In Defense of Standalone GPS


I started working at Garmin shortly after Google announced the introduction of Google Maps on Android with free turn-by-turn directions. The effect on Garmin’s stock price was severe. Pundits quickly predicted the death of personal GPS navigation devices (PNDs) as smartphones offered a free, superior solution. The introduction of these apps did permanently resize and refocus the PND market, but it definitely didn’t destroy it. And these devices may still have an important purpose in your vehicle.

I use both Waze and Google Maps, and they’re both excellent. Amazing features, decent UI, always up-to-date roads and “Points of Interest” (i.e. places), and unparalleled access to traffic information. With all that for free, what do the Garmins sitting in our cars offer? They’re an important backup.

Having a backup is good, but backup diversity is better. If Apple pushes out software that messes up the iPhone GPS functionality, a second iPhone doesn’t help. If there is no cell coverage, you’d better hope someone’s phone aggressively cached data or they chose to save offline maps. A PND requires only power and a clear enough view of the sky. They can of course fail too for their own reasons, but the odds that both devices fail at the same time is hopefully quite low.

Unless you’re in an area that had a major highway open or close, map updates are probably not that crtical, especially for a backup device. You might lack a slightly optimized route, or some address, but you’ll get from A to B. That never provided me with much satisfaction, however. I simply don’t like the idea of driving around with years-old data. But paying for $50 Garmin/TomTom map updates was not pleasant either. Fortunately, those days have been over for a while. Your device will probably have some sort of lifetime update scheme. Yes you have to actually do something to update it (e.g. plug it in), but you do that at your leisure, once or twice a year. Free updates are by far the biggest improvement that the phone nav onslaught has brought to PNDs.

My wife and I drive within in a pretty limited, phone-friendly radius. We rarely break out the Garmins, but we both prefer having them in the glove box, plugging them in occasionally for a health check. There’s an old preparedness saying, “Two is one and one is none.” If you drive, consider getting some backup navigation. It is an inexpensive, prudent investment.