camcorder played without a hitch.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Over T-Mobile’s network, calls made in New York and Jersey with the Garminfone came through quite clear on both ends of the line. We experienced one dropped call in midtown Manhattan, but it was in an area where many T-Mobile handsets have trouble.
It’s a good thing the Garminfone comes with a car charger. We rarely made it through the early evening after starting the day with the battery at 100 percent. Talk time is also relatively short at just 4 hours.
While other GPS device makers are battling obsolescence by rolling out apps for the major smart phone platforms, Garmin continues to tackle the issue head on by creating its own handsets. And the Garminfone certainly provides a satisfying and integrated location experience. On the other hand, this device isn’t as fast as other Android phones in its price range, and it’s equipped with a smaller and lower-res screen than the Nexus One, Droid Incredible, and Evo 4G. The Garminfone also lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack, and its camcorder and camera are underwhelming. Bottom line: if you want a high-quality GPS phone that runs Android apps, the Garminfone is worth a look. But at $199 there are many more well-rounded options available.