Nifty GPS mobile-phone apps take Garmin in entirely new direction

Is the venerable GPS navigation pioneer Garmin trying to put itself out of business?

With its new slate of mobile applications for $39.99, you might think so, because there’s no need to shell out hundreds of dollars for a portable navigation system when you can simply turn your smartphone into one.

Garmin is in fact right on target and right on time (barely) with its new batch of StreetPilot apps, a lower-priced alternative that actually does threaten to put portable nav systems out of business. Like so many companies at risk of being left behind by technological innovations, Garmin had to decide whether to hold firm in their comfort zone and hope that what renders them antiquated will turn out to be a fad, or to adjust their business model to accommodate the future.

Luckily it seems Garmin will not be going the way of Blockbuster Video or, dare I say, newspapers anytime soon, because their new product is just that good.

I tested the latest offering in its app series last week, its StreetPilot for Windows Phone, which is basically identical to its iPhone, iPad and Android counterparts.

The first thing I noticed is the speed. Having owned several Garmins over the years, I know the frustration of sitting around waiting for your route to calculate, a plight exacerbated in urban downtowns where high-rises obscure satellite signals. But these challenges didn’t phase the power-couple that was my Garmin app and HTC Trophy phone. The lag time was noticeably shorter, and the turn-by-turn voice commands always came in time.

I wish I had the foresight to order a car dock for the phone, which is essential if you want your smartphone to replace your portable GPS. You’ll need to plunk down anywhere from $10 to $30 for one of those. That said, I was impressed by how steady the navigation remained while getting knocked around in my center console.

More reasons the app is better than your portable GPS: address book integration that can navigate to your contacts’ homes, current weather and traffic updates at no additional cost, and best of all, maps that automatically update, so you don’t have to plug your GPS into your computer every time there’s a Big Dig road closure.

The only drawback is the battery life. Make sure you have a car charger, because this app saps the juice from your phone. Still, the $40 investment is well worth it, as was Garmin’s decision to begin to phase out those clunky portable GPS systems that were so recently the wave of the future.


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