By Tony Briggs
The vehicle GPS business is not what it was a few years back when the idea of having a satellite navigation system in your car seemed like science fiction.
Back then, these gadgets that cost a small fortune were positively primitive compared to what you can find on store shelves today. I'm talking ugly, low-res black and white screens that could display crude maps and not much more.
Today, GPS functionality is found on almost every smartphone and the standalone vehicle GPS device business is in a big decline.
But that doesn't mean they aren't worth a look.
In fact, today's top-of-the-line devices are true marvels of design and engineering that are well worth considering if you have not yet made the leap to a vehicle equipped with built-in GPS -- still a wildly overpriced option in most cases -- or don't own a smartphone.
Case in point, the Garmin Nuvi 3950 LMT, the premier offering from a company that I think makes the best standalone GPS devices on the market.
I have been a GPS user almost since the first retail units went on sale and the Nuvi 3950 is the most advanced unit I have ever seen -- and the best looking.
Let's start with the gorgeous 5-inch glass touchscreen -- a high-resolution wonder that rivals the best screens found on today's tablets and smartphones. It has better contrast and color saturation than any GPS out there and, like most tablets, has a dual orientation function that automatically shifts the screen to portrait or landscape modes depending on how the device is held.
Underneath that pretty face are some much- improved internal electronics that provide ultra-smooth scrolling and lightning-fast satellite acquisition along with the fastest routing I have ever seen on a GPS. Even trips of a thousand miles or more are calculated in one or two seconds. Amazing.
All this is in a slim black package that is about a half-inch thick, a fraction of the thickness of GPS units of just a few years ago.
Since this is a top-of-the-line model, the Nuvi 3950LMT has just about every feature Garmin has thought of since it starting making these things, including a lifetime subscription to advanced real-time traffic information, free lifetime map updates, lane-assist and photo-realistic junction view of upcoming turns, terrain and 3D maps that show buildings in urban areas and improved voice-controlled navigation.
One example of that is the new ability to recognize an entire spoken address at once. Earlier models asked for the street number first, then the street name and finally the city. Now you can just say the complete address and it will find it -- if you are lucky. Voice recognition technology is still not perfect, but is steadily improving.
Perhaps the most advanced new feature of this device is its ability to link with your compatible smartphone via Bluetooth to provide live information on everything from weather and gas prices to what's playing at the closest theater. The only downside here is that most of this information does not come free. You have to buy subscriptions for each one, which makes this otherwise useful feature too expensive for many consumers to consider.
Perhaps the folks at Garmin figure if you can afford to buy their best GPS, you can afford to pay more for those extras. Bad call.
Speaking of prices, the Nuvi 3950 is now being closed out in advance of a newer model, which is scheduled to go on sale April 15. This is always the best time to buy since prices are slashed and the raft of bugs always associated with new models have mostly been eradicated. The Nuvi 3950, which originally retailed for about $400, is now selling for less than $300. Prices will only go down from here.
While it's hard not to be impressed by the Nuvi 3950's beauty and technical prowess, this device is not perfect. One of the potential problems is that shiny glass screen, which shows every fingerprint and reflects glare in the worst way. You can generally orient the screen to reduce or eliminate the glare, but be aware it can be an issue depending on where the device is mounted and the time of day.
Another gripe is the way it calculates routes. I have not tested it extensively, but have found the Nuvi 3950 shows an overwhelming preference for major highways when determining routes. Earlier models often picked less traveled back roads, which were just as fast or faster, and less stressful than crowded interstates. The Nuvi 3950 seems disinclined to do that unless absolutely necessary (it will route around heavy traffic or other delays). Garmin always seems to be tweaking this functionality and I view this as a step backward.
One other caveat concerns the new digital 3D traffic service, which promises updates as often as every 30 seconds. That's great if you live in an urban area, but the coverage is not as extensive as with some of the less advanced traffic services offered on other Garmin models. Be sure to check the coverage map before you buy. (Daytona Beach, Deltona and Orlando are covered.)
The bottom line here is that if you are in the market for a standalone GPS, it would be hard to find one better than the Nuvi 3950 -- unless you can get by with a 4.3-inch screen on the Nuvi 3490. It has all the same features as the 3950 in a slightly smaller package and generally sells for about $50 less.
Tony Briggs has been writing about technology issues in the Daytona Beach area for more than 20 years.