Review: Garmin DriveSmart 61

Is there any need for Sat navs in this day and age? I’ve been asked to review the new Garmin DriveSmart 61 - the first time I’ve used a traditional sat nav for several years.

Sat Navs were recently removed from the basket of goods that the Office of National Statistics use to work out inflation - being added in 2007 and removed in 2015.

This guide is reflective of what is popular and what is not.  (As an example, coffee pods and computer game downloads were introduced in 2016, alongside long-standing items like washing machines)

Yet I ditched my old sat nav around 4 years ago, preferring instead to rely on Waze. Waze is a smartphone app with real-time traffic and road updates.  It’s a free sat nav app which only costs whatever data you use to run it.

Heavy competition indeed for a traditional sat nav.

Halfords definitely believe that there is a lot to play for in the sat nav market yet. They’ve sent me the Garmin DriveSmart 61 model to try.

The boxed Garmin DriveSmart 61 - Garmin SmartDrive 61 in action - free lifetime maps, voice commands, Garmin smartphone link and more. Is it better than Waze, a free sat nav?

The boxed Garmin DriveSmart 61

As a smartphone aficionado and a strong promoter of Waze, I’m not convinced I could be persuaded to start using a sat nav again full time.

However. I’m going into this experiment with an open mind.

Free lifetime maps

For starters, the Garmin DriveSmart 61 comes with free lifetime map updates.  It also comes pre-loaded with UK, Ireland and Europe maps. It also has free traffic alerts to avoid incidents and congestion on your route.

That’s all very well, but I can get that from my trusty Waze app.  The Garmin also has Live Track which allows drivers to share their routes with others and Foursquare points of interest data.  Again, both of which I can utilise with Waze.

So far the Garmin doesn’t seem to offer much for its rather hefty £259.99 price tag.

As we dig deeper though, the differences start coming to the surface:

  • Live parking information for on and off street parking at your destination
  • Pair your smartphone and your sat nav via Bluetooth to get hands-free calling, voice-activated navigation and smart notifications for calls, texts and other alerts straight onto on your sat nav screen
  • Built-in Wi-Fi for easier-than-ever map and software updates when connected to a Wi-Fi home network
  • Driver awareness features include alerts for dangerous curves, speed changes, railroad crossings, animal crossings, speed cameras and more
  • Fatigue warning suggests break times and potential rest areas ahead after hours of driving
  • Active Lane Guidance with voice prompts will guide you to the proper lane for your route
  • photoReal and Bird’s Eye junction views help you navigate junctions with ease
  • Garmin Real Directions provides detailed guidance using landmarks and traffic lights
  • Pair your DriveSmart with your compatible Garmin smartwatch to receive navigation, find my car and driver alerts right on your wrist
  • TripAdvisor ratings for travel points of interest (POIs) such as hotels, restaurants and attractions
  • The ability to add millions more new and popular places like restaurants, shops, services and more to your search

Initial thoughts on the Garmin DriveSmart 61

The stand-out points for me are the hands-free calling which I could do on my phone but need it wired up to the car for it to sound any good.  I also like the sound of the live parking information which could be invaluable sometimes - especially in London where parking is at a premium.

The active lane guidance also sounds interesting.

My initial thoughts on the unit are that it’s thin and light.  It also seems to be packed with little extras, listed above.  My last sat nav was purchased a decade ago, and it’s immediately obvious how far the technology has come.

The unit is far bigger than my phone (a Samsung S6 Edge) and the screen displays an extremely clear edge-to-edge display.  Measuring 6.95-inch, the touchscreen display is a delight to use compared to my old one which was fairly unresponsive even when new.

The screen display quality is superb with crisp features which make my phone display look quite dull and dated.

The unit attaches to a ball-joint (supplied in the box) which stays permanently stuck to your windscreen, allowing the sat nav to be safely stored away when not in use.

The unit comes off of the ball joint very easily, though a few days into using it and I still feel like I’m going to break the unit as I push the sat nav onto the joint every morning.  It’s a small point, and not one that I’m going to unduly worry about going forward.

The Garmin DriveSmart 61 offers hands-free operation simply by saying “Voice command”.  The unit is fairly responsive to this, though getting it to accept an address can be hit and miss sometimes.

I found that resorting to spelling post codes phonetically helped to reduce the errors, but even then it wasn’t always 100% correct.  Fortunately, even when the system doesn’t quite understand what you’re trying to enter, it gives you a choice based on what it thinks you’ve said.

Garmin Voice Command

The Voice Command in action:

Three days in

After a few days of use, I am starting to see the positives to this sat nav. The Garmin has an extremely clear display and the clarity of graphics is superb.  I know I’ve mentioned that a couple of times now, but it’s so good it’s worth repeating.

The screen size really allows you to see the route that you’re taking on screen. Although I’ve never had a problem with this using the Waze app, flicking between the two it’s immediately obvious what a difference there is.

Having a bigger screen than a traditional smartphone also means that more information can be displayed clearly.

The Garmin will pull through messages (and read them out if you want it to) from your phone.  It also means that additional information including delays on your route and which lane you should be in for your exit are shown on one side, leaving the other to clearly continue showing the route you are taking.

The hands-free option is generally really good. The quality of audio when using my phone via the sat nav is excellent on normal roads.

However, it’s noticeable that on faster drives the quality decreases.  At 70mph it’s difficult to both hear and be heard when using the phone, which is a crying shame.

The other downside to the hands-free calling is that the sat nav can only pair to one phone at a time.

I previously had a Parrot hands-free kit in an old car.  This allowed me to connect my personal phone and my work phone at the same time. I was able to take calls on hands-free from either phone without having to physically switch between one and the other.

The Garmin will allow you to pair two phone, but to stop using phone A and start using phone B involves going into a menu, unticking and re-ticking some boxes and confirming it,  It’s a simple procedure when you’re not driving, but as far as I can tell so far it’s not possible to do with Voice Command.

The maps on the Garmin seem to be a little outdated.  Considering that I fully updated the software before using the unit, I expected all UK routes and roads to be fairly up to date.  This was one of the reasons I stopped using my old sat nav and switched to Waze, as Waze is continually updated by its users.

As I drove through Walthamstow yesterday, running both Waze and the Garmin, they were both giving different routes.

I followed the Garmin (even though Waze was showing heavy traffic on both routes, the Garmin didn’t reveal this) and was constantly told to turn down roads by the Garmin which were clearly labelled as T-Junctions.

Waze didn’t do this, instead it showed a route that was free of dead ends.

Active Lane Guidance

Garmin DriveSmart 61LMT-D - Active Lane Guidance

The Garmin’s Active Lane Guidance in action

One thing that the Garmin does extremely well is warning you which lane to get in on busy roads.

Driving down the A12, M25 and M11, the screen used its size to its advantage. Clearly displaying the route on the left-hand side, a picture of the exit is shown on the right-hand side.

This allows you to move lanes with confidence in knowing where you are headed.  It also offers a very visual reminder of the junctions approaching.  With Waze, it shows the upcoming junction but is quite subtle about it.  On many long journeys I have happily driven past my exit where I’ve been in a daydream or singing along to whatever is belting out from the radio.

The Garmin changes the display when it shows the Active Lane Guidance screen, and it’s difficult to miss.  In turn, this makes me far less likely to miss my turning!

Speed warnings and traffic alerts

The Garmin has a speed limit warning built in which changes as you drive to ensure that it’s always showing the correct speed limit for the area you are in.  It’s a handy way to make sure that you don’t speed.

There are similar alerts which pop up to warn of bends in the road, railroad crossings and more.  The warnings are a nice added feature and help you to be more aware as you drive.

The traffic alerts again utilise the right-hand side of the screen.  So far the system has steered me around most avoidable traffic problems.  In order to get traffic alerts, you need to connect the Garmin to your smartphone by Bluetooth.  You also need to download the Garmin Smartphone Link app which then digitally interacts with your sat-nav.

Garmin Smartphone Link

Garmin Smartphone Link creates a seamless navigation experience between a compatible Garmin personal navigator and an Android smartphone.

The app allows the device to share information.  This includes saved and recently found locations, where you parked, and your current destination.

It also links your device to Garmin Live Services, such as traffic, and weather using your smartphone’s current mobile data plan.

Verdict

The Garmin SmartDrive 61 has some really strong positives.  The clear display knocks spots off of anything I’ve seen.  The ability to pair your phone and use the Garmin as a hands-free kit is great.  With free lifetime map updates, voice commands and traffic alerts, the sat-nav ticks a lot of boxes.

The downsides are few.  The biggest one is possibly the price.  Just under £260 is a lot to pay.  Especially when there are apps like Waze which offer a lot of the features for free.

I also dislike the fact that the hands-free call quality reduces so drastically as you speed up.

That said, the quality of the product shines through.  Buying the Garmin wouldn’t be a short-term purchase.  I would imagine that this would become a staple of your drive for several years to come if you were to buy it now.

If you’re happy with smartphone apps, then the SmartDrive 61 is a definite upgrade. It’s one that you could possibly live without though.

If you prefer to have a dedicated sat nav unit, this seems to be one of the best out there at the moment, based on a cursory look at other units available.

It’s certainly going to get a lot more use from me as I continue to see whether I want it to replace Waze.

A solid four stars from me.

Garmin SmartDrive 61 in action - Is it better than Waze, a free sat nav?

Garmin SmartDrive 61 in action (photo taken by passenger!)

This is a collaborative post.

Disclosure policy.

by DannyUK

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