Garmin made a pretty big splash last year when it debuted the Nuvi 880, its first-ever Internet-connected portable navigation device (PND) featuring MSN Direct data service. With MSN Direct scheduled to go offline in the very near future, Garmin had to create something to fill this void, so it partnered with AT&T to create a Garmin-branded data service called NuLink and a new connected PND to utilize it: the Garmin Nuvi 1690.
The Nuvi 1690 and the NuLink service work together to bring turn-by-turn directions, live fuel prices and traffic data, and Google Local and White Pages search to the dashboard in one package, all without the hassle of monthly fees--at least not for the first two years.
Physically, the Nuvi 1690 is the familiar touch screen with a suction cup design that is the standard fare for all Nuvis and indeed most PNDs. The most noticeable external change comes in the form of the gloss-black frame with chrome trim that surrounds the 4.3-inch touch screen, but there are more subtle changes.
Looking at the unit's left side; we see that the SD card slot--which has been standard on the Nuvi line for years--has been shrunken to microSD size. This change most likely frees up internal space, but it also means that users' current full-size SD cards for additional regional maps and points of interest (POI) will not work with the 1690.
Checking the top edge, we see that the power slider with locking mode has been replaced by a simple button. While there's no longer a hardware screen lock, you can still achieve the same effect by tapping the power button to bring up an onscreen menu with options for screen brightness, power, and screen lock. Once locked, pressing the power button again will unlock the screen. And, of course, holding the power button for 3 seconds will immediately boot or shutdown the unit.
On the 1690's back panel is a single speaker, and along its bottom edge are a mini USB port and a 10-pin connector that interfaces with the included suction-cup cradle. The cradle features a very strong lever-actuated suction cup and is also equipped with a Mini-USB port for connecting the included 12-volt car charger. We like that the cradle's charger port allows for one-handed removal of the Nuvi for short trips away from the car. We also like that the Nuvi's redundant Mini-USB port allows it to be used and charged without the cradle, increasing portability.
Other notable changes are software-based. The menu icons have received a graphical refresh and are now more colorful with finer gradients and reflection effects. The menu button on the map screen has decreased in size, been moved to the lower-left corner of the screen, and relabeled Back. Meanwhile, the home screen has gained a top status bar displaying status icons for GPS signal strength, Bluetooth connectivity, navigation mode (driving, walking, or bicycling), the current time, the current temperature, NuLink signal strength, and battery state.
As we mentioned earlier, the major feature around which the Nuvi 1690 is built is the NuLink data service. The service operates on AT&T's EDGE network and is free for the first two years of ownership, after which users can elect to pay a $5 per month subscription or use the Nuvi without the connection. However, there is a catch. Garmin isn't offering free data service out of the kindness of its heart. During those first two years, the NuLink service is ad-supported, so periodically you will see text ads and offers on the map, menu, and POI search screens, but never on the map screen when the vehicle is moving. Safety first, you know.
For your trouble, the NuLink service streams traffic and incident data, fuel prices, weather forecasts, Google Local POI search, White Pages search, airline flight info, and local events and movie showtimes to the Nuvi 1690's screen. Unlike older Nuvis that receive traffic data over the FM band, the 1690's wireless antenna is built into the unit itself--and not the power cable--so the 1690 loses no functionality outside of its cradle.
Bluetooth wireless connectivity is available for hands-free calling, but A2DP audio streaming is missing in this model--presumably due to the absence of the MP3 and Audible.com audio-book players. Pairing with a phone is completed with a four-digit PIN, after which the user is given access to their phone's voice-dialing function (if available), dialing from the POI select and contact screens, and a 10-key phone pad, but we were unable to import our contacts en masse.