Why you still need a dedicated GPS navigation device

In an effort to keep the portable GPS device category alive, Garmin packs a lot of features into its new DriveAssist 51. But only one is likely to resonate with most drivers.

garmin drive
Garmin

I have a place in my heart for personal navigation devices (PNDs). In years past, they got me where I was going, even if they sometimes steered me onto a circuitous path. And weirdly, I miss having a Garmin tell me it’s “recalculating” when I take a wrong turn.

But in the age of Waze, does anyone still need a PND? My conclusion: In most cases, probably not. Unless you’re into dash cams.

Consider Garmin’s DriveAssist 51 ($300), introduced at CES 2017. It’s as good an example as any of what PND makers are up to these days, in hopes of remaining relevant. I’ve tested a DriveAssist 51 on and off for the past month. And while it did a reasonably good job of getting me from points A to B, there’s primarily one killer feature that elevates it above smartphone navigation apps: A built-in dash cam.

Continually recording video footage

DriveAssist 51 continuously records video footage as you drive. If there’s an impact (detected by DriveAssist 51’s accelerometer), the most recent footage is automatically saved to the included microSD card—which might help you financially after an accident. Consider this Reddit post from a Houston driver, writing about a “cheap dash cam” he uses:

“The dash cam sure came in handy when I got sideswiped on (a local highway) a year and a half ago. Their insurance was all blah blah blah until I said ‘Oh yeah I have dash cam footage, here it is on YouTube.’ Got a check a week later.”

Speaking of YouTube, Garmin’s free VIRB app enables you to post your dash camera footage to YouTube, Facebook or other sites.

Collisions aside, the dash cam can be handy in other scenarios. As you reach your destination, for instance, Garmin’s Real Vision feature switches from navigation to camera view, with a bright red arrow pointing to the address you’re looking for. It’s a touch of augmented reality that serves a useful purpose.

The camera also works with the PND's mapping, traffic and other data to provide alerts. When you're stopped in traffic, and cars ahead of you start to move, you may receive a 'Go' alert. (In other words: Stop checking your damn email and drive.) Forward Collision warnings alert you if you're riding someone's bumper. 

One other thing worth mentioning: You can pair the DriveAssist 51 with an optional Garmin BC 30 Wireless Backup Camera ($170; professional installation is recommended). 

In my opinion, a PND with a built-in dash cam, like Garmin's DriveAssist 51, makes much more sense as a purchase than a PND without a dash cam. 

Will you be more vulnerable to car break-ins?

But there are a few things to consider.

To take advantage of the dash cam feature, you’ll need to insert the Garmin in its included dashboard mount, so its camera (on the PND's backside) can record the road ahead. But will the presence of a dashboard mount increase your chances of a car break-in, even if no GPS is evident to would-be thieves? In some cities, like San Francisco — where car break-ins increased 31 percent from 2014 to 2016 — the answer might be “yes.” (A few years ago, my car was broken into in San Francisco, likely because I’d accidentally left iPhone earbuds visible.)

Something else to consider: You can create a DIY dash cam using an old smartphone and an app. How-To Geek spells out the steps. But Garmin’s DriveAssist 51 is a much more elegant alternative.

Packed with features

Aside from the dash cam, Garmin’s DriveAssist 51 is loaded with other features:

  • Voice commands. By using the wake words “Voice Command,” you can navigate to addresses, points of interest, ‘go home,’ or manually save dash cam video. You can also find nearby parking (via Parkopedia), adjust the volume or brightness, and more. Siri it ain’t, but it’s a convenient feature nonetheless.
  • Free real-time traffic. The PND depends upon Garmin’s free Smartphone Link app for this information, streamed via Bluetooth from your smartphone. Of course, smartphone apps such as Google Maps, Waze and Apple Maps incorporate traffic data into routing as well.
garmin smartphone link Garmin
  • Parking options. When connected via Bluetooth to Garmin’s Smartphone Link app, the DriveAssist 51 will help you find nearby parking at your destination, along with rates. Waze helps you find nearby parking, too, before you start your drive or as you reach the destination.

Negating the downsides of PNDs

Garmin has worked hard to mitigate the pain points of PND ownership. DriveAssist 51 features built-in Wi-Fi, for instance, so you don’t have to connect the device to a computer to receive map updates, as in the past.

DriveAssist 51 does its best to compete with the likes of Waze, too, including red light and speed camera alerts. Plus, it tops Waze with alerts that occur when entering school zones or when you’ve been driving for several hours (‘fatigue alerts’).

And Garmin has made owning a DriveAssist 51 attractive to Garmin smartwatch owners. When the two devices are paired, you can continue navigation on foot after parking your car; get driver alerts on your watch; and receive directions to your parked car when it’s time to leave.

Too late to turn the tide?

Garmin has made a lot of smart decisions in hopes of keeping the PND category alive. But like low-cost, point-and-shoot digital cameras, it’s too late to turn the tide. Garmin's 2016 fourth-quarter results showed double-digit revenue growth in its fitness, outdoor, marine and aviation units. But its automotive unit (including PNDs like DriveAssist 51) saw double-digit declines, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Younger drivers aren’t used to paying for a GPS device. Why bother, with all the free smartphone apps? At the same time, many drivers, including me, don’t want yet another device to take on a trip.

Not even the vast majority of Lyft and Uber drivers I've ridden with in San Francisco use PNDs. As a passenger, I always note which GPS app or device the driver is using, and Waze is the hands-down favorite. In all my rides over the past year (at least 30, by my count), I’ve only seen one driver use a PND (a Garmin). The driver had owned the device for several years and wanted to keep his phone free for calls, he says — which is, for some, reason enough to own a PND.

I’ve noticed that some Lyft and Uber drivers have a dedicated dash cam. Also, when ride-share drivers navigate with a device that isn’t a smartphone, it’s nearly always a tablet, either an iPad mini or a small Android slate. That makes sense: Why spend money on a PND when you can purchase a tablet with built-in GPS that has a bigger screen and can do a lot more?

Ultimately, here’s my take: If you’re a ride-share driver or frequently drive a lot; you’d like the peace of mind of having a dash cam and don’t already own one; and you’d like to have your smartphone free for calls or music, then yes, DriveAssist 51 could be worth $300 to you. Otherwise, Waze or Google Maps is likely all you need.

At a Glance
  • Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT

    $239.99 MSRP $299.99
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    on Amazon
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