From the beginning, certain high-tech pairings have made eminent sense: Clock+radio. Camera+cellphone. Fridge+freezer.
This week, after many delays, Garmin and AT&T have unveiled a new candidate for the Gadget Combo Hall of Fame: GPS+cellphone.
It’s called the Garmin Nuvifone G60, and it costs $300 (after a $100 rebate and a two-year AT&T contract at $70 a month or more). And except for one small niggling detail, it’s a surprisingly successful mating.
First of all, it’s a fantastic auto or pedestrian GPS unit. The suction-cup windshield mount is brilliantly designed: when you’re in the car, the Nuvifone snaps in neatly and securely with no effort at all. But when you’re using it as a smartphone, it pops out cleanly, with no latches or protuberances to ruin its handsome rectangular lines.
Garmin has endowed this thing with its top-of-the-line navigation goodies. For example, it speaks street and place names (“Turn right on Bayberry Lane” rather than “Turn right in 400 feet”). Better yet, the speech doesn’t sound as if it’s stitched together from canned chunks, like most talking gadgets (“In half of a mile — turn left on — forty — first — street”). Instead, it speaks flowingly, in complete sentences.
The software is easy to navigate. (Evidently, Garmin has realized the importance of simple software in a moving car. After all, in the end, driver distraction equals fewer potential customers.)
When you pop the unit off its car mount, it memorizes its location, so you can easily find your car again when you return.
The Nuvifone includes a national White Pages and Yellow Pages; you can look up any residence or business in seconds. A gas-station app shows current gas prices at stations near you. A movies app instantly shows you what movies are playing nearby, complete with today’s show times, and can even add a selected showing to the phone’s calendar for you. (An included Windows-only synching program keeps your phone up to date with your PC’s calendar and address book.) The Nuvifone also receives real-time traffic details; color-coded road lines represent traffic speed, and the unit offers to route you around them.
Sadly, the bundle of real-time information services (traffic, gas, movies, weather, White Pages, Local Events) costs $6 a month forever.
Now, the Nuvifone is a cellphone, too, so it can perform all kinds of cool tricks that a regular GPS unit can’t. For example, when you tap an address or a point of interest, you’re offered not just a Go button, but also a Call button. It makes perfect sense, as you’re steered toward some restaurant or store, to call ahead from the same screen to find out what time they close.
Similarly, you can tap someone’s name in your address book and see on a map to (or navigate to) that person’s house.
Unfortunately, your happiness with this gadget begins crashing the moment you snap it off that ingenious windshield mount.
Oh, it feels great as a smartphone. It has almost exactly the same dimensions as an iPhone, but is thicker (by a hair) and blockier (by lots of hairs). The screen is big and bright.
But whatever technology Garmin (and Asus, its computing collaborator) chose for the Nuvifone’s touch screen was a balky mistake. You have to really bear down to make it register a click, and “flicking” to scroll a list works only sometimes. The rest of the time, it registers a click on whatever item was beneath your finger at the start of the flick. It’s wildly frustrating.
The Nuvifone has Wi-Fi built in, so you can hop onto wireless Internet hot spots to check your e-mail or consult a Web page. But this Web browser gives “crude” a whole new meaning. There are + and – buttons to zoom into or out of a Web page, but of course you can’t control what it’s zooming into, meaning that after each zoom, you have to re-center the page, which means you have to flick to scroll, which means ... well, see above.
There’s a long list of other frustrations, all of which scream, “Garmin’s a GPS company, not a smartphone designer!” For example: Incredibly, there’s no way to advance from one e-mail message to the next; you have to return to the Inbox after reading each one. To save power, the screen turns off when you’re on a call — but since there’s no proximity sensor, it doesn’t turn back on when you pull the phone away from your face. So to hang up, you have to first wake the phone up. Grrr.
There’s no Home button, only an on-screen Back button. (You can get Home by holding down that Back button, but a proper button would have been simpler.) There’s a so-so camera, but it’s slow, and it doesn’t record video. And although it has a basic MP3 music player, this “smartphone” can’t play video, either.
You’re supposed to enter information (e-mail, for example) by tapping an on-screen keyboard. But considering the amount of force required by this screen, it’s tough slogging.
The speaker, and thus the driving directions, are feeble; you’ll want to use a Bluetooth headset or external speaker if you drive more than 40 miles per hour.
You keep running up against these weird design decisions. For example, when you get a text message, a notice pops on the screen, saying, “You have an unread text message from 1 (273) 513 3201.” Well, good heavens — if you’ve got room to say all that, why not just display the message itself?
Even in light of all of these annoyances, though, the Nuvifone could still be a contender. Plenty of smartphones have balky touch screens and the occasional brain-dead feature.
No, for most people, the real deal-killer boils down to one word:
Why does this phone exist? Who would buy a two-trick pony that costs $100 or $200 more than a proper smartphone like an iPhone, BlackBerry or Palm Pre?
Now, I’m not going to argue that an iPhone with a downloaded GPS app is just as good as a Garmin. Integration, polish and depth make a huge difference to a feature’s usefulness.
For example, most iPhone or BlackBerry GPS programs don’t come with windshield mounts; some GPS apps require insane monthly fees for the navigation service; incoming phone calls turn off the navigation; important features like spoken street names may be missing; the phone book and GPS aren’t integrated; and so on.
But even if an iPhone or Pre or BlackBerry isn’t as good at GPS, it trounces the Nuvifone in virtually every other category: e-mail, Web browsing, text-message handling, games, music, video, photos, camera, typing, and on and on and on. There’s no app store for the Nuvifone, for example, and precious few accessories. (One of them is the cigarette-lighter charger, for which AT&T has the gall to charge $25 extra. And without it, you’re lost; on battery power alone, my Nuvifone battery was dead after two hours of driving and 15 minutes of phone calls.)
So yes: if you live in your car in unfamiliar neighborhoods, and GPS is the main thing you want from a phone — well, the Nuvifone is the best GPS phone there is.
But you’ll pay dearly for the privilege. Not just because you’ll sacrifice so much awesomeness in every non-GPS corner of the phone, but also because the Nuvifone is darned expensive. Even those $6-a-month information services ought to be free; on regular smartphones, traffic, gas prices, weather and the like are free.
GPS+cellphone might well have become one of the classic gadget pairings — if it had had its debut in 1999. Today, in the face of competition from so many overachieving superphones, the Nuvifone winds up looking eccentrically out of touch.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.