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Garmin's new Nuvi 680 unit offers a medium sized screen, good resolution, and excellent functionality.

Its MSN Direct data service is its most notable feature, giving information on realtime traffic, local gas prices, movie times and weather make the unit much more than 'just' a GPS.

 
 
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Garmin Nuvi 680 GPS review

Full featured and excellent screen size compromise
 

A larger screen with widescreen aspect ratio is the obvious visible feature of the Nuvi 680.

New features, when you turn it on, include real-time traffic maps, as shown on this image, with color coding indicating congestion levels.

Part of our series on GPS - see links on the right.

 

 

The Garmin Nuvi 680 - Garmin's top of the line automotive GPS unit - is particularly notable for its MSN Direct data service.

As a GPS unit it is robust, fully featured, and easily used.

The new MSN Direct data service transforms the unit, providing location based information relevant to where you are about things such as freeway congestion, nearby gas prices at petrol stations, current and forecasted weather conditions, and what's screening at nearby movie theatres and when.  This is an enormous added value benefit.

Recommended for people seeking a top of the range type unit.


Garmin Overview

Garmin are one of the original manufacturers of GPS units.  They are a US company, based in Olathe, KS, and founded in 1989.

They make a wide range of GPS equipment for aviation and marine use as well as automotive and personal use.  They are by far the largest manufacturer of GPS equipment in the world, but our guess is their leadership role is faltering, under challenge by a growing diversity of new manufacturers taking advantage of technology that is no longer proprietary and expensive, but which is now generic and off-the-shelf.  New GPS manufacturers can be similar to personal computer 'manufacturers', and need do little more than combine and assemble a range of prebuilt components, then badge the final product with their company name.

Even Garmin itself is now doing this to a limited extent, having switched from their own markedly inferior range of GPS satellite receivers to using the wonderful receiver chips from SiRF, and using Navteq mapping data rather than any type of proprietary mapping data.

Although Garmin's products are increasingly under competitive attack, the company continues to charge massive price premiums for their products.  Our guess is that this strategy too will need to change - look at computer manufacturers, for example - some of the biggest best known brand names (eg Dell) are often the lowest priced and best value, with no appreciable premium being commanded by their brand name.

For many reasons, a Garmin GPS may no longer be your best value choice of GPS.  Ten years ago, they had an unassailable lead over their competitors, but today the few remaining elements of marginal superiority struggle to justify the massive price premiums you'll pay to buy a Garmin unit.

The Garmin Nuvi 600 series compared and contrasted

As the world's dominant manufacturer of GPS units, it is unsurprising that Garmin offer a bewildering array of GPS units to choose from - 29 different units for automotive use alone, according to their website at present (June 2007).

There are six different units in their Nuvi 600 series, all of which can be differentiated from other models by virtue of their 4.3" screen.

Our feeling is that the 4.3" screen is a must have feature; Garmin's other units generally have a 3.5" screen, and while the extra 0.8" might not seem like much extra, it does make a tangible difference and with more pixels of information, too, it helps you to more easily read the 'fine print' on the screen from a distance.

The 600 and 610 units are not sold in the US, only in Europe.  The main difference between them and the four newer models (650, 660, 670 and 680) is they don't speak street names, so instead of saying, for example, 'Turn right on Smith street' they would say 'Turn right at the next street'.  This is only a minor feature omission but having the unit pronounce the name of the street you are looking for can help resolve ambiguities about whether the unit means this or that street to turn onto.  The 600 is similar to the 650 and the 610 is similar to the 660.

The other four units can be considered this way :

Nuvi 650 :  The same as a Nuvi 660, but does not have Bluetooth or an FM transmitter to send its audio output to your car stereo system.  It has a retail price of $749.99.

Nuvi 660 (see our test of the Nuvi 660 here) :  Consider this the 'base' model.  It does not have the MSN Direct data service, but is otherwise the same as the upgraded 670 and 680 units.  Retail price $857.13.  Current Amazon price (Feb08) $370.

Nuvi 670 :  Identical to the 660, but comes with both North America and European maps loaded in it.  Retail price $1071.41

Nuvi 680 (tested here) :  Identical to the 660, but also has the MSN Direct data service.  Retail price $964.27.  Price update Feb 08 - the 680 can now be found for as little as $460 at Amazon.

The decision issues are accordingly whether you must have the MSN Direct data service or not (if yes, then choose the 680), if you travel to Europe regularly (if yes, choose the 670) and if you need Bluetooth and/or the FM (if no, choose the 650).

Recommended choice

You probably should consider getting a Bluetooth equipped unit.  Even if your cell phone doesn't support Bluetooth, chances are your next cell phone will, and the advantage of having a good hands-free speaker phone is well worth the extra $100 this costs, especially with more and more states making it illegal to hold a cell phone and talk while driving.

If you travel to Europe from time to time, you can still take your 660 or 680 with you, and buy the extra maps you'll need from Garmin rather than have them preloaded into the 670.

The key difference then comes down to whether you need the extra data services provided by MSN Direct with the 680, or if the more limited data on the 660 is sufficient.

Please see our review of GPS Data Services here for information on the differences between the FM Traffic and MSN Direct services (and also commentary on the third option, XM Satellite).

Bottom line?  Due to the superiority of the MSN Direct service, the Nuvi 680 is our favorite of the Nuvi series at the present time.

Using the Unit

Using the unit is very simple and intuitive.  It is relatively easy to mount in your car, and then after turning it on and telling it little more than the time zone you're in (for the first time you turn the unit on) it starts working automatically.

We very much liked the unit's quick release mount.  You can easily pop the Nuvi in or out of the screen mounting unit, so as to hide or remove it for security purposes, or to use it elsewhere.  The power cord connects to the screen mounting unit, so when you remove the Nuvi, you don't have to also disconnect cords, and with its up to 7 hour battery life, the unit works well in a cordless environment.

This makes it easy and simple to mount/dismount the unit, and encourages you to put the unit out of plain sight when parking (I've had my car broken into already by thieves who took the GPS unit).  And for added security, you can also program a lock/unlock code which has to be entered every time the vehicle is turned on for the unit to work, so if thieves should steal your unit, it is worthless to them.

Garmin provides a nice little carry case for the unit, but this pouch holds only the Nuvi itself.  It doesn't provide storage for the mount or power cord, unlike the earlier cases Garmin used to offer for, eg, its Street Pilot series.

One minor annoyance was that the touch sensitive regions on the screen for selecting some of the functions (eg to go to the satellite display screen) are quite small and it is easy, especially while driving, to reach over and inadvertently touch the wrong part of the screen, calling up a very different function.

The speaker wasn't very clear or powerful, and to make the sound loud enough to be heard, the sound also became distorted.

Like most units these days, it has an auto-zoom function on the map, but this can be over-ridden.  While the screen is larger than many and better resolution than many, it is still smaller with less resolution than the built in unit in the Landrover, and we often found ourselves having to zoom in further when seeking turn by turn information to make details more plainly apparent.

The GPS receiver unit was extremely good and acquired satellites very quickly - almost as quickly as the Landrover's unit with external antenna, and much more quickly than other units previously reviewed.  Indeed, the unit proved to be more sensitive in some situations - for example, when below decks on a ferry, the Garmin unit would sometimes maintain signal whereas the Landrover unit blanked out.

When asking the unit to plot routes to addresses, it was easy to enter the desired address, and the unit would very quickly calculate a route which was usually a sensible and good way to travel.  The Navteq mapping data was accurate and closely up to date, but some of the points of interest had very old phone numbers (with an area code that had long since been split into two and updated).

Using the MSN Direct Service with the Nuvi 680

Our favorite feature of this unit is its information on gas prices.  Many times we've saved 10c or even 15c a gallon by knowing where to go to fill up, and over a year or two this saving will certainly add up.  And even if not saving substantial money, the knowledge about which stations are high and which are low is helpful and interesting.

Unfortunately the real time traffic data was somewhat unreliable - slightly better than nothing, but not as good as web based reporting.

One frustration was the realtime traffic data was rarely accurate.  In the Seattle area we have extremely good traffic data published by the Washington State Dept of Transportation, and this data is not only published on their website, but offered in raw data form to anyone and everyone else as well.  Accordingly, there's never any need for any other 'added value' traffic information reporting service to seek data from any other source (and what other sources are there over and above the road sensors and traffic cameras offered by the WA DOT) and one can readily do comparison testing between the live data on the DOT website and the information being reported on third party services.

In addition to noticing contradictions between the DOT data and the MSN Direct data, I also had the most incontrovertible of proofs of all - by driving on roads that MSN Direct were reporting as congested, but which were flowing freely with speeds over the posted limits.

The MSN Direct data is helpful, but disappointingly and puzzlingly, it is not reliably up to date and accurate.  One is never quite sure of the probity of the data that is displayed because there is no information given about when it was last updated.  For all you know, it could be yesterday's freeway congestion data you're looking at, or the morning commute data when you're planning your afternoon commute.  Garmin say that in theory the traffic data is refreshed every 6 - 8 minutes, but there have been occasions when refreshes have been much slower than that.

Driving a congested road one afternoon had the 680 predicting a 15 minute delay (and the 660 predicting a 2 minute delay).  In actual fact the route which the 680 said would take 25 minutes and the 660 said would take 12 minutes ended up taking 35 minutes.

A problem with the data is that it takes a long time to update if you move to a new area - the unit itself admits to it taking as much as 1 - 2 hours for all data to be loaded when entering a new area.  This can make these potentially useful services completely useless - by the time the information for gas prices has loaded, you're another two hours down the road and have had to trust to luck in terms of where you chose to buy your gas.

One very annoying bug is that every so often, MSN Direct somehow 'forgets' that the unit has been registered and I have to re-register the unit by calling them, waiting on hold, reading off the very lengthy serial number, and answering the same bunch of increasingly annoying questions, then waiting for the unit to be reactivated.  Neither MSN Direct nor I know why this is happening.

The Bottom Line

The Garmin Nuvi 680 is currently the second best GPS unit we've reviewed.  Our favorite remains the unit built in to current model Landrovers, but for most people, without such a vehicle, the Garmin Nuvi 680 is the best product out there.

But if you're willing to sacrifice the MSN Direct service that comes with the unit, there are plenty of other comparable units out there for less than half the price of the Nuvi.

The cheapest place we've found so far to buy the Nuvi is through Amazon.com, with new units selling for $460 at present (Feb 08) and sometimes used units available at lower prices.

Recommended.

Feature Analysis
 

Feature

Test Unit

Model

Garmin Nuvi 680

Price

List price $964.27 (what a strange price)
Purchased through Amazon.com for $670 June 07, now (Feb08) selling for for $460

Review Date/Details

Unit was purchased and reviewed in June 2007.

It came with software version 3.50, GPS software version 2.90, audio version 1.40, and Bluetooth SW version 2.40.

After checking the Garmin website and updating, the software became version 3.80 (three dot point upgrades already!), additional language/voice features were offered, and the Bluetooth was upgraded to version 2.80.

Update (Sept 07) :  One day the unit displayed a message advising of a new update available from their site.  Amazing.  I guess it was advised of this through the MSN Direct data stream.  Updating the unit brought the software up to version 4.10.  But somehow the audio version is now showing as version 1.10 (formerly was 1.40).

Update (June 08) :  I didn't get a message this time, but I checked and found more updates.  The unit now has software version 4.40, and, although it has updated its Bluetooth software too, this now shows as version 0.00.  The audio software remains at version 1.10.  There was also a massive update to the MSN information services, adding new capabilities to this.

Update (Aug 08) :  Again, no update message, but I connected the unit to my computer and it found updates.  The unit now has software version 4.50 and GPS software version 3.00.

Warranty

One year.

Support

Through Garmin's website or via their toll free support - (800)800-1020, 8am - 7pm Central time, Monday - Friday.

Hold times to get through to a support representative sometimes stretched out over 15 minutes, but the representatives were all helpful when spoken to, knowledgeable, and based in the US.

Inclusions

The unit comes with a very complete package of just about everything you're likely to need :

  • The unit itself

  • Windshield mounting bracket

  • Dashboard mounting adhesive disk

  • Car power supply

  • USB cable

  • AC charger

  • Carry case

  • User manual

  • Quick reference guide

  • Various other promotional literature

The unit does not come with a backup CD/DVD with the map data on it, although it is not clear why you'd necessarily need this.

Runs out of the box

Yes, mount it, turn it on, and it starts working.

Easy to follow menus and screen prompts make the manual almost unnecessary.

Size

The unit measures 4.9" x 2.9" x 0.8".

Weight

The unit by itself weighs 6.7 ounces.  The unit complete with screen mounting hardware and power cable weighs 12.4 ounces.

These are satisfactory light weights and make the unit practical to travel with.

Mounting Accessories

A mounting bracket with suction cup is available for mounting the unit on the windshield.  The mounting bracket has a nice extra feature - a quick release which makes it easy to take the unit out of its screen mount when leaving the car to make it less of a tempting target to car thieves (I had my car broken into by thieves who stole my Plenio unit).

Also provided is an adhesive disk to mount the unit to the dashboard.

Other mounting accessories are also available from Garmin.

Screen Size

4.3" diagonal screen

2.2" x 3.8" =  9:16 aspect ratio

Screen Pixels

In common with other 4.3" screens, this has a resolution of 272x480 pixels.

123 pixels/inch vertically

126 pixels/inch horizontally

This is excellent pixel density and allows the screen to very clearly display all information.

Screen Colors

Unknown but sufficient.

Screen Visibility

The screen is easy to read in most lighting conditions, and the text is clear and well defined, as you'd expect from the high pixel resolution.

Screen Backlighting

Yes, multiple levels offered.

Day/Night Mode

An intelligent day/night mode function automatically switches to night mode at sunset and switches back to day mode at sunrise.  Because the unit knows where it is and the day of year, it can calculate sunrise and sunset times.

Night mode has subdued colors, but the screen is too bright if driving in less well lit areas - you'd probably want to also reduce the screen brightness at night for best effect.

And - here's a very clever feature.  The brightness control has two different settings - for the day and the night displays.  So I now have the unit set for mid level brightness during the day and lowest level brightness at night.

Controls

The unit itself comes on when the ignition is switched on and goes off when the ignition is switched off.  You have an option, offered on the screen each time when turning the car's ignition off, as to if you want the unit to switch to its internal battery and stay on, or to switch off.

There is an on/off button on the top side of the unit, all other controls are via the touch screen.

Interactive help files available

No

Limited functionality when moving

This is an option that you can set on or off.  Most of us will probably set this option off so as to have no limits on what we can do with the unit while driving.  But, if you do this, be careful.

Graphics processor speed

Excellent.

GPS Receiver

Uses a SiRF unit.

Extremely good, locks satellites very quickly, and on occasion has a better satellite lock than my Landrover's built in unit with external antenna.

Max number of satellites simultaneously tracked

Not stated, but believed to probably be at least 12.

WAAS enhanced

Yes

Dead reckoning capability

None.  But it somehow assumes that you're continuing on the road you were on, at the speed you were at, if you, for example, go through a tunnel.

Satellite display

Yes.  You can choose a satellite display screen that shows a map of the sky on the left hand side, with details of where satellites are in the sky, plus also where the sun is, and even where the moon is too.

On the right hand is a list of all satellites that signals are being received from and the strength of each signal and whether the unit has locked on to the satellite or not.

Accuracy calculation

Yes, on the satellite display screen.  This is a 'theoretical' accuracy only based on the geometric solution the unit is capable of computing, and some additional inaccuracy needs to be factored in for other variables such as propagation delays, ephemeris data, etc.

Can the unit show you your current latitude and longitude and compass heading

This information is shown on the satellite display screen.

Can the unit show you your current altitude

Yes, it shows altitude in feet on the satellite information page.

Displayed altitude matches very closely to known altitudes (ie roadside signs).

Can the unit show you the exact time

Yes

External antenna capability

Yes.  The unit uses an MCX type connector.

CPU processor speed

Not known, but the unit performs calculations and screen updates and everything very quickly.

Trip Computer functions

Yes.  It shows direction of travel, instantaneous speed (this is more accurate than your speedometer), average speed (including stops), average speed (excluding stops), maximum speed (this can be embarrassing, and can be cleared by itself if you feel the need to do so!), total time since reset, moving time since reset and stopped time since reset.  It also shows an odometer measuring distance traveled down to 1/100th of a mile and displays time remaining to reach your currently programmed destination (if applicable).

Battery Type

The unit has a built in Li-Ion battery.  This charges automatically when the unit is connected to any external power.

Battery Life

Up to 7 hours claimed.  Actual life will probably be less, depending on screen brightness and usage.

My unit ran for three hours before giving a low battery warning - some additional battery life remained (I'll guess about 30 minutes) so the 7 hour estimate seems to be very optimistic.

Power Input

The unit can accept power from the car's battery, and also from a computer or other device through a USB port, and a mains power adapter.

Auto Power On/Off

When you turn the ignition off, the unit gives you a prompt to either touch the screen to cause the unit to switch to battery power, or do nothing in which case the unit will turn off after 30 seconds.

When you turn the ignition back on, it automatically turns back on and resumes any existing journey navigation.

 

Mapping

Map provider

Navteq

Countries provided

US and Canada.

Update policy, frequency and cost

Updates are expected every 12 - 15 months, and will probably cost $70.

Other countries also available

Yes.  Many European countries, plus other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Malaysia and Singapore.

How is map data loaded into the GPS receiver

Map data is pre-loaded on the unit.  Additional map data can be added via SD card.

Can the entire US be loaded into the unit

Yes.  The unit holds all of the US and Canada.

Speaks Directions

Yes.

Speaks Street Names

Yes, and does a good job of pronouncing street names.

Languages spoken

The system can display prompts in 24 different languages.

It can speak directions in 42 different combinations of languages, dialects and genders, of which 21 support full street name speech, the other 21 are just generic turn type instructions.

An amusing thing occurred while I was experimenting with different languages.  I chose an Australian voice for directions, and when the Nuvi 680 subsequently was directing me onto a road here in Washington state that is variously known as SR-520 (State Route) or WA-520 the voice interpreted WA as the abbreviation for Western Australia and told me 'turn right and take the onramp onto Western Australia 520'.

2D/3D

Yes, you can choose between these options.

Can you choose between North up or Direction of Travel up

Yes.

Split screen mode

No.

Map Scale Shown

Yes.  It does want to auto-zoom, but you can override this and it remembers the override setting until the next power off/on.

Number of POIs provided

6 million points of interest.

Number of user POIs that can be added

Unknown but very many, potentially limited only by the onboard storage.

Garmin make available a POI importer program to accept POI data from other programs and load them into the Nuvi.

POI information includes phone number

Yes, both preloaded POIs and also any custom ones you might create.

You can automatically call the phone number via the Nuvi 680's Bluetooth link to your cell phone if you wish.

POI proximity alert

Yes, for some types of custom POI only.

Speed limit warner

No

Does it show both miles and kilometers

Yes

 

Route Planning

How to enter addresses and other data

An ABCD keyboard.  No predicting of future letters or greying out of inapplicable letters is offered.

You can partially type a name and then call up a list of matching places.

Can you build a multi-stop journey with waypoints

Yes

Will it solve the 'traveling salesman' puzzle

No

Can you program assumed speeds for different road types, and if so, how many different road types?

No.

However, the unit's default settings, which it modifies based on its experience of your driving, are uncannily accurate, and updates the ETA as things change.

I've had ETA predictions remain accurate to within a couple of minutes on two hour journeys.  But these predictions can of course get messed up by traffic congestion along the way.

Can you choose different settings for different types of vehicles

Yes, there are five choices - Car/motorbike, pedestrian, bicycle, truck and bus.

Can you program preferences for road/route types

Yes, you can choose to prefer or avoid traffic congestion, U-turns, highways, unpaved roads, toll roads and ferries.

Does the unit present you with multiple route choices to choose from

No.

Can you choose between fastest/quickest and shortest route options

Not each time you set a destination, but there is a system setting for your preference as between faster time, shorter distance, or off road.

Will it show breadcrumb trails?

No

 

Extra Features

Bluetooth

Yes.  Does double duty as a Bluetooth hands-free speakerphone for your Bluetooth equipped cell phone, and has excellent features like displaying the name or number of callers, displaying your phone book information on its screen, and is easy to use.

Its Bluetooth code is 1234, and very helpfully it displays this on the screen when you're trying to pair it with a phone.

Sound quality through the speaker is average to poor, and the sound quality for the person at the other end of the line is poor to very poor.  This unit wouldn't replace a high quality Bluetooth speaker phone, but is better than nothing for short calls.

Export data to laptop

Yes - has a USB port.

Can it play MP3 or other digital audio

Yes, and audio books too.

Can it play MP4 or other digital video

No

Can it display pictures

Yes

Integrated with real time traffic reporting

Yes - works with MSN Direct, and can also work with FM Traffic services (requires the purchase of an extra FM Traffic receiver for this).

The unit comes complete with a twelve month subscription to MSN Direct.

Integrated with other location services

No

Other features

The unit shows the official temperature in the area based on received weather data.

Can be set to detour around areas (for example, where road works might be, or traffic accidents).

Has many extra features such as a calculator, a currency converter, a unit converter, and a world clock.  Unfortunately, while you can choose four different time zones (as well as your local time zone) to appear on the world clock, much of the world is not available as a choice - for example, neither Australia nor New Zealand time zones are available for most choices, although useless time zones such as Mid-Atlantic and Eniwetok are offered.

Can have extra optional features like language converters and travel guides.

Garmin sell a travel discount program which will advise you of participating companies close to where you are that offer discounts.

 

Read more in the GPS articles series

See the links at the top right of the page to visit other articles in our GPS series.

 

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Originally published 29 June 2007, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 

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