Garmin Mechanic app for Android: Hands-on

We got our hands on a very cool app from Garmin that's sure to appeal to Android fans and car geeks alike.

The Garmin Mechanic app gave us an accurate look at what was happening under the hood of our car.
The Garmin Mechanic app gave us an accurate look at what was happening under the hood of our car. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

If the reports are to be believed and Garmin (and by extension the rest of the GPS market) is having a hard time selling portable navigation devices, then we're sure that its EcoRoute HD add-on modules aren't flying off the shelves. But Garmin is making the device useful to a whole new market of potential users--namely, Android fans--with the release of its Garmin Mechanic app for Android.

We'll cut to the chase: if you already own a Garmin EcoRoute HD, the Garmin Mechanic app for Android is free application that allows you to take advantage of the data provided by your car's onboard diagnostics port (OBD) to view and log very accurate fuel economy information, engine operating parameters, and trouble codes. It is very cool. However, we're sure that most people don't have an EcoRoute HD just lying around, so for the rest of you, the Garmin Mechanic app is a useful app that requires a $100 piece of hardware to operate effectively, which makes it, essentially, a $100 app--which is not so cool and a much harder sell. We prefer to see the glass as half full, so we'll be taking a look at the Garmin Mechanic app for Android from the former of the two perspectives. We took the app for a spin in a variety of vehicles to see how it handled.

After launching the Garmin Mechanic app, we were prompted to connect the device with our EcoRoute HD module using a large connect button at the bottom of the interface. Pairing happens using your phone's Bluetooth antenna and all happens automatically from within the app. We didn't experience any difficulties with pairing our phone simultaneously with our test vehicle's Bluetooth hands-free system and the EcoRoute HD module, but depending on your phone and vehicle's hardware, your experience may vary here.

The EcoRoute HD module can be paired with the Mechanic app for maximum accuracy.
The EcoRoute HD module can be paired with the Mechanic app for maximum accuracy. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

You can select a pair of virtual gauges that display information from 18 available parameters.
You can select a pair of virtual gauges that display information from 18 available parameters. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Mechanic's interface consists of four tabs. The first tab, Trip, is where you'll find information about your current speed, total time spent driving, total time spent stopped, and distance traveled. Here there are also bar graphs that illustrate time spent accelerating, braking, and average speed. Finally, at the bottom is a constantly updating line graph that plots your current speed relative to your average speed. The next tab, Gauges, is where a pair of virtual gauges can be displayed. The defaults are vehicle speed and engine RPM, but you can select from about 18 different parameters to monitor (if supported by the host vehicle), including coolant temperature, timing advance, throttle position, and ethanol fuel percentage.

The Economy tab is the third in the lineup, displaying average fuel economy, instantaneous fuel economy, fuel used for the current trip, and the rate at which the vehicle is sipping fuel in gallons per second. This is the tab that we spent most of our time on during the course of our testing and the tab that we expect most drivers will obsess over as well. There is also a line graph that displays the current fuel economy relative to the trip average. The last tab, Vehicles, is where you can store profiles for the vehicles that you own. Hidden options for vehicle diagnostics, trip history, and send logs--which allows you to e-mail saved data--further extend the usefulness of the app.

The Trip tab uses OBD, GPS, and accelerometer data to track drive times, distances, and speeds on a per-trip basis.
The Trip tab uses OBD, GPS, and accelerometer data to track drive times, distances, and speeds on a per-trip basis. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

All of these functions use data gathered from the EcoRoute HD module to provide very accurate information about what your vehicle is doing. However, even if you don't have an EcoRoute HD module, the Mechanic app will still be able to report some data. After storing your vehicle's class, weight, engine size, red line, and fuel type, Mechanic can utilize GPS and accelerometer data to estimate acceleration and vehicle speed to make educated guesses about distance traveled and fuel used. It won't be as accurate as the fuel economy numbers that would be reported by the vehicle's OBD connection, but during our highway mileage testing it ended up in the same ballpark. The phone's accelerometer can also be used to power a virtual skidpad for measuring g-forces. In fact, of Mechanic's functions, the Gauges tab is the only one that goes totally inactive without an EcoRoute HD present.

It's clear, however, that Mechanic is an app that is truly accurate (and thus, really useful) only when paired with its intended hardware. Fortunately, with a $100 MSRP the EcoRoute HD module is still a bit cheaper than a standalone OBD monitoring device that would offer similar functionality, such as the PLX Kiwi ($199) or the Bully Dog WatchDog ($299). By using your Android phone as a display, the combo of Garmin EcoRoute HD and the Mechanic app also saves you the trouble of mounting a second display in your vehicle, while the wireless connection saves you from having to drape cables around your cabin. However, one fewer screen means that you're also displaying less information, so you won't be able to--for example--view a map with turn-by-turn directions while also watching your fuel economy. Then again, with all of the distractions in vehicles these days, that may not be such a bad thing.

We think that Android geeks and car geeks will both find moderate levels of amusement in this free app. However, those who really want to get serious about monitoring their vehicles' performance and economy will still be able to use Garmin Mechanic as a stepping stone while deciding whether the cost of entry for the EcoRoute HD is worth the potential savings at the pump. You can grab Garmin Mechanic as a free download from the Android Market

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