The Best Car GPS

Garmin Nuvi 3597LMTHD

THE GOOD – The Garmin Nuvi 3597LMTHD boasts a premium design with a sharp 5-inch capacitive screen and a thin metal chassis. Voice command makes the already intuitive interface easier to use on the road. Search-based destination input and natural spoken directions smooth things further.

THE BAD – The Smartphone Link feature doesn’t really do anything aside from serving as a portal for additional paid services.

THE BOTTOM LINE – The Nuvi 3597LMTHD continues to refine Garmin’s brand of navigation with premium design and one of the best interfaces in the business.

After years of reviewing PND after PND, it’s hard to get excited about a GPS device’s physical form. However, the Nuvi 3597LM has managed to capture my attention with its glossy, black face and slim chassis.

The Nuvi looks slimmer than it actually is thanks to tapered edges that visually shrink the device’s profile and make it easier to slip in and out of a pocket. Strategically placed black panels on the top and bottom edges also aid in visually slimming and classing-up the silvery metallic device. However, at its thickest point, the 3597LM is about as thick as the rest of this class of portable navigation devices.

The hardware

On the face of the Nuvi 3597LM, behind a capacitive glass panel, shines a crisp 5-inch TFT screen that is gorgeous. The 800 by 480 pixel resolution isn’t as hypersharp as today’s Retina-class smartphone displays, but its brightness and clarity are better than on nearly every other portable navigation device that I’ve ever tested. Being capacitive, the glass can register swipes and pinches as well as taps, and the Nuvi’s interface takes advantage of these new input types. Just to the right of the screen, you’ll find a pinhole cut into the glass bezel for the Nuvi’s microphone.

The Nuvi features an internal accelerometer of some sort and its display can rotate between portrait and landscape orientation for the maps and menus.

Along the bottom edge of the Nuvi 3597LM is a small slot where a microSD card can be inserted to increase storage for downloadable maps and updates.

On the back panel is the Nuvi’s single physical control: a power button. Tapping the power button suspends the Nuvi, shutting down its screen. Tapping it again causes the device to instantly reawaken. For those times when you need to shut the Nuvi down for extended periods of time, such as when packing it for travel, holding the power button for a few moments will totally shut down the device.

Also on the back panel is the Mini-USB port for charging the Nuvi 3597LM and updating the software with the aid of an Internet-connected computer, Garmin’s proprietary 12-pin dock connection, and a very tiny integrated speaker behind a drilled grille.

The integrated speaker isn’t nearly loud enough to be heard over the levels of road and wind noise and car audio that you’ll experience while driving, but it doesn’t need to be because the 3597LM’s cradle-and-suction-cup mount features a speaker of its own that is plenty loud. The cradle attaches to the Nuvi with a powerful magnet, for easy one-handed mounting and dismounting, and attaches to the windshield or other smooth, nonporous surfaces with a strong lever-activated suction cup.

The last bit of hardware is the power cable, which converts your car’s 12-volt power source into a 5-volt charge usable by Nuvi and connects to the cradle with a Mini-USB connection. The cable also powers the cradle’s loudspeaker and integrates the FM/HD Radio antenna that receives the free, lifetime over-the-airwaves traffic data that transforms the Nuvi 3597LM into the Nuvi 3597LMTHD that I tested.

The upside of integrating the antenna into the cable is that it makes a thinner device possible. It also means that with no cable, you also get no traffic data, though the Nuvi still remains usable for navigation for a few hours via its internal battery.

The firmware

The 3597LM features wireless connectivity with a smartphone via Bluetooth. That connection enables hands-free calling using the PND’s microphone and speakers, and a feature called Smartphone link, which we’ll get to momentarily.

Upon pairing with a smartphone, the Nuvi will attempt to sync the phone’s address book — although just the numbers, not the addresses — which can be accessed via a phone menu. The reasoning behind Garmin’s decision to hide the phone menu under the Apps subcategory rather than putting it in the main menu like in previous Nuvi models escapes me. Fortunately, there is an easier way to access those contacts.

This Nuvi includes a great voice command system that is truly hands-free. It isn’t even activated by a button, instead being awakened with a customizable spoken command – by default this is, “Voice command.”

garmin

When the Nuvi hears you speak that command, it responds with onscreen and audible prompts that guide you through spoken address input, points-of-interest search, and dialing contacts for hands-free calling. The system is remarkably accurate; I particularly appreciated the almost conversational way that I was able to speak to the device, inputting full addresses in one go rather than wading through a half-dozen prompts.

I also appreciated the conversational tone of the Nuvi’s spoken turn-by-turn directions, which call out landmarks and use natural language. Rather than say, “In a quarter mile, turn left,” the Nuvi may say, “Keep straight past the hotel and turn left at the traffic light.” When on the highway, the Nuvi may tell you to “Stay in any of the three left lanes” when approaching an exit, which helps me, the driver, to better avoid last-minute hustles to get in or out of a valid lane for the trip. It also meant that I didn’t have to watch the screen for lane guidance, which allowed me to keep my eyes on the road.

One more change that I like in this iteration of the Garmin Nuvi interface is the decision to use a search-driven destination selection system. With the 3597LM you can still browse POI categories and input addresses with prompts for house number and street name, but at the top of the “Where to?” menu, you’ll find a search box that can accept street addresses, business names, and destination categories. Start typing “123 Main” and the Nuvi may automatically autocomplete the address. Type “movie theaters” and it will display the nearest movie theaters. Type “Starbucks” and…you get the point. I love that I can just tell the Nuvi what I want and it will figure out the best way to get me there.

The trip

Tap any of the results and you’ll get shortcuts to a map with up to three routes, an information screen with street address and phone number, and “Go!” which simply starts turn-by-turn navigation with the fastest route possible.

Routing and rerouting were quick and the paths chosen were logical, judging from my local knowledge of the test areas.

As I stated earlier, I liked the conversational tone of the Nuvi’s turn-by-turn directions, but I also appreciated that the directions were brief and to the point. No one wants to listen to a robotic voice droning on and on.

I first attempted to test the Nuvi 3597LMTHD from the dashboard of the 2013 Jaguar XJ AWD, but — after 30 minutes of fruitlessly “Searching for GPS” — I surmised that the sedan’s weird heated windshield was somehow blocking the signal. Later, in the 2013 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG — with conventional glass — the Nuvi snapped up its cold-start GPS position in mere moments and retained a good lock on its position, even while I was driving between tall buildings and through tunnels.

The software

One of the first things that you should do when you unbox your new portable navigator is plug it into your computer and search for firmware and map updates. The LM at the end of Nuvi 3597LM stands for Lifetime Maps, so there’s no excuse not to check for the most recent data.

After connecting to a computer via USB and downloading the Garmin Express software from Garmin’s Web site, I was able to download fresh firmware, the most recent version of the text-to-speech engine for turn-by-turn directions, and the newest maps. All of these updates totaled a few gigabytes and the update took about 20 or 30 minutes, but it’s also largely automated, so you won’t have to babysit the software.

Also downloadable is to your smartphone is Garmin’s Smartphone Link software for Android and iOS. This app connects your phone to the device, so you can beam over destinations that you find on your phone, and provides a data connection for access to premium Garmin Live services with yearly subscriptions: Advanced Weather data ($4.99 per year), Fuel Prices ($9.99 per year), Live Traffic data ($19.99 per year and a bit redundant on this particular model), and PhotoLive traffic camera feeds ($4.99 per year).

When you get out of your car, Garmin Smartphone Link also marks a Google Map with the GPS location of where you parked based on where it was when the Bluetooth connection with the Nuvi was broken. Using the map, users can navigate from the parking spot to the Nuvi’s last chosen destination and back, but without turn-by-turn directions, it’s navigation of the DIY sort.

Compared with Magellan’s breed of smartphone linking with its SmartGPS, Garmin Smartphone Link doesn’t seem very useful. There’s no searching from within the app and no way to edit favorites either. It doesn’t allow the Nuvi device to connect to the Web to search Google for destinations, and really only seems to exist as a way for Garmin to charge the user more money for services that Magellan offers for free.

Fortunately, the Nuvi 3597LMTHD performs just fine without it.

 

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