Back in 1998 Garmin introduced its first GPS system, allowing drivers a way of getting from A to B without having to worry about taping a hand-written set of instructions on their car dashboard.
When they were first new, the biggest barrier GPS systems had to overcome was their sticker price — and their generally poor routing subroutines. Horror stories of drivers plunging in to rivers, or trucks stuck on tiny roads were common fodder for that last entertaining story on the news. But in the seventeen years since its first GPS systems, the add-on GPS system of today have markedly improved since those early products, offering far more comprehensive map coverage and vastly better routing.
But today, they’re facing a new problem: remaining relevant at a time when many modern cars — especially higher-end models — come with an integrated GPS built into the car. Indeed, in the alternative fuel market, where vehicles are often priced higher and come with fully-integrated infotainment systems which offer Internet-connected routing software, there’s little case for buying a separate GPS system.
For companies like Garmin, that poses a very tough question: how do you keep up with the GPS-Jones’?
In the case of Garmin, the answer is its brand-new nüviCam, a gadget which combines ye olde GPS with an always-on dash cam.
But is it worth it? And what’s it like to live with the Garmin nüviCam? To find out, Garmin sent us its latest gadget to test for a few weeks, eager to prove that in a world where most high-end cars and nearly every smartphone offers route-planning software, standalone GPS systems are still worth the money.
First things first: a rundown of the features included in the nüviCam.
Theoretically it enables owners the ability to upgrade to a more modern in-car experience and enhances their safety with a mixture of navigation and augmented reality features. In addition to the front-facing dash camera, the nüviCam can be linked to an optional rear camera. The nüviCam records footage continuously and can, in the event of an incident, keep that video with the incident highlighted when played back in the nüviCam software.
The nüviCam also uses the input from its front camera to offer lane departure and forward collision warnings that alert you should you wander or get too close to the car in front. Of course, it also has features that are de rigueur for GPSs in the era of a multitude of connected apps: traffic and update routes with roadworks and diversions. Voice commands also make an appearance.
The first thing that strikes you about the nüviCam is how big it is. It is chunky. When compared to the sylphlike modern smartphone, the nüviCam is huge. It sports a clear and bright 6.1″ display, but is over half an inch thick (1.5cm) in the main body, and over an inch thick (3.3 cm) around the camera. It also feels hefty, weighing in at 11.3 oz (319.2 g) according to the spec sheet.
To give Garmin the best review opportunity, the first step was to be sure the unit was completely up-to-date with the current software and maps. Garmin Express for OS X was installed and paired with the nüviCam, a simple and painless first step. It identified that the loan unit was indeed in need of a number of updates. This, it turned out, was a process that can take a while. While it wasn’t clear how long it’d been since it was last updated, it was a bit of a shock to have over 2 hours of updates to download and install, especially given how quickly your average smartphone app updates.
We’re not saying here that the update was necessary in order to use the device — but one of the major benefits of the nüviCam is the ability to keep maps up-to-date — so we decided the update was part of your average ownership experience.
That done, and fully charged, we threw the nüviCam in the car for that first “Oh I have a new toy I want to use it without reading the instructions” experience.
First up, it fell off the windscreen as we pulled away, not exactly a inspiring start.
Ok. We’ll admit, the test car was Transport Evolved’s aging second generation Prius, which has perhaps not the cleanest windscreen. After several more “catch the expensive falling thing” experiences the screen was given a thorough clean (at least around where we were attaching the nüviCam) and it was attached successfully.
Indeed, after that no further sudden detachments were encountered. But here’s the thing: the heavy DSLR camera mount and GoPro mounts used when we’re making videos have had no problems sticking to windshields (even the one in our grubby Prius). The nüviCam fell right off. Repeatedly.
Later, reviewing the videos that were left on the camera by previous reviewers (the camera hadn’t been erased between journalists it seemed) it didn’t look like we were the first to encounter the problem.
In fact, every single recorded ‘accident’ or ‘incident’ registered and stored by the nüviCam software was actually a moment when it fell off the screen of whichever car it happened to be in at the time.
But with mounting issues solved, we paired the nüviCam with an Android phone and set off.
And here’s where things get better. Not only were the directions accurate, but they were updated with roadworks and traffic delays. But after just an hour on the road, the battery on the nüviCam died. It did warn us that the battery was getting low, which is useful, but it was somewhat startling to find such a short battery life.
In Garmin’s defence, the instructions that come with the nüviCam do say that it should be plugged in. But older model cars often have only one accessory socket, and many people use them to charge phones (or other devices), so a useful battery life is important. Perhaps it’d been hammered by previous reviewers, but less than an hour was much less than anticipated.
But perhaps this was all unfair. We did, after all, leap in without instructions, without spending the time to set it all up correctly. But then so too would most customers, we’d expect.
To give it a fairer test, after perusing the instructions, the nüviCam was properly wired up. The nüviCam comes with a screen attachment suction-cup to which you attach the cable that runs to the accessory socket (and appears to include a largish power converter or fuse of some sort). You also, for best performance, attach a microphone to a socket on that cable and run that to somewhere near your head.
That has the unfortunate effect of adding a lot of clutter to the dashboard and unless you want to use stick-on pads, or something similar, that cable flaps about all over the shop.
It is thick and heavy meaning it can’t be tucked out of sight or snuck in around the edges of the dash. That weight meant it slid from the dashboard, or hung around the footwells, generally getting in the way… and wasn’t quite long enough to reach the socket on the Prius necessitating the purchase of an accessory extension lead.
Not only that, but a significant consideration is that if you leave it out while the car is parked anywhere you’re either advertising that there’s potentially an expensive GPS stashed in there, or that you’re worth mugging when you get back to the car. Perhaps a better battery and fast charger, with an optional cable for those longer drives, would have been a better route for them to go.
In the end, between each trip, it (and the assorted cabling) was removed and stashed in the car’s centre console. Given the nüviCam’s substantial size, that was most of that space taken up, and it was a significant amount of bother to reinstate it on the windscreen every time we returned to the car.
Once it was in place however, the nüviCam’s navigation system performed very well. Whilst the user interface does seem somewhat dated compared to modern Android and iPhone apps, it’s certainly clear and easy to use. The traffic and road works alerts worked well; and the integration with foursquare was also was handy. The Android Smartphone link app did its job without any real complaint, and the ability to just select a contact’s address from the address book is nice. Although the app itself was quite ugly to look at.
However using the nüviCam’s Bluetooth link with a phone introduces an irritating problem.
The Prius has quite a nice hands-free system, and you could either have the GPS happy, or use the hands free system in the car. Not both. The two of them did not wish to co-exist, and the testing of the GPS to receive calls did not go particularly well with the person receiving the call completely unable to hear the driver of the car.
For an EV driver, the integration with foursquare is the only feature to aid you in finding charging points. Traditional fuel filling stations are well covered, but alternative fuels not so much. Disappointingly, there’s no attempt to integrate a live-update charging map, nor any obvious way to route according to topography, leaving perhaps the most important features for EV drivers unaddressed.
Despite our issues however, compared to a traditional GPS, we’d say the nüviCam does exactly what it should. It performs pretty well. But the much vaunted safety features were a little more tricksy.
Part of that? The way in which the camera must be set up in the car in order for it to operate properly.
Once the nüviCam is installed in the car, the camera must be aligned by selecting ‘align camera’ then physically adjusting the camera on the back of the unit until it’s pointing neatly forwards. Dependent on where the unit is on the windscreen it is more, or less, accurate in providing lane departure warnings. Indeed, whilst the lane departure warning was very effective in alerting wandering across solid white lane markings (as used at the edge of larger roads in the UK), persuading it to alert you to crossing the intermittent white line used to divide lanes proved to be a challenge.
Some days it would seem to be fairly reliable. On others, seemingly with it positioned in the same place, no alerts at all would be issued for those intermittent white lines. Even the solid white line on the edge of the right margin of the road sometimes seemed to be tricky.
It may be that the Prius’s long sloping screen and the difficulty of finding somewhere for such a large device that didn’t obscure the driver’s view meant that its effectiveness as a driver awareness aid was compromised by positioning. But despite multiple attempts it proved to be at best intermittent and at worst completely ineffective.
In contrast, forward collision alerts were very effective, with the system rapidly identifying and warning about cars in front that were too close. Forward collision sensitivity is also adjustable, allowing you to tweak the system to your desired alert distance, a nice touch.
The voice command system was, unfortunately, another area that needs work. Whilst it was responsive to the ‘Voice Command’ instruction, not once was a successful address entered first time by voice. Frequently it became apparent that no amount of repeating, nor application of different accents, would enable it to recognise even fairly simple road or place names. Often it would suggest random seeming roads in far off cities rather than a place within the same city. It is not a feature that could be recommended.
The final component of the nüviCam system is that software allowing you to play back your trip and view those automatically generated incident alerts. This worked really well, although it doesn’t seem to track and mark ‘lane departure warnings’ or ‘forward collision alerts’, it identified all those times the GPS fell off the screen, suggesting that in an actual accident, it’d effectively mark and store those videos of that journey, potentially saving a tricky argument in court.
With a retail price of around £309 (srp $399.99), the nüviCam has an uphill battle on its hands. If you have a smartphone, augmented driving apps abound and having one more device to deal with when travelling, and to hide when not, seems a lot of hassle. On the other hand, if you have no smartphone then the nüviCam is a nice, effective GPS – and it has (at least in the UK edition) traffic alerts over DAB and FM – both of which work well. Garmin also include lifetime map updates, which if you’re driving an older model hybrid could be appealing. For older people, or those with physical disabilities affecting their hands, the slight chunkiness of the interface and pronounced chunkiness of the device may prove to be an advantage.
At the end of the day, it achieves a lot of what Garmin say it will, perhaps prolonging the life of the automotive GPS a little longer, but it isn’t a device that is clamouring for inclusion in the Transport Evolved office.
Note: Status PR, Garmin’s press agency, supplied a review unit on temporary loan to enable us to bring you this first-person review.
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