Wheel alignment

Thursday 6 January 2011

Using a GPS - what do you really need?

We've owned a GPS for 4 years and a joint Xmas present recently saw the acquisition of yet another.  Not because we really needed one, but simply because it was something we both readily agreed on as being handy.  In other words, mainly a "want" rather than a "need" or put another way, a new toy... 'nuff said!

By and large, navigating on sealed roads in NZ doesn't require a GPS.  It is, however, useful for city driving, particularly when there's no navigator in the seat next to you.  NZ has a lot of unsealed back roads, off-road tracks, paths for tramping (hiking) and plenty of bush to get lost in so a GPS is extremely handy for these activities as well. A pure automobile GPS won't necessarily meet some of these broader requirements.

This post isn't intended to be a rigorous comparison of an older style GPS with something brand spanking new, merely some observations by a motorcycle owner who now has experience with both of them.  Nor does it cover all the features of  each; those are readily available from the Garmin website.  Some of the following comments are motorcycle-oriented, some of them general.  I've also tried to be honest about "fitness for purpose", i.e. features which are essential compared with those which which are merely "cool"!

Let me admit right now that I'm not a big lover of too many "farkles" on a bike (radar detector excepted), which biases my views.  The personal attraction of a bike is that it's a simple, uncluttered means of travel (carefully avoiding the word transport).... far-removed from the general purpose of something with 4 wheels.  IMHO, adorning it with too many farkles moves it inexorably towards a 2-wheeled car!  Get the drift??

This is the older GPS:

Garmin 76Cx

We bought it in 2007 with versatility in mind so it was already something of an overall compromise.  It was to be interchangeable between the bike and car and also to be used on foot, both in NZ and travelling overseas.  The 76 Cx fitted these criteria quite well with the following features.
  • It's waterproof and rugged.
  • Replaceable AA batteries with a practical life between recharge or replacement of at least 10 hours if not connected to a power source.
  • Compass and other options associated with travel on foot, especially in the back-blocks.
  • Some specific marine applications for use on a boat.
  • Garmin MapSource software is supported by the NZ developers of Open Source maps (free on line) should we ever want them at a future date. (More on this shortly)
Its 1.6 x 2.2 inch screen is small by modern standards but is surprisingly readable on a motorcycle, in part due to the auto-adjusting map scale.  Excellent visibility both at night and in bright sunlight.   There is a 3D view option but it's pretty basic.  Having said that, the plan view (2D) is perfectly adequate. I have the GPS hard-wired into the switched ignition circuit but it's pleasing that battery life is pretty good, particularly for use on foot.

Plotting an entire route with waypoints, as opposed to simply an end destination, is a bit cumbersome and is much easier done using the Garmin MapSource software on a PC, then downloading it to the GPS.  I used this approach for last October's 1000 miles in 24 hours ride involving a complex back-road route and it worked just fine. On that ride, in the middle of the night miles from anywhere when I was a little on edge, watching progress round the route was surprisingly comforting!

RAM GPS mount, adapted to fit in steering headstock of Street Triple

The 76Cx doesn't have voice direction capability but just beeps when approaching waypoints, turns or other trigger points; also throwing up a text warning and direction arrows on the screen.  I don't use an earpiece and a visual cue is just fine for open road riding if you periodically scan the scrolling map for turns.  It's a little more tricky in urban areas where turns may be more frequent.  Not a good look to mow down a pedestrian or tail-end a stationary vehicle whilst looking at the GPS!!!

Our maps on the 76Cx were getting a little dated and we were recently caught off-guard with a new road being opened from the Auckland Southern Motorway out to the international airport. As it's only been open for a few short months, commercial map software won't show this change for some time yet and by the time it does, there will be route changes elsewhere; principally in and around the cities.  This is where NZ Open Source maps ( http://nzopengps.org/ ) enters into the scheme of things.  They are totally free auto-routing maps for all Garmin GPS models and have direct and on-going input from the user community in NZ.  This means that error corrections are almost instantaneously fixed and updated, as are the inclusion of new roads, roundabouts and the like.  I recently downloaded them and am extremely impressed with the level of map detail, points of interest and so on. Easily a match for the best commercial software in terms of accuracy and being current. They use Garmin MapSource as the base.

And on to the latest GPS, the Garmin Nuvi 3760........

We wanted it for the family cars, not the bike.  The only 2 criteria we had was voice directions for city driving and a reasonable size screen.  To be honest, there wasn't a lot of difference between Garmin, TomTom and Navman brands in terms of  features. Sure, the Garmin looked cool at less than 9mm thick in machined black aluminium but that didn't count for a whole lot. The deciding factor was a limited time offer for lifetime updates of map software for both NZ and Australia. The 3760 "T" version has the additional feature of voice-activated destination commands but we didn't go for this option as the extra cost wasn't considered value for money.  Besides, I'd feel like a Captain James T Kirk wannabe...."Computer, plot a course to Auckland - warp factor 10".  Err... and the withering scorn from the Executive Officer in the Starship co-pilot seat would be hard to take too.

Garmin Nuvi 3760 (bike icon chosen!)

The large hi-res screen at about 4.3 x 2.5 inches is nice, as is the capacitance-activated screen (as opposed to pressure).  The Aussie/Kiwi female voice is pleasant even if Maori name pronunciations are a bit mangled, but had one been available; I'd have willingly parted with extra dough to take orders from the English actress Joanna Lumley, who has the sexiest voice on the planet.  Unfortunately, there would have been a fight with my Chief Financial Officer, who would have issued a counter-demand for Sean Connery.

The 3D graphics are stunning, if not strictly necessary.  A lot of the other features, including pop-up drivers-view photos of key motorway exits etc fall in the "nice to have, but not essential" area too. Especially given that motorways in NZ are nearly as rare as rocking horse poo.  These extra features are quite good in the car  to tinker with and help relieve boredom, although largely unnecessary in a bike.  Haven't tried the bluetooth option. Oh, and the 3760 isn't waterproof so it's not the best option for a bike without a plastic bag or similar waterproofing aid.

Garmin claim a 4 hour battery life but so far, practical experience in this neck of the woods shows that it's less than that.  Given that recharging is via a mini-USB port, its use is essentially limited to where continuous power is available.

The one feature I really like is that the screen refresh rate is a lot faster than the 76Cx.  This is a real bonus where there are a series of turns to be made in rapid sequence. In fact, the refresh rate is almost continuous it's that good.

There's an on-line review of the 3760, including a video HERE.

Given the earlier statements about preferences for keeping a bike pretty pure and simple, the 76Cx still meets my "fitness for purpose" criteria, despite having now used most of the bells and whistles of the 3760 in the car. That's not to say that they wouldn't be nice to have with a top of the line bike GPS, it's just that right now;  I'd sooner spend my money on other things (a new pair of boots in the coming months being one of them)! Oh, and one other thing......  when you are set to buy a GPS, think about the cost of updating maps.  I've already mentioned the NZ Open Source maps for Garmin which are free via the internet.  I don't know whether a similar arrangement exists for other brands of GPS in other countries but the cost of commercial updates can add up.  Keep your eyes peeled for special deals.  When we bought our 3760, there was a deal to get lifetime updates for about NZ$100 above the price of a bare GPS.  This has represented good value as updates seem to come on average at a quarterly frequency.  We simply plug the GPS into a PC, log onto the Garmin website and away it goes.  The package is for both NZ and Australian maps so they update at the same time.

And now for something different...
Finally, a couple of photos.  A few of my fellow bike bloggers enjoy posting photos of beautiful food encountered on their travels. Here's one of food straight from our garden!  I've been doing long overdue work in the garden for a few days until the roads empty of summer holidaymakers from the big cities, along with their crazy driving habits. Two winters ago, we had all our fruit trees heavily pruned by professionals and boy, has it paid off!  Several hundred peaches on one tree with the first picking due in the next few days.  Several other variety peach trees  plus apples will ripen over the next few weeks and we'll be giving bucket-loads away as usual.   Native parrots that live in the local bush fly in and help themselves to the upper layer but that's fair payment for watching them perform.  Also got lemons, limes, blueberries and mandarins in the garden. So there ya go Bob and Co - food doesn't get much fresher than this!

Over-run by healthy food! 

Some areas of our garden are heavily shaded by tree ferns and it's been difficult to find stuff which will grow under them.  We recently discovered that Bromeliads love the conditions in our area so splashed out on some tiny ones by mail order and planted them in late winter. They're growing ever larger, are developing spectacular colours and will soon start flowering and multiplying.  A small selection below, although we have dozens dotted about.  I'm all for attractive low maintenance gardens!

Bromeliads - spectacular lovers of shade


  1. Geoff:

    My ears twitched, that must mean food is near. You must live in Paradise. All you have to do is walk outside and snatch food off the trees. I wished my GPS (cheap one) could save 'tracks' and the programmable ones are very costly. I use mine mainly for the speedometer function.

    I like Garmin but here in Canada they do not give you map updates . It is cheaper to purchase a new unit rather than paying nearly that much just to install a map on an older unit, so now I have 3 Garmins. All car units but with bluetooth, and one with traffic updates. I use the plastic bag waterproofing method

    bobskoot: wet coast scootin

  2. Hello Bob!

    A brief mention of food and it's like Pavlov ringing his bell! ;-)

    Snatch food from the trees and if a kingfish doesn't drag my rod and reel out of the boat like 2 weeks ago, fish from the sea too (provided that lucky red shorts are worn).

    I'd be surprised if a user group in Canada doesn't provide free maps for your Garmin. There is an Open Source group for both Australia and NZ. All you need is the original Garmin MapSource CD to provide the base and excusing the pun, "Bob's your Uncle".

  3. Geoff, I have a relatively basic Garmin car GPS which I took on our last run to Sydney & the Blue Mountains. I didn't have it mounted on the motorcycle at any stage, but rather found it really useful to get the location and 'phone number of hotels & motels when we first rolled into towns where we hadn't pre-booked anywhere. I then rang them to get the tariff and room availability, then followed the directions. That saved a lot of mucking about when we were hot and tired at the end of a long day's riding. It was much easier to be parked under a shady tree ringing around rather than riding from place to place in the heat in full gear.You could do the same thing with a smart 'phone, but I don't have one but do have the GPS!

    When we were in the USA having a GPS in the rental car took away most of the stress associated with driving in unfamiliar big cities (especially as driving on the right is so counter-intuitive for us in the first place).

    I'd love to have a motorcycle specific GPS such as a Garmin 550 or 660 but just cannot justify what they cost here at present.

    Cheers Jules.

  4. I have used Garmins for years in business travel. I always disliked how long. They took to recalculate directions if you missed a turn and the map update scenerios.

    Recently I purchased a Motorola Droid phone with google maps and navigation. I have used it several times in the car on trips with much success and found their recalculation of directions to be spontaneous.

    This past summer, I used it with an earbud on a 7 hr motorcycle ride with great success.

  5. Andrew:
    Yep, probably the ultimate bike GPS

    The contact numbers for POI's is a brilliant feature - only just discovered it on the latest GPS. Yep, a Zumo would be good but like you, there are a few other things to spend money on (errr..like a trip to Vietnam, KL and Singapore in March!)

    I don't think you'd be disappointed with the latest Garmin in terms of recalculation but agree that the earlier ones were dire. Like Jules, I haven't had a smartphone since retirement so haven't kept up with the technology - must ask around my friends who still work!

  6. Geoff:

    Something to ponder:

    "Is there such a thing as a retired person, going on Vacation ?"

    Wet Coast Scootin

  7. That's a nice set, I mean group, of peaches you have there Geoff.

    One of the things I miss about living in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia is the fresh peaches - right from the tree.

    I remember making pavlova with fresh sliced peaches on top. Mmm peaches.

    Maybe I need to get one of those new fangled GPS units to find me a peach tree.

  8. Bob:
    Hahaha - you're not the the first to say that! When I mentioned that Jennie and I were going to to take a break to one of my riding partners, he got a resigned look on his face and said, "From what, exactly?". I do see his point!

    Hmmm... I wonder what the proper name for a group of peaches is? Learned the other day in a quiz that a group of Gnus are called an "Improbability". Cool huh?

    Pavolva with peaches is one of our favourites. Incidentally, of all the stupid things to argue about, NZ and Australia both fight over who invented the pavlova. As if the world didn't have more pressing issues......

  9. Pavlova was invented in NZ - end of story!

    PS: bought my Zumo 2nd hand and even then ummed & arred at the cost. You can now get them new for what I paid 2nd hand...

    Mapsource rocks! Fantastic for GC routes etc...

  10. Andrew - good job you're not in the diplomatic service, hehe!

    I was really impressed with the Open Source Maps. Just downloaded them to my Garmin folder and executed them, opened MapSource and selected them and there they were - bang up to date! Looks like NZ and Australia are leading the way in free, high quality mapping for the Garmin.

  11. Great read Geoff and very timely, Was thinking about going down that route for myself and the bike, although I always seem to find my way around. ( The car has one all ready) Interseting I used my iphone a couple of times when we were away on the bike this week and it was all i needed really.Very handy.

  12. Thanks Roger. Useful for big cities, merely handy elsewhere in NZ. They are at their best if you want to plot a specific route rather than just an end destination. I'd have got us totally lost on the Grand Challenge east of SH1 in the Manawatu district without one - it was a real rabbit warren! Also great on foot in out-of-the way places.

  13. According to wikipedia, NZ are the most likely winners of the Pavlova debate....(we'll let you have that one! :) )

    Great post once again......The new garmin looks sweet! I'm loving the "Go Cruise s350" that I have on the bike - has a lot of the Tom Tom Rider and Zumo features.....but for $199 instead of $800.....and it came with a bluetooth headset.

    Hope that you have a great weekend....i've got one more day till its back to the office!!! Weather is still rotten and looks like it's going to keep going till tuesday....


  14. Anthony:
    Hahahaha - since you're being generous, can we have the racehorse Phar Lap. In the spirit of generosity, you can have Russell Crowe :-).

    You did incredibly well with your GPS, that's a seriously sharp price. Do you get free map upgrades?

    All good holidays must come to an end - I saw on our TV weather that the eastern seaboard was wet again. Wouldn't mind some of it here to stop the farmers grizzling!

  15. Hi Geoff,

    ...ok, so you get our dessert and our horse....and we get Russell. I'll get back to you on that one! :)

    Unfortunately the map upgrades on my GPS aren't free, but they aren't too expensive.

    I'm back at the office today and the weather is once again miserable - Feel free to take as much rain as you need!

  16. Hi Anthony:
    Hahaha - I'd have thought that we'd get the better deal ;-)

    Commercial map updates in NZ aren't prohibitive either so either Bobscoot is getting screwed in Canada or the price of a new GPS over there is ridiculously cheap.

    Sorry about your weather mate, I'll have a word with our weather gods!

  17. Hi Geoff

    Does a GPS really work downunder?

    I would not be without my Tomtom (and newly acquired Garmin 220) but what I really want is a Chart Plotter like on my boat...then I can see the big picture too.

    OK, you can plan routes on the PC, download them and then follow them but that is about it.

    Cheers, N

  18. G'day Nikos,

    Yeah, they work all right but it's a bit of a bugger having to read them upside down.


Hello! I love to hear your feedback as it often leads to other things. However, if your comments are blatant advertising, then they won't get published.