Garmin 350 GPS

February 29th, 2008

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Recently my wife and I had to go to California (San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles) If you’ve never been to LA before it’s a big city that’s really spread out so the best way to get around is to rent a car. We brought a Garmin 350 GPS along to make getting around easier.

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Now while I’m not a GPS expert, you might find my impressions useful since I’m a regular end user like most people. My GPS experience is somewhat limited. I’ve used a few Bluetooth GPS’, Pocket PC’s with built-in GPS, my Nokia n95, some other GPS enabled phones, a TomTom One and the GPS built into my car.

Last time I was in LA, we brought along the TomTom One. It’s been a while since I’ve used the TomTom but here’s what stuck out: the battery life wasn’t so great and you need to know the zip codes when you’re looking for a place.

First Impressions:

Size wise the 350 is most similar to the TomTom One so I’ll probably be comparing the two the most. Technically the TomTom is not a direct competitor to the 350 since they are at two different price points (the Garmin costs a bit more). The most noticeable difference is that the Garmin will read out street names (the TomTom just tells you to turn left or right whereas the Garmin will say turn left at Howard St.). Another big difference is that the Garmin will last a lot longer on battery life than the TomTom.

The 350 came with a nice leatherette carrying case. While it’s nice to have the carrying case when you’re walking around you can’t use the 350 if you put it in there.

In the box you get: Garmin 350, car charger, AC adapter, mini USB cable and a leatherette carrying case.

I liked the windshield mount. the suction cup has a lever which you pull so that it fits more securely to your windshield. There’s a button you can press to quickly take the 350 off. While I didn’t think the TomTom’s mount was that bad (it’s pretty secure too though you have to work it in before it becomes easier to take off) the Garmin’s is much better.

Usage:

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As luck would have it I forgot to bring the Garmin’s mount and car charger which really made me use it’s extra features (street announcing and longer battery life).

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Now for some background. Whenever I get a new device I usually don’t bother reading the manual. I prefer to use it and figure it out as I go. The Garmin has a flip out antenna; turns out that if you don’t flip it out, the GPS portion won’t turn on meaning it won’t search for a GPS signal. This is what made the Garmin harder to use if you’re just walking around with it.

Another difference I noticed is that TomTom requires the zip code when you’re looking for an address or point of interest while the Garmin just needs the State and City. The Garmin makes a lot more sense since I’m not that familiar with US zip codes.

In order to work properly, a GPS needs to be able to see the sky. This isn’t a problem when you’re driving around since you’re in the middle of a road but a GPS can have a lot of trouble if you’re walking off to the side where there are lots of big buildings around. Also, if you’re walking around it can be hard to figure out what direction you’re walking in. I’d like to see how useful it would be in a big city like New York.

I’m not 100% sure of this but it appears when you create a route to a location you can only choose from one. On my car GPS, when you enter an address it will calculate different routes and let you choose from them. The reason I bring this up was because we wanted to go from our Hotel (by the LA Airport) to Laguna Beach via the Pacific Coast Highway and didn’t want to take the 405. You can specify whether you want to take the fastest route or the most direct one plus you can choose to avoid toll roads, etc.

Now I forgot to bring the Garmin’s windshield mount (apparently you can get a ticket in California if you stick it to the windshield) so I didn’t look at it that often. I just got my wife to hold it. I did find the Garmin’s screen a little on the small side when it came to entering text, maybe I should have considered a wide screen model.

I also forgot the car charger. Out of the box, the 350 is setup to 1) never turn the screen backlight off, 2) never to dim it. When you use it like this, the battery life is probably close to around 3 hrs. We happened to use it around 3.1 hrs that day so it ran out of juice a few miles before we got back to the hotel. The next day I learned my lesson and turned the backlight down and made it dim after 30 seconds. After this change, we were able to drive from LA to Ventura and back (about 3 hrs of driving) and on a separate occasion from LA to San Diego and back (about 4 hrs driving) and had plenty of battery life left afterwards. Before we left, we input the addresses of places we wanted to visit and saved them as what Garmin calls “favorites”. We did search for some restaurants from the Garmin’s POI database while we were on the road – it was okay. We did look for a Target store which turns out didn’t exist.

I found it took under a minute to get a fix when I was in LA. When we were in San Francisco, it really varies depending on where you are. We stayed near Union Square and I had to be at Union Square to get a fix. It just wouldn’t get a fix when I was walking on the sidewalk near tall buildings.

Besides guidance the 350 has some other features like mp3 player, photo viewer, audio book reader, unit converter, etc. I briefly tried the photo viewer; I took a memory card out of my phone and popped it into the 350. I couldn’t see my pictures. I’m guessing the pictures have to be in the memory cards’ root folder.

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At first I questioned why anyone would care that a GPS had a built in mp3 player. Indeed I didn’t try this function while I was in LA and only bothered with it after I decided to write this review. Eventually I realized the beauty of a built in mp3 player. If you rent a car with a audio in jack (many cars have this now) you can use the 350 to playback music stored on your SD card. When the 350 has to give you directions it will pause the music. Great idea. There is a on screen shortcut to the mp3 player while you’re viewing the map.

Bottom Line

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When I was in LA, I found the Garmin 350 to be very useful. Having it speak out the street names can be quite useful since you don’t have to watch the screen as much. San Francisco was another story. While I didn’t find it useless, it doesn’t work well when you’re walking around. It would have helped if I had brought my compass. I ended up using a tourist map more.

I guess a portable GPS is great if you’re going to rent a car. It’s only somewhat useful if you don’t.

For me I’ll probably hang onto it for trips but around town I prefer the GPS built into my car.

Howard Chui
02.27.2008

Entry Filed under: Misc Gadgets

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