Review: T-Mobile GarminFone

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Short version: A competent and useful, but ultimately limited handset. Recommended for GPS lovers, but not for Android lovers.

Features:

  • Dedicated Garmin Navigation function
  • 3.5″ 320 x 480 display
  • Garmin “Breeze” interface
  • MSRP: $199 (incl. $50 rebate) with 2-year agreement (T-Mobile)

Pros:

  • Navigation is fantastic
  • Bright and responsive multi-touch screen
  • Breeze interface ain’t so bad

Cons:

  • Kind of chunky
  • Lack of many Android creature comforts such as LED indicator light, home screen widgets
  • Breeze interface ain’t so good, either

Full review:

Many Android phones these days focus on adding a dedicated social layer, with widgets crammed in every cranny for this or that notification service or social network. Location data and maps, however, are rarely treated as anything more than standard functions of the phone, relegated to the standard Google Maps. The GarminFone pretty much takes the complete opposite tack here, sacrificing even core Android functionality to the all-important feature: navigation. If that gets your heart racing, this may just be your phone. If you’re skeptical right off the bat, however, I don’t think there’s much value in it for you.

The key feature of the GarminFone is its dedicated navigation app. It essentially functions as a complete Garmin GPS device, almost completely independent of signal and data connection. You can use Google Maps if you want, but the pre-loaded database of roads and destinations in the Garmin app is often far more convenient, and you can search via Google from within it, so the only reason to use Google Maps is if you prefer the look (I do, personally), or for using other Google meta-mapping services. In any case, the Garmin navigation is simple, powerful, and fairly attractive. Garmin compares the phone’s abilities to one of its higher-end devices, which can use data services to get traffic and other data.

I found its database to be reasonably comprehensive for established locations, and its directions were accurate. It didn’t have a few newer places, but it’s easy enough to get them via Google Local Search. The multiple views possible make it suitable for driving or walking, and the voice cues were well-timed and easy to follow. Multi-touch was in full effect, allowing for quick zooms. The map was responsive, but not nearly as fluid to move around as I’d like.

The GarminFone has a separate display for satellite signal, which is handy but occasionally futile to consult — it’s not like you can wave it around and get a better connection with the satellite. It’s reassuring when you’re driving, however, to look over and see that yes, you have full bars on satellite, and it’s not going to suddenly think you’re a quarter mile behind of where you actually are.

Hardware


The phone’s form factor (a collaboration with Asus) is, depending on your perspective, either pleasantly plump or overstuffed. The main body feels solid and it’s a pretty good-looking piece of kit. The buttons stick out a bit far, however, especially the on-off button: it protrudes from the rounded top and was constantly being hit when I put in a pocket or bag. It also has the annoying Android 1.6 habit of occasionally not turning off when you tell it to, then when you hit the button again, turning off and on real fast. Why can’t people seem to design a screen on-off button that works properly?

I could have done without the touch-sensitive buttons. They’re responsive enough and give a little buzz when you hit them, but they’re pretty easy to hit on accident. The square D-pad takes a little getting used to, but works as expected.

Unforgivably, there is no 3.5mm headphone jack. Come on, people.

The GarminFone does come with a competent car kit too, which I did not have time to mount. It includes a dash mount and charger; it grips the phone via the contact points on the side.

The rest of the phone

If you are a person who relies on GPS to get you where you’re going, this could be a killer feature for you. GPS unit and phone in one — a life-saver for a few of you out there. But what about its performance as a smartphone?

Not so good, unfortunately. The first thing you likely noticed was the custom interface. It puts all the focus on navigation, and unlike other custom interfaces (Motoblur, Sense), it’s almost completely non-customizable. What you see is what you get.

The oversized buttons on the main screen are there forever, so get used to them. The App drawer opens from the side, which isn’t really any better or worse if you ask me, but I’ve always felt a little weird opening it up horizontally and then scrolling vertically. You can, of course, download all the apps you want, which appear in chronological (and arrangeable) order in the app drawer. Rearranging is a slow process, however, and the way moved apps push the others down makes it a sort of puzzle to get them the way you want. The always-accessible left-hand column of the app drawer is handy, but honestly not nearly as handy as having multiple home screens.

There is the widget screen, of course, which you can fill with widgets, but not apps. Holding down the home button brings you to the last used widget, though I would prefer it brought you to an anchor, such as the center widget screen or the last used apps widget.

The included apps are a mixed bag. The “vanilla” e-mail app is attractive and functional, though it shares many quirks with its sibling, the default 1.6 email client. Messaging is pretty standard, but has a few incomprehensible design choices: why does it default to the message text box when you start a new text, instead of the “to” box? And why isn’t there a “send” button when I’m typing my message in landscape mode? Little UI lapses like this are scattered about the phone, and although they’re only slightly frustrating and at most result in a few lost seconds, it sucks to know that they’re never likely to be fixed.

It also comes with a few other location- and navigation-centric apps like Ciao and Garmin Voice Studio. As for the location-based extras, that’s something that is better handled by Google and/or social apps like Foursquare, so I didn’t get much use out of them and I doubt many users will, either.

Typing on the keyboard was a pleasant experience, I found; the auto-complete feature and vibrating keys were problematic, though, and led to lots of mistakes. Otherwise the screen was responsive and accurate enough that I was typing almost as fast as I can on my G1′s hard keyboard.

Frustratingly, some applications have their notification or display settings buried in the universal Settings>Applications menu, instead of their own context menus. Why this is, I have no idea, but it’s a pain. Speaking of notifications, there’s no LED notification indicator. What the hell? I rely on that thing! I also found that a custom notification sound I use faded in instead of simply playing, leading to a rather weird phased effect. That might be an isolated problem, though.

Battery life was quite good, which was surprising considering the amount of satellite callouts it was doing. The hours quoted in its specs are probably within reason — after a full day of checking email, doing some browsing, and checking maps fairly often, I still probably had four or five more hours left.

Conclusion:

To be honest, despite my various issues with the UI, I found it easy and intuitive in general. The real argument against it, however, is not that it isn’t usable, but that it will never be improved. It’s running Android 1.6, and is almost certainly never going to get the 2.1 or 2.2 treatment. The many features and optimizations (to say nothing of useful apps) present in those and upcoming versions will never be yours if you get the GarminFone. Again, for those among you who just want a good smartphone and a good GPS unit in the same device, this is likely not an issue, but for people who put the phone first, it is a potential deal-breaker.

The GarminFone is a handy and unique device, especially for people who are used to dedicated GPS units, but whether it’s worth the trade-off in smartphone features is a choice you’ll have to make. It succeeds well at what it tries to do, but it remains to be seen whether that’s enough.

Product page: T-Mobile GarminFone

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