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Review of the Garmin Streetpilot III


Why I Picked the Street Pilot III
The Garmin Streetpilot III is the first sub-$1,500 portable GPS device that has both routing and voice prompts incorporated into the design. Retailing for approximately $790 at most on-line retailers, the SPIII is Garmin's latest entry into automobile-based navigation systems. While small enough to be portable, the unit is not convenient enough to be used as a portable device and is intended to be used within an automobile.

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I have been looking at purchasing a GPS unit for my 2000 BMW 328 for the past year. I looked into solutions from Clarion, Kenwood, Magellan and Alpine. The problem with all of those options it that they are costly, ranging from $1,500 - $4,000. The cost would be almost bearable, however none of them are able to integrate very well with a BMW 328's aesthetics.

Most of the units require you to purchase both an LCD screen and a GPS brain. The Alpine and Kenwood units are LCD screens that pop out of your center console. Clarion has the option of both a fixed and folding LCD.The Magellan is a self-contained navigation unit, similar to the SPIII. Most of them are controlled by a remote control device; the Magellan's interface is built into the unit, while the Kenwood is a touch-screen.

The control was a major reason I decided against the Clarion, Kenwood and Alpine.Both your radio and the navigation are controlled by a remote, so not only would I lose the steering-wheel based controls for the radio, I'd always have to use a remote to just listen to music. Also, I didn't like the looks of most of these units. They were too bright and flashy, while I was looking for a conservative design. I decided against the Magellan due to cost, and the fact that it was to be mounted near the passenger side, away from me. Which left the SPIII.

I purchased my SPIII at TVNAV. I was put off by the design of their website, which is minimalistic at best. However, the swift turnaround and excellent customer service more than make up for their lack of a flashy website. Don't let the user interface fool you.

First Impressions

What's Inside
On first glance, the SPIII looks very similar to its predecessors, the Street Pilot and Street Pilot Colormap. It has the same screensize as the Colormap (slightly smaller than the black and white Street Pilot) and similar dimensions. The SPIII is shaped a little differently in the back though, with a slightly slimmer profile. This makes it difficult to use RAM Mounts designed for the Street Pilot and Colormap with the SPIII. You will have to purchase a different RAM Mount.

A minor difference between this and prior Street Pilots is that the notch for the power plug is located in a different place. All this means is that when you plug the power in, the power cord no longer sticks up, but now falls down. It looks a little better this way.

The unit comes with a 32mb memory card, a USB reader, a serial port adapter, a cigarette light adapter with a speaker built into it and a mounting 'kit,' which is just a stand with two choices of adhesives. It also comes with the City Navigator CD, which is a variant of the Metroguide CD that Garmin sells for all of their GPS units. City Navigator is produced by Navitech, the map data company we all like a little bit but wish we could really really like. The CD contains data for the entire continental United States, but they are encoded so that you need a unique activation key for each geographical region. You get one region included with your purchase. For those of you who've used the USB reader for the Street Pilot and Colormap, this reader is MUCH smaller, the size of a tennis ball.

Installing the City Navigator CD is pretty simple, RTFM or don't. The USB reader takes about 1-3 minutes to update the card, depending on how much data you put on it.

The interface is very similar to the Street Pilot and Color Map. The only difference is that it now has a button for 'volume' and a couple others are relabeled slightly.

Activation is very easy. You simply mount it in your car, plug in the cigarette light adapter (which has the speaker built into it) and turn it on. Just an FYI, I'd recommend not using either the 'temporary' or 'permanent' adhesive that comes with the SPIII. Neither worked out for me in the San Francisco Bay area. They both melted into rubbery sludge. I am now using velcro strips I purchased from Radio Shack for $2. They are much more stable and easier to peel off.

Antenna / Signal Strength
Depending on visibility, the SPIII will take anywhere from 5 seconds to 3 minutes to get a satellite lock. Usually if I haven't moved from the last time I turned the unit off, the lock will be a couple of seconds. But other times, it will take several minutes even if I'm only a block away from my last location.

After it gets a lock, it's usually smooth sailing. I've found problems with the antenna only in large cities (with tall buildings) or near mountains or areas with a lot of overhead interference (trees, bridges, etc.). While driving in San Francisco, I'll lose signal several times, for about a minute or so. This is usually when I'm in downtown areas with skyscrapers. The OEM antenna requires as much visibility as possible, so city driving could be tricky. You'll never lose signal for more than a minute (usually), but it's annoying to have it happen.

This past weekend, I went to Yosemite National Park, and the SPIII lost satellite lock constantly for a 30 mile stretch. It would get a lock for two minutes, lose it for another two, then find it again and so on. This was REALLY annoying. I would recommend purchasing the low-profile antenna for the SPIII. It comes with a suction cup and magnetic mount. It's recommended you use the magnetic mount on the top of the car for a full 360 degree view, but I'm using the internal suction cup mount instead. I like it so far, it replaces the stub antenna on the unit and reduces the profile. I also get 30-50% more satellites than I used to using just the stub antenna.

SPIII in Action
Using the SPIII is self-explanatory. If you turn it on, it keeps an accurate reading of where you are and where you're going. Your speed and direction are noted and viewable on the map screen. The name of the street coming up is also displayed, which is a great help if you're not sure where you're going.

Using the routing feature is also pretty self explanatory. You press the 'find' button and choose either a personal waypoint, intersection, city or a point of interest. Points of interest can be restaurants, tourist attractions, gas stations, shopping centers, etc. Basically consider it the yellow pages. Personal waypoints are locations you manually program into the GPS and label (home, work, friend's house, etc.)

Letters are typed in via pad which goes up and down. You basically hit up to go up in the alphabet and down to go down in the alphabet. You hit right to go to the next letter.

Immediately you'll notice a couple of turn-offs. The processing time is pretty slow. It takes a while for entries to load. You will often find yourself going faster than the SPIII. Hit up a couple times too quickly and you'll go past the entry you want, and you'll end up having to slowly hit down enough times to get back to where you want.

The buttons are also not very sensitive. Compared to the Magellan, this is like playing with a rubber chew toy. You have to be sure to press the buttons in hard. Light taps won't work. This is both good and bad. It's good in that it's not very easy to change routes or find new waypoints while driving your car. So therefore, you will be a safe driver. However, it also means that if you try to find a waypoint, you'll be seriously endangering yourself and everyone else on the road. I'm not kidding, this thing is NOT fun or convenient to use while in a moving car. I seriously recommend pulling over to the side, waiting for a stop light or doing it when no one is nearby and you're not near any cliffs.

The SPIII will take approximately 10 seconds to up to 4 minutes (so far) to plot a route. The processing time will depend on the number of turns involved in the route, the distance and your immediate location. For example, going 20 miles on a popular freeway will take around 30 seconds to process. Going 10 miles inside San Francisco took around 2-3 minutes. Travelling 3.5 hours to Yosemite National Park didn't work at all until I changed the routing processing from the best quality routes to the lowest quality routes and moved closer to a highway.

Using it in Traffic
Besides simple point to point routing, the other powerful feature the SPIII has is it's re-rerouting capability. If you miss your turn or go the wrong way, the SPIII will re-calculate your route based upon where you are now. Keep in mind that re-calculating can take several minutes, and the re-calculation is based on where you were when the SPIII began to re-calculate. If you travel too far and too fast, your re-routes may be useless by the time they're done.

Also, the unit gives you regular voice prompts on your travel. E.g. 'Turn right at 500 feet' 'Go 1.7 miles and stay left.' This is a tremendous aid, as you do not have to keep your eye on the GPS. And the prompts are given ahead of time so you know what's coming up.

The Interface
The SPIII only has a handful of buttons. As a result, a surprising amount of functionality are crammed into just a couple buttons. This is both a bonus and a pain in the arse.

There are a multitude of options. They include finding out the times for sunrise/sunset, switching from a widescreen map to a narrow map, adding more details to the map, a trip computer which keeps track of your travels, information on relative satellite strength and accuracy. However, finding them is not a very intuitive process. It basically comes down to remembering how many times you're supposed to press the same button over and over again.

The trip computer by the way is really neat. It tracks how long you've driven, how long you've stopped, distance travelled, your highest speed and your average speed. It's a great tool for figuring out how long your trips are, whether it's rush hour traffic or an all-day drive.

The GPS Info page is pretty cool too. It's neat seeing where the satellites are in the sky and how strong the signal is. And finding out your elevation and latitude/longtigude are bits of information which will provide no benefit in traffic, but are cool to know anyway.


This is an exception deal. For under $800, you get pretty much the same functionality units twice the price provide. It's semi-portable and looks all right inside a car. With routing and voice prompts, it's practically a steal. I have a lot of kvetches about it, but don't mistake me. BUY this unit. For the price you pay, you can't get a better deal. And it's a GOOD deal.

You get voice navigation, updateable memory cards, detailed urban city information, routing and re-routing, detailed trip computing and a very effective map for a low cost. I have no intention of getting anything more expensive anytime soon. This is a keeper.

Ease of Installation
This takes minutes to set up in a car. No drilling required. No electrical know-how needed. If you're like me an anal about your car, you don't want to put holes and brackets where they don't need to be.

Processing Power
This thing is slow. It's not much faster than its predecessors at redrwaing the screen. The panning and zooming feature works better in theory than in practice. It takes too long to be regularly useful. If you have the map set to most amount of detail, there will be 3-5second gaps where there is no map at all as it's still redrawing.

This is particularly embarassing while you're trying to plot or re-plot a route while driving. If you're going a steady pace on a highway, you'll find yourself a couple miles away from your starting point when your new route is plotted. By this point you've already missed your suggested exit so ANOTHER new route need be plotted.

Also if you're plotting or re-plotting a route, you'll note that the map does not move. So your icon can move off the map if you are plotting a route. And you're prohibited from finding a new point of interest during time time as well.

Finding points of interests is definitely something to do while not driving. It takes too long to find a new location or enter an address using the SP III's interface.

Limited Functioanlity
Some cuts had to be made. You can't re-route a route to take alternative routes. If you're stuck in traffic, or you don't want to take a certain route, you're SOL. You can try to make it re-plot the route to avoid highways, but that's about it. You can't tell it to avoid this road, or take ONLY side roads or provide you multiple logical routes to a location.

The units determines your location by satellite, so it's by nature not as sensitive as a more expensive unit that uses gyros and other sensors. On highway ramps with exits very close together, you'll find that you may miss your turn.

CityNavigator Maps
The Navitech maps works great in metropolitan areas. In more rural areas, you need divine intervention. For example, I went to Yosemite National Park over the weekend. It said the west entrance was 15 miles earlier than it actually was. That's right. It was off by 15 miles. I also pulled off to a strip mall along route 99 that was not listed. Despite having multiple fast food restaurants there, the map said the nearest restauraunt was 44 miles away. It also ignored the existance of many local roads.

Battery Life
With six AA's that nearly double the weight, don't expect any reasonable lifespan from this. Use the cigaratte light adapter at all times and take the batteries out. It's too heavy with them.

One Tip
Don't fill up the map card. You'll find listings for restaurants 300 miles away popping up in your points of interest. The unit is slow enough as is, don't make it worse.

  • Pictures of the SPIII.

  • Contact me if you need more information.