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Garmin Head-Up Display review: Modern HUD guides the way with retro flair

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The Garmin HUD is very cool, but in a 1980s sort of way. Driving around with this little, green head-up display projected into my line of sight with its segmented LED text and simple digital readouts made me momentarily feel like the star of an '80s action movie behind the wheel of an experimental sports car or an F-14 Tomcat. In reality, I was in a Ford Escape headed to pick a friend up from the airport or on my way to the office.

GarminHUD_10.jpg
7.0

Garmin Head-Up Display

The Good

The <b>Garmin Head-Up Display</b> reduces driver distraction by projecting GPS information onto the windshield and in the line of sight. Setup is largely automated and painless. Garmin includes two methods of viewing the display.

The Bad

Only one reflective film is included in the box, and installation is easy to botch. The HUD requires an additional $50 app to function.

The Bottom Line

The Garmin HUD boosts safety and helps keep eyes on the road, but the cost of entry will likely dissuade most drivers.

A head-up display adds a bit of drama to the driving experience, but more importantly it adds a bit of safety as well. By putting speed, navigation, and turn information in the driver's line of sight, the Garmin HUD allows drivers to keep their eyes on the road.

Hardware design and installation
The HUD technically isn't a portable navigation device -- at least, not on its own -- but the unit is about the same size as your average PND. The dashboard unit measures 4.25x3.46 inches and is 0.73 inch deep. On the top surface, you'll find a monochromatic LED text display with two-color illumination that is mostly green with a spot of red. You'll also note that all of the text that is displayed is reversed, but we'll get back to that.

Garmin HUD
The HUD's reversed text is not meant to be viewed directly. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

On one edge, there's a circular input for a 12-volt power adapter and on the other is a small black power button that can be held to activate and deactivate the device. The power cable's 12-volt connector also features a 2.1A-powered USB port to keep your smartphone (or even an iPad, if you wanted) charged while you navigate. You have to bring your own USB, Lightning, or dock connector cable.

The base of the unit attaches to the HUD with a double joint that gives the display a few degrees of rotation in two directions to help with positioning. Where the HUD meets your dash, you'll find a sticky, semiadhesive pad that grips most surfaces and flexes to conform to the contours of your dashboard.

Garmin HUD Base
The tacky base flexes to conform and stick to your dashboard. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Reflective display options
Because the HUD's display is mirrored, you'll have to reflect it off of something to view the information properly. In the box, along with the HUD and the power cable, you'll find two options for viewing the HUD's display.

The first is a transparent, reflective film that is installed on the windshield of your car. Installation is similar to installing a screen protector on a smartphone -- wet the surface, position the film, and squeegee out the bubbles with a credit card -- but removing the film once it's been placed will damage it. You've only got one shot at it while the glass is wet, so make it a good one.

The installation is tricky to get right and easy to mess up and install crooked or slightly misaligned, which I did. I'd like to see an extra film included for people, like me, who botch the installation.

For a more temporary setup, such as when moving the HUD between vehicles, Garmin also includes a rigid plastic lens that clips onto the HUD and reflects the light of the LED text display. The advantage of using the reflective lens is that it is much easier to set up, but because the lens is attached to the HUD, you're somewhat more limited in the placement of the display.

Garmin HUD
The reflective lens is the easiest way to get up and running with the HUD. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Software and performance
The Garmin Head-Up Display is just that: a display. It's not a navigation device, it doesn't carry its own navigation software or a GPS receiver.

All of the turn-by-turn data that is displayed by the HUD is supplied by a smartphone running either the Garmin StreetPilot app for iOS devices or a Navigon navigation app for Android, iOS, or Windows Phone devices. I did my testing with Navigon USA & CAN on a Google Nexus 4.

After you get the HUD installed on your dashboard, select either the film or the lens to view it with, and power the device with the power cable, it will enter a pairing mode in which it will illuminate and animate its display while waiting for a host phone running a compatible app to tell it what to do.

Navigon for Android
Compatible Garmin navigation apps will automatically find and pair with the HUD. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

On my smartphone, I simply activated Bluetooth, opened the Navigon app, and selected the HUD from a menu. All of the pairing from that point is automatic.

Then I selected a destination in the app like normal and, alongside the onscreen and spoken turn-by-turn directions supplied by the app, the HUD displayed navigation and GPS information.

The HUD's seemingly holographic display shows a large arrow that indicates the direction of the upcoming turn indicated by the software and a large number indicating the distance in miles or feet to that turn.

Below that, you'll find a lane guidance indicator. When approaching a highway exit or large intersection, a number of small arrows will appear at the bottom of the HUD, corresponding to the number of lanes on the current road. Arrows that are filled indicate lanes that are valid for the current route. Arrows that are hollow should be avoided; it's pretty simple.

Also displayed by the HUD are the estimated time of arrival, your current speed, and the speed limit for the road. If traffic is indicated on your route by the host app, a small red traffic icon will illuminate. Likewise, if you approach a red light or traffic camera.

The host app can even download firmware updates using your data connection and push the updates to the HUD via the Bluetooth connection.

In sum
When using the HUD, you can also mount the host phone on the dashboard for occasional viewing. The HUD lacks a speaker, but spoken turn-by-turn directions will continue to play, either through your phone's speaker or a car stereo connected to the device via an auxiliary audio connection or wirelessly through Bluetooth.

Floating above the dashboard, the HUD's display sits almost directly in the driver's line of sight, but because of its transparent nature, it doesn't obscure vision at all. The readout is bright enough to be viewed in broad daylight, and an ambient light sensor allows the HUD to automatically dim at night.

Garmin HUD and app on smartphone
The HUD and a compatible app will run you a combined $200. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The Garmin HUD retails for $149.99 (although you can already find it on sale), but the display also requires a Garmin app on your smartphone to function, so go ahead and factor an additional $50 into that price if you're not already a StreetPilot or Navigon user, bringing the cost of entry to about $200. A $50 app and a $25 dashboard mount would get the job done just as well, for a lot less money.

Then again, the Garmin HUD won't display pop-up notifications, doesn't have a touch screen to tempt you with interactions, and allows you to keep your eyes on the road even when a little lost. Also, it just looks cool. At its asking price, the HUD is more of a cool gadget than a proper safety feature, but any increase in safety is a good thing.

GarminHUD_10.jpg
7.0

Garmin Head-Up Display

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 8