Marco's Blog

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Android vs Garmin - GPS for the Masses

2011-06-14 6 min read Gadgets marco

I finally decided to get myself an Android phone. I was sick of my N900 and its eternally unfixed bugs (including the interesting reboot in the middle of a phone call), and I took the news of T-Mobile’s selling out to AT&T as my launch pad. Within days, I had run to the various stores and found exactly what I wanted: a no-contract Samsung phone on the fantastic $25/month Virgin Mobile plan. It’s an all you can eat Internet and SMS plan, so don’t you ever call me. Even if I had an all you can eat voice plan, though, don’t call me.

Well, at the same time as I set up the Android, I received a Garmin unit. Nice, you’ll say. And to create a perfect trifecta, I decided to look at real estate in San Diego. (Side note: I am sick of renting, and it’s really expensive.)

So, how do my Google Maps-enabled phone and my Garmin Lifetime Maps and Traffic compare? Spoiler: Garmin is dead in the water.

Ease of Use

The first annoyance with the Garmin unit is that it takes long to boot. If you have ever watched Family Guy, you are familiar with the feeling: it’s what happens to Peter and Brian when Consuelo shows up. “No… Superman not home…”

It seems unreasonable for a dedicated GPS unit to take about a half minute just to boot, especially because it doesn’t boot into anything exciting: a screen that asks you whether you want to look at maps or get directions to somewhere. For enhanced cruelty, if you have the unit attached to the car battery via the outlet, whenever the car starts, so does the unit. You stop at the Starbucks, and when you turn on the car again, the GPS boots again, freezing you for 30 seconds.

The phone, of course, is always on. Even better, it doesn’t care about charging and can work and charge without the slightest interruption. Google Maps is on the home page, so it’s just a click away. Easy peasy!


I confess that I haven’t seen much difference between the directions of the two units, and they are spot on in both cases. Both know about the precise location of the address entered on the street, telling you accurately whether the unit is on the left or right. Both know about recent housing developments. Both apply a time-weighted algorithm to the search.

While the two units give the same directions for a car, Google Maps also allows you to get walking, cycling, and public transportation maps. I find that very valuable, but your milage may vary.


The Garmin comes with a safety feature I wish my phone had: it refuses to allow entering of an address or location while the car is moving. You can override the safety feature, but I find it important that it is turned on (and I left it on, in case you are wondering).

The larger display of the Garmin should make for more impressive viewing of guidance, but I find that I listen most of the time and rarely watch what’s going on on the screen. The voices on both units are clear and directions are easy to understand and timely. On the Garmin unit you can choose the voice from a set of them, while Google seems to have only one, but for my purposes it’s all good. (If you want a non-English voice on Google, though, I don’t know how to turn that on.)

A downside of both units is that they don’t know about your car stereo, which for practical purposes means you can’t listen to music while navigation is on – especially with the short hops that a real estate search requires.


One clear problem with Google Maps on Android is that it doesn’t work if you don’t have an Internet connection. It barely works if the connection is slow, so you should consider that. If you are travleling into the desert, I wouldn’t rely on the Android navigation’s availability.

On the other hand, when you have a connection, life is much better with GMaps. Information is always as accurate as possible, while you have to manually keep your Garmin current. Additionally, one feature that I found amazingly important is sending an address to the phone.

Right now, when my agent sends me a listing, I simply look at it in my email inbox on the phone and click on the address. GMaps springs up automatically, i click a “Directions” button, and off I go. With the Garmin, I have to enter the address manually. (Note: to make things worse, entering addresses on the Garmin feels needlessly stupid. You have to first enter the city, then you enter the street number, and finally the street name. What if you don’t know the street number? You guess, and the unit tells you it doesn’t know about that address.)

While both the Android phone and the Garmin GPS unit know about nearby points of interest, only Google Maps allows you to search for ANYTHING nearby. I noticed the difference when looking for coffee places around the latest listing, only to find out that Garmin strangely forgot to create a separate category for those. In GMaps, I simply enter a search for espresso and get the closest espresso place (usually a Starbucks).

Odds and Ends

The Android phone suffers a little from its nature as a multi-purpose device. Sometimes you will be in the middle of navigation and a phone call comes in – you have to choose, one or the other. Additionally, GMaps doesn’t turn itself off by default when you get to your destination, so you get out of the car with your phone yelling directions for all to hear.

The Garmin unit annoyed me to no ends because the updates to the maps are available only on Windows. Seriously??? To make things worse, when you download the enormous update file (3 point something Gigabyte), you have to use the Garmin Updated plugin that isn’t smart enough to resume a download. I had to download the entire thing four times before it succeeded, and it’s quite the pain when it dies after 2.9G and you have to start from scratch.

Just make the stupid download file available, if possible via BitTorrent, and have us copy it into the Garmin unit. Why make people’s life so miserable?


Well, you can get yourself a $350 Garmin unit or a $99 Virgin Mobile no-contract phone. They do the same thing (when it comes to navigation). Only the $99 unit does it better. And it can do a lot more things. And it’s not a PITA to use.

Only downside? Doesn’t work when you have no signal.