In the cycling world Garmin are probably best known for their handlebar-mounted GPS units and computers, but they're also big in car sat-navs and are now hoping to break into the smartphone market dominated by Apple and Blackberry.
Previous attempts by Garmin to produce a phone have been raked over the coals; rightly so, when compared to the hipster standard iPhone. This latest attempt uses the Android operating system, with hardware built in tandem with computer company Asus.
In addition to the usual smartphone features, the Garminfone offers turn-by-turn satellite navigation with voice guidance. Rather than seeming like a bit of an afterthought, as on phones from some other companies, GPS performance is on a par with the company's latest dashboard-mounted units.
Because of this, we'd seriously consider the Garminfone if we were in the market for a new 3G smartphone. It's certainly their strongest entry yet in this market, although at present it's only available on the US T-Mobile network.
The Garminfone’s GPS capabilities most closely resemble that of the Garmin nüvi 1690, a £260 (US$399) navigation-only device. The 1690 accesses the internet via Garmin’s nüLink services and allows the device access to Google, real-time traffic information and Ciao, Garmin’s personal assistant program that offers fuel prices, weather, movie and other local information. All of the same features are also available on the Garminfone.
In terms of function, the Garminfone works as well as any other navigation device we’ve used. The only real issue arises if you’re using both the phone and navigation features at the same time. In this case, the maps keep navigating but the phone is given priority over the GPS voice prompts, so if you’re lost, you’re going to want to wrap your call up quick.
Garminfone: Is it a phone or a GPS? Actually, it does both – well
Of course, none of this would be any use if the Garminfone didn't stand up in its own right as a smartphone.
It seems to us there are still three distinct schools when it comes to mobile devices: the iPhone evangelists, Android adopters and business-as-usual Blackberry stalwarts, like BikeRadar technical editor James Huang, who has been known to thumb-type full stories at a speed that is all but impossible on a touch screen.
Not all of us need to or can type out 1,000 words on our smartphones, though, and for the rest of us it seems that the iPhone and Android units like the Garminfone are solid, fun options that pack more ‘lifestyle’ features than a Blackberry. Despite their slower keyboards, they work well for music, internet and email, not to mention that they have the ability to run thousands of apps.
The touch screen keyboard isn't as fast as the analogue style found on most Blackberrys
While the Garminfone doesn't have the features to compete with the iPhone and its rivals at the top end of the market, it's a viable option for those looking for a base- to mid-level smartphone. We compared it to one of its price rivals, T-Mobile's base model Android 3G device, the HTC myTouch.
Garminfone versus myTouch
Both Garminfone and myTouch are five-band 3G phones. The myTouch comes with more storage capacity in the form of an 8GB microSD memory card (Garminfone comes with a 2GB card) and more battery power (1340mAh Lion for the myTouch versus 1150mAh Lion). We found the Garmin phone and the myTouch to need charging daily, especially if you’re surfing the web frequently or talking on the phone a lot. An advantage to the Garminfone is that docking it in the car for GPS use will charge the device back to full strength in about half an hour.
Garminfone's main competition is the myTouch by HTC, another company that sponsors a ProTour team
Both phones feature roughly 3 megapixel cameras and the ability to capture video; of course, this holds no water to the industry’s leaders (iPhone4 is 5MP and HTC Incredible is 8MP. We found the myTouch to produce better image quality, though the Garminfone produced adequate images for Twitter updates and MMS messaging.
The Garminfone's camera works, but is somewhat disappointing in the current market
The Garminfone costs US$129 with a 2-year contract or $449 without a contract (but still locked to the T-Mobile network). The myTouch is a little cheaper, at $99 with a contract or $399 without, and Garmin’s latest Nuvi 3790T GPS-only device costs $449. When it comes to navigation, the prowess of the myTouch definitely takes much of the wind out of the Garminfone’s sails as it features Google’s turn-by-turn service, which seems as good as Garmin’s proprietary GPS program.
The biggest benefit, however, is that the Garminfone’s GPS system works off of GPS satellites and pre-loaded maps, just like the maker’s standard navigation devices. This means that you’ll have satellite-guided navigation at your fingertips, even when you’re without a cellular signal, which is required for the myTouch and its Google-based navigation app. The Garminfone comes pre-loaded with US maps and will accept European maps or other countries via download or microSD card.
Garminfone's main menu allows you the choice of a smartphone or GPS unit
Garminfone sets itself apart in a couple of other key areas, too. While it’s only slightly bigger than the myTouch, the added girth of its screen makes a big difference when using it for dash-mounted navigation. Additionally, it comes standard with a suction cup window mount and car charger – two items that do not come with the myTouch.
A couple of minor points do let it down though. When it comes to adding headphones and other accessories, the Garminfone uses a proprietary jack instead of a standard 3.5mm one (as found on the myTouch). A 3.5mm adaptor is provided, but at 88cm the cord is too long to be practical with a standard set of headphones, and walking around with three times as much wire as we need sticking out of the phone is simply a bummer.