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Garmin DriveLuxe 50 hands-on: There's still a need for dedicated GPS navigation devices

I thought my smartphone could do it all and for the most part it can. However, dedicated devices can be so much better and a long family road trip convinced me that portable GPS devices are still valuable.

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My smartphone serves as the hub of all my mobile activities, including communications, gaming, music, video content, and GPS navigation. However, a single device isn't always the best at everything and after spending a couple weeks with the new Garmin DriveLuxe 50LMTHD I am convinced that a dedicated GPS navigation device offers the best for the road warrior and traveler.

Back in 2011, ZDNet's Adrian Kingsley-Hughes posted several reasons his smartphone hasn't replaced his in-car GPS receiver. A few of those have been addressed with our massive smartphone displays, landscape user interface options, and more.

Family road trip experiences

We took a family long weekend trip from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon (283 miles each way) for a basketball tournament. After using the Garmin DriveLuxe 50, my wife and daughters quickly realized a PND (personal navigation device) was the way to go. Here's a summary of our experiences:

  • Distinct lane guidance on a split-screen view helped us out several times, especially when driving in an unfamiliar city with a very confusing network of roads. There were some very unusual on-ramps and without the Garmin mounted on the window we would have wasted lots of time trying to figure things out.
  • As we approached Portland during the evening rush hour, the DriveLuxe 50 popped up an option to take an alternative route that was reported to save us 25 minutes. We trusted it and took the route.
  • My wife enjoys driving fast and in new areas you often miss speed limit signs. The Garmin shows the speed limit for the road while also having the capability to show and warn you when you exceed the limit. I saw the speed limit indicator change within about 50 feet of the sign when the road dropped from 70 to 60 mph.
  • The display was crisp and clear, adjusted automatically for night time driving, showed us important things in a subtle manner, routed us to pit stops, and was extremely accurate in getting the ETA correct.
  • The phone integration for texting, calls, and live traffic worked well.

Hardware

The new Garmin DriveLuxe 50 is built like a tank with full metal and glass body, weighing in at 231 grams (8.15 ounces). It has a large 5.1 inch 800x480 pixels resolution display. A microSD card slot is provided for expanded storage. While a rechargeable lithium-ion battery is inside, battery life is only about an hour.

There is a microphone opening on the right front of the glass so you can perform actions without touching the device. A microUSB port and microSD card slot are positioned on the bottom. The power button is in the upper right side of the back with a large speaker on the bottom right.

In the past, I've used window suction cup mounts that squeezed the device, but were a bit clunky. Garmin incorporates a very strong magnet on the arm that lets you easily drop the DriveLuxe 50 right into position. A car charging cable is provided and connects to the mounting arm via a miniUSB port. A USB cable is also in the box so you can connect the device to your computer, which is used for syncing and updating your device.

This model that I tested does not have a forward facing camera for collision avoidance, but you can connect the BC 30 wireless backup camera accessory ($169.99) and see the camera output right on the display of the Garmin DriveLuxe 50.

Software

The official name of the device is the Garmin DriveLuxe 50 LMTHD. LMTHD stands for lifetime maps and HD traffic, which are included with the device. All North American maps are installed in the internal storage of the device with traffic provided via a Bluetooth data connection to your phone.

When you first start the DriveLuxe 50 two main options appear as large icons, Where To? and View Map. You can also simply state "voice command" to launch voice-enabled search for your destination. Tapping the Where To? icon jumps you to another display that has icons for home, address, saved, recent, categories, trip planner, and Foursquare. There is an option to add more shortcuts as well, including your favorites, cities, intersections, and more.

Apps include phone, smart notifications, smartphone link, traffic, backup camera, baby cam, and voice command. You need to install the Android or iOS Garmin smartphone link application to create a seamless navigation experience between your phone and the navigation device.

There are many different settings available so you can setup the device to your particular preferences. These include route options, display settings, traffice settings, POI options, and more.

Everything is optimized for easy touch with large buttons and a responsive touch screen. The UI is straightforward and should be easy for most people to figure out. Once you are in navigation mode, large back and settings (gear icon) buttons are positioned in each of the two bottom corners.

Pricing and other options

As shown on the Garmin automotive page there are devices with displays from 5.0 to 7.0 inches, with prices ranging from $129.99 to $349.99. The basic software and functionality is the same across all devices with the screen size, availability of traffic, mounting solutions, and fit and finish varying across the price spectrum.

Conclusion

While my wife has a new vehicle with integrated GPS navigation in the dash, the other cars in our household are 11 to 14 years old and do not have such a navigation system. Some of these navigation systems get outdated quickly and don't have the fantastic lane guidance, driver alerts, and live traffic seen on devices like these models from Garmin.

The Garmin DriveLuxe 50 feels like a very high-end premium device and it performs as well as it looks. I would like to have seen a built-in dash cam in this model, but that is available in the DriveAssist model for $50 less. The traffic assistance was absolutely fantastic and if you drive in a high traffic area then you could likely see the DriveLuxe 50 pay for itself in time savings in short order.

After driving with the Garmin DriveLuxe 50, I'm ready to order units for my family. I know my oldest daughter, who is terrible with directions, would love one and as she graduates from college to take on the world I'm sure she would like a companion from Garmin in the vehicle.