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The Net Takeaway: Garmin StreetPilot i3, show me the way...


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Garmin StreetPilot i3, show me the way... · 06/14/2006 01:07 AM, Tech

As an early Father’s Day present, my wife got me a Garmin StreetPilot i3. I brought it with me to California and tried it out.

I am very, very pleased with it. The current crop of GPS devices averages $400 dollars, with some going up to $800. TomTom continues to be the best interface and experience… and you pay for it. But the other guys are borrowing the best features and including them… but $400 is still a ton to spend.

The i3 is the first affordable color portable I’ve seen, around $275 or so. Its about the size of a tennis ball or baseball, and comes with a car adapter. Its part of a family: the i2 is the same as the i3 with a greyscale screen. The i3 has a color screen, but like the i2, uses a TransFlash MicroSD data card to store data. The i5 can also use the TransFlash (for special “points of interest”), but doesn’t really need it; it has the entire US road system pre-loaded (for an extra $100!).

I went with the i3, with the biggest fear being that its useless if I can’t get the city data onto it, and that 128mb (the included card) couldn’t hold what I needed. As it turns out, the software install was relatively painless (DVD required!), and the 128mb card holds Northern California, Mass, NJ and NY with some room to spare (25% or so free). Loading the maps took a few minutes…. as does finding the satellites the first time. It takes 2 AA batteries to allow it to run without the adapter, but those got eaten up pretty quickly.

Unlike the big guys, this one has a relatively smaller screen and a reduced voice capability (no voice recognition, and only “turn left ahead” instead of “turn left on Smith Drive”). It has only a power button, a “left arrow”, and a depressible roller.

The basic process is to either “view map” where it shows you where you are and a compass heading, or “Where to?” which gives a variety of ways of finding things. Flaw number 1: the map is not scrollable. I’m spoiled by Google/Yahoo/MSN Live maps where I can zoom and scroll to see where things are. You can zoom on the i3, but it doesn’t really help, and you can’t scroll or pan at all. This feature is really missed when you are trying to figure out what general route to take.

As for “Where to?”, there are a variety of ways to enter a destination. When you load the maps, it also loads a variety of hotels, stores, restaurants, movie theaters, etc. which are searchable (sort of, you have to know how to spell it.) You can also enter an address, or go to an intersection.

A few minutes practice made typing in letters via the roller pretty easy (like a labelmaker), but you don’t want to do it while you are driving. In fact, each step taks enough time and attention that you really need to enter your data in before driving.

Another really, really annoying thing is that you can’t really influence the route selection. You can try to avoid toll roads or u-turns, but if there are 2 good ways to go, you can’t choose your poison. For example, from Sunnyvale to SF, one can take the famous and traffic-ridden 101, or the scenic and slightly longer 280, which parallels 101 for most of the trip. The Navteq routing engine, like on Yahoo and Google and MSN/Live, chooses the shortest or quickest route and picks 101. Even discovering this was painful: you can view a “turn by turn” of your route, but it takes forever.

So, I drove towards 280, and the poor i3 tried every trick to get me back on 101. I couldn’t find a way to say “I’m on a large highway, reroute from here using this big road in front of you!”. You can try to put a “waypoint” but this has to be a location. So, I picked a BK off 280… and when I passed it, the i3 tried to get me to exit back to it! Yep, no way to say “Ok, I passed it, its ok”. Only 3/4 of the way to SF did it finally reroute and accept that 280 was it… because we had passed every easy connector back to 101.

I find this “route using selected roads” a huge impediment to both GPS tools and online mapping. You can trick Yahoo Maps (beta) sometimes by right clicking on a road you want to take, and using that as your starting point instead of your actual location… but sometimes even that doesn’t work.

Other than this annoying aspect, if you put your faith that whatever route it picks is basically good, the i3 is a really great deal. The “consumer” GPS tools are less precise than the mil-spec ones, so sometimes the i3 doesn’t know quite where you are. Also, of course, roads change so you will need to pay a small amount to keep the maps up to date.

But for us, moving to a new world of NJ and NY, and part time driving around SF and Silly Valley, its a great purchase. I expect it to be a big hit for Garmin. Recommended!

(BTW, did you know that California doesn’t allow you to suction cup things to the windshield? I do now.)

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  1. So glad you posted on this topic… I just went out and got my dad one for father’s day too. I had been waiting for a cheeper color screen version and didn’t know this existed. My dad is a corporate traveler and will certinaly benefit from this product. Thanks for the info!
    Wendi    Jun 14, 01:10 PM    #

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