A newfangled buggy whip is still a buggy whip

One of the downsides of falling in love with a technology is that you miss it, really really miss it, at times when it isn’t available to you. Take your smartphone. I wonder how many people have popped a Xanax after being in a no Cell or WiFi signal area for an extended period. Well I’m starting to have that problem with Amazon Alexa. I don’t like being somewhere I can’t say “Alexa, time” or “Alexa, turn on the outside lights”, or “Alexa, ask CNBC the price of Amazon stock” rather than drop the Ming vase to get the phone out of my pocket. As Paul Marcarelli used to say, can you hear me now? So when Garmin launched the Garmin Speak with Amazon Alexa a couple of weeks ago I didn’t wait for reviews, and I didn’t think about it for even a second, I just went to smile.amazon.com and ordered one.

Ok I lied. I read the announcement of the Garmin Speak and thought, “hey I’m going on a trip and wouldn’t it be neat to take Alexa along?” Oh, and “it might be nice to have a dedicated navigation device in the rental car”. Then I shut off my brain and ordered. I forgot how many times my old standalone GPS devices had taken me on a bad (even dead end) route. I didn’t think about how much better navigation has been since I switched to Waze a few years ago. Or how helpful little touches, like Apple Maps picking up the destination address of the restaurant from the Yelp app, can be. Or, “you realize you are going to spend $149.99 for a subset of the $49.99 Echo Dot’s capabilities?” I just ordered.

Let me get the easy part out of the way, I loved having Alexa along for the ride. I can’t wait for it to appear as a native capability in car infotainment systems. Or for Amazon to find a way to expose it through the infotainment systems via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Or for a true Echo Dot Auto device to be introduced by Amazon, or one of its partners. I don’t even regret that I had to pay 3x what it costs to put an Echo Dot in my house to have one in the car. And as long as you are think about the Garmin Speak as no more than an expensive Echo Dot you’ll probably be happy. One caveat, do keep in mind that not all Alexa functionality is available yet on the Garmin Speak. Indeed all the third-party devices are missing true 100% Echo compatibility, so if you are expecting specific functionality (e.g., Alexa Voice Calling and Messaging) on the device then you’ll need to do some research before buying.

Now for the hard part, I found myself as disappointed with the navigation capabilities of the Garmin Speak as with all the earlier Garmin’s I’ve owned. It was kind of magical to say “Alexa, ask Garmin to take me to the u-haul moving center in Smithtown” and have it start giving voice instructions and displaying the next turn on its small but easy to read display. When it decided to route me on a small tertiary road through a neighborhood I had a bit of deja vu. Back in the 90s I would sometimes take Route 522 over the top of Lake Washington on my way from Woodinville to Seattle. As you would approach the entrance to I5, my original Garmin would have you turn into a neighborhood apparently calculating there was a shortcut. It would then route you in a circle through the neighborhood and back on to 522. I almost crashed the car my wife and I were laughing so hard. But you only laugh the first time. Twenty years later the Garmin Speak didn’t take me in a circle, but when it got to the intersection of the tertiary road and the Main Street my destination was on it told me I’d arrived. I looked around and couldn’t see the U-Haul dealer. Following the street numbers myself I located it a half mile north of where the Garmin Speak had taken me. First time use, big fail.

I wish I could say that my initial failure navigating with the Garmin Speak was an isolated case, but it wasn’t. Although I turned off the option to avoid u-turns, the Garmin Speak still insisted on taking me on a wild goose chase to get to the house I was staying in rather than do a simple u-turn that took me right to the neighborhood entrance. Waze doesn’t have this issue. Up until a year or two ago that intersection didn’t allow u-turns, so this suggests to me Garmin isn’t processing map updates very quickly. It is almost as though Garmin still works on the old annual cycle for shipping map updates, while Waze and other cloud-born solutions pick up even entirely new neighborhoods within weeks or months. More broadly, over a week of use the Garmin Speak did ok but was an inferior experience to Waze, Google Maps, or Apple Maps.

One other issue I had with the Garmin Speak was its mount. Don’t get me wrong, the magnetic mount works great and sticks to the windshield all too well. The problem with the mounting system is that it isn’t suitable for rental car use. Garmin’s design center, and they say this in their documentation, is for permanent installations. The magnetic disk glues solidly to your windshield and is very hard to remove. The wiring is intended to be routed under your car’s headliner, so the USB cable goes upward rather than down with an awkward bend if you want a straight connection to the power outlet. When you use it in a rental, where a suction cup mount would be more appropriate, you’ll be disposing of one of the two magnetic disks Garmin gives you. And I haven’t found where they sell replacements. You also may be buying tools for removing the disk from the rental car. Note that if you are not going to use the Garmin Speak for navigation, you can forget the mount entirely and just throw it in a cup holder for Alexa access. That’s how I’ll be using mine in the future.

Garmin fans may think I’m nuts and have all kinds of counter-examples of Garmin doing a better job of navigation than Waze et al. I believe those users would have been better served by integrating Alexa into a traditional Garmin GPS form-factor than the Speak’s attempt to hew to the Amazon Echo design language. For example, the Garmin Speak’s display very clearly shows you the next turn and distance to it, but it doesn’t show you the name of the street that you’ll be turning on. Or a map or turn list for those who like to think ahead. Those are just too much for a watch face sized display being viewed from a couple of feet away.

Overall the Garmin Speak is a new fangled buggy whip. I’ll leave the rest of the analogy to the reader.

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