Garmin Nüvi 1690: wirelessly connected GPS falls short

Garmin jumps into the connected GPS game with its Nüvi 1690, a $500 portable that carries on the user-friendly tradition of the respected navigation pioneer. It connects with the EDGE network to wirelessly deliver real-time traffic info and lots more. Besides driving the price up to $500 for two years' worth of this wireless service (it's $5 a month after that), how much does this connectivity add to the navigation experience, and is it even necessary? Continue reading to find out.

Firing up the Garmin Nüvi 1690 for the first time, we noticed a strange rippling pattern on the screen. Interference was distorting the video of the unit's 4.3-inch 480 x 272 display, a distracting, intermittent flaw we found annoying throughout our review. We're also disappointed that advertisements kept popping up at inopportune times. It's surprising that a $500 GPS unit still requires advertising support. That's annoying and unacceptable.

Glorious Garmin
On the plus side, the excellent Garmin user interface is there in all its glory, looking even better than it did in models from a few years ago. The graphics move and zoom exactly when you need them, and if you miss a turn, recalculation takes less than a second. And the pleasant text-to-speech voice prompts alert the driver to turn at just the right moment. There's good reason why Garmin is so admired in the GPS arena.

We found the 1690's connectivity useful — especially its ability to direct you to the lowest-priced gasoline, updated daily. It's also convenient to search local points of interest such as theaters and restaurants, wirelessly connected with up-to-date information via Google-enhanced POI (points of interest) search. And like previous Garmin units, its Bluetooth connectivity works extremely well with the iPhone, giving you decent speakerphone performance even in a noisy car.

The unit can show junction and lane information, depicting highway signs and showing you which lane you'll need to get into to make a turn. However, we didn't have luck encountering any of that data in the Milwaukee area. If you live in a bigger city, you'll probably encounter more of the lane assist data. Perhaps this feature will someday become more widespread.

Annoyances included the inability to turn off the constant beeping every time you push a button on the touchscreen, and the unit's resistive screen that feels cumbersome to operate after getting used to the capacitive touchscreen of the likes of the iPhone and Zune HD.

We were also disappointed in the kludgy and poorly documented method of sending addresses to the unit from a PC, requiring you to install a PC application, connect the GPS unit with a USB cable, find your address on the MapQuest website and then hope the Nuvi is properly recognized. Why can't this be done wirelessly, letting you simply enter an address on your PC and send it to the wireless GPS unit?

The Garmin Nüvi 1690 is a capable yet flawed GPS unit. One reservation we have concerning all Web-connected GPS systems: Is it really necessary to pile on even more distractions to drivers who are already too busy texting and talking on the phone at 65mph? What's next for GPS navigators, the ability to watch movies while you're driving? And, if you have a smartphone, most of this otherwise helpful Google-enhanced information is redundant. If you're already Web-connected on the road, save $300 and get one of Garmin's cheaper GPS navigators.