Electronic Design

Never Ask For Directions Again

Garmin, the largest GPS receiver manufacturer, recently let me test out its nuvi 350 receiver (see the figure). It's tiny, measuring a bit less than 4 by 3 by 1 in. Also, it's powered by an internal lithium-ion battery that charges from ac or a 12-V car outlet. The LCD color touchscreen is 3.5 in. diagonal with good resolution. The nuvi 350 comes loaded with full maps of the U.S. And, the antenna is a patch that flips up so you can position it for best reception.

It takes a couple of minutes for the radio to acquire the satellites and compute its location. But when that's done, it pinpoints your position on the map. Though it only works outdoors, the nuvi 350 can easily maintain contact with the satellites through a car windshield and limited tree cover.

I used the Garmin to find various addresses on several trips I made around the Austin, Texas area. All you do is type in the desired city and address, and the Garmin gives you detailed driving instructions on the screen and by voice output. If you think cell phones are distracting while you drive, a GPS receiver is worse. That's what makes the voice output so useful and a lot safer.

At first I was reluctant to trust the instructions, but after several trips, I was convinced and followed it blindly. One thing I found is that it chooses the route it wants and doesn't take kindly to you going another way. I know Austin pretty well, so I wasn't inclined to take some of the routes it offered. I know shorter routes in many cases. The Garmin handles this well by recomputing and giving you instructions about how to get back on track.

I also took the nuvi 350 with me on a recent trip to southern California. I don't know my way around Orange County too well, but the device came through for me. It quickly guided me from John Wayne Airport to my hotel and to some other locations I visited.

All in all, the nuvi 350 was quite effective. My two main complaints were the screen and the mounting hardware. The screen pretty much washes out in bright sunlight, making it difficult to read. But I don't blame Garmin, since this is the case for most LCDs. The nuvi has a brightness adjustment that helped.

The mounting hardware was a bracket and suction-cup deal that was designed to attach the receiver to a windshield or the dashboard.

It didn't work well at all. I had to hold the receiver or position it on the seat so it could maintain a link to the satellites—a real pain.

I didn't try the traffic-reporting mode. The nuvi contains an FM radio that picks up transmissions from a local FM station. The station tracks traffic in specific cities and reports it to the receiver which, in turn, helps to reroute you. It's a great option for drivers in traffic-bound cities. Known as FM-TMC (Traffic Message Channel), the system is available in more than 20 U.S. cities.

Since the coverage is continuous, there's no need to wait for a traffic broadcast on the usual AM or FM station. The Garmin automatically plots an alternate route for you if you're heading toward a tie-up. The FM receiver is usually an extra cost. Garmin even offers a version that gets traffic updates from an XM satellite radio, if you have one.

The nuvi 350 has several other features I didn't test, including a Bluetooth interface, an MP3 player, and an audio book player. But I did try out the feature that lets you locate restaurants, gas stations, and hotels nearby. It worked like a charm.

Despite the LCD and mounting issues, the nuvi 350 is a terrific device. If you've never experienced one, you have a treat coming. It's easy to use and extremely precise. If you get lost a lot and have a problem finding your way, or just hate asking directions, don't leave home without one of these devices.

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