Garmin Speak uses Alexa to tell you where to go

Earlier this year, navigation giant Garmin teamed up with Amazon to announce the Garmin Speak ($100 at Crutchfield), a nano-scale Amazon Echo ($80 at Amazon.com) for your car's dashboard. The pint-sized product promises to bring the flexibility of Amazon's Alexa voice service and Garmin's navigation and traffic prowess to any car in a compact, low-distraction package.

I've spent about a month getting to know the Garmin Speak.

'Alexa, what is a Garmin Speak?'

The Speak unit is a little black cylinder of about 1.5 inches in diameter and about the same length. At one end, a 0.8-inch black and white OLED display and a pinhole microphone hide in plain sight, surrounded by an LED light ring much like the one on Amazon's Echo and Dot. The light ring only illuminates when the Speak is speaking to the driver or listening after the "Alexa" voice prompt.

The Speak attaches to the windshield via a small magnetic puck that sticks to the glass. This makes the mount more secure than a suction cup while still being easy to remove when parking in sketchy areas, but also also makes it difficult to use the Speak in more than one or two vehicles as it only comes with two of these pucks.

On the Speak's backside is a 1-inch speaker. The device also features two buttons -- for muting the microphone and manually activating Alexa -- and a Micro-USB port for connecting to the included 12-volt power adapter via an extra long (about 12-foot) cable. If you don't want a janky black cable stretching through your car, take some time to cleanly route the cord. With patience, it's easy enough to hide in most cars.

'Alexa, how does it work?'

After installing the Speak in my test car, I installed the Speak app on my phone and followed the instructions to connect with the Amazon Alexa service and the Speak hardware via Bluetooth. Then, I just started talking to the invisible lady on my dashboard.

Operation is hands-free. Just say "Alexa…" followed by a command, just like I would on my Echo Dot at home. Almost all of the Alexa commands that I tried worked:

  • "Alexa, resume my audiobook" picked up where I left off in "Mona Lisa Overdrive" on Audible.
  • "Alexa, play Childish Gambino" played tunes from my Amazon Music collection.
  • "Alexa, add cat litter to my shopping list" did just that.
  • "Alexa, play 20 questions" gave me something to do on a long road trip besides listen to podcasts.

You can also access Alexa's various internet of things and smart home skills. So, if you have an Alexa-compatible garage door opener, thermostat or lights, you can command those things through the Speak just like you would through your Echo or the Alexa app on your phone.

Alexa always listened to me through the Speak's microphone, and seemed to do a pretty good job understanding over road noise in a variety of test cars, but the way I listened to Alexa depended on the host vehicle. Mostly, my phone was paired to the car via Bluetooth, so the Alexa audio also came over the car's speakers.

I also had the option of connecting to the car's stereo through the auxiliary input via a jack on the Speak's power adapter or just listening through the device's built-in speaker. Either way, I also had the option to also route calls and music through the Speak, making it an unlikely option for adding hands-free calling and audio streaming to older cars without Bluetooth. (I should note that you can't initiate calls through the Alexa service right now, so you'll need to use some other method, such as Siri or Google Assistant, to dial out.)

'Alexa, meet Garmin'

Of course, one of the Garmin Speak's biggest advantages over just using the Alexa app is that it unlocks specific Garmin skills for navigation.

After setting my home and work addresses in the Speak app on my Android phone, I was able to say, "Hey Alexa, ask Garmin for directions home," to get spoken turn-by-turn directions and traffic updates from the Speak unit. (There's also a place for a school preset.)

Along with the verbal directions, the Speak displays the direction and distance to the next turn or maneuver on its OLED display. On a highway or when approaching a complex intersection, the onscreen direction may also include lane guidance that indicates what lane I should choose. Nearing the turn, the Speak's light ring illuminates to draw my attention to the maneuver, but mostly the unit remained dark save for the tiny, low-distraction OLED screen.

Spoken destinations aren't limited to my presets. I was also able to ask Alexa to ask Garmin for directions to the nearest gas station or a particular pizza place. Often, the verbal search terms worked perfectly, but just as often it didn't. Sometimes, I'd ask for directions home and get a suggestion for a business nearby with "Home" in its name. The brilliance of cloud-based voice recognition is that it gets smarter over time and I did notice that Speak and Alexa grew more accurate over a few weeks of testing.

Also, I found it a bit clunky to basically have to speak two key phrases before actually getting to the meat of the command. Saying "Alexa, ask Garmin for directions home" was just more verbose than the "OK Google, navigate home" that I'm used to -- a minor annoyance that's more a nitpick at how Alexa skills work than of the Speak's operation.

garmin speak with Alexa

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

'Alexa, add Garmin Speak to my shopping list'

The Garmin Speak with Amazon Alexa is available on Amazon (of course) and at Best Buy for $149. That's not a bad price, but who is this product for?

Garmin Speak is not, in my opinion, a perfect replacement for a decent navigation system with a map on a screen. Especially when navigating on unfamiliar roads, I felt less confident following the Speak's directions than I did receiving the same directions from, say, the Honda Odyssey's onboard navigation, which also uses Garmin's maps and routing software. Some might get used to the pared-down directions, but other people are just visual navigators.

But drivers who like (or need) to keep their car tech simple will find the Garmin Speak charming. The mostly eyes-off operation is great for helping you keep your eyes on the road, voice commands are much safer than a touchscreen while driving and the tiny low-distraction design tucks away nicely. Most of Garmin's photos show the Speak in a central position, but I preferred to shove it into the lower left corner of my Mazda Miata's small windshield where I could see it, but also easily ignore it when I wasn't using the device. I also liked how the dark OLED screen displayed directions without compromising my night vision.

Internet of things and home automation fans who are immersed in the Alexa ecosystem will also enjoy the Speak for obvious reasons.

Discuss Garmin Speak