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Checking the top edge, we see that the power slider with locking mode has been replaced by a simple button.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.
Rounding out the 1690's feature set are TTS turn-by-turn directions that read street and POI names aloud, graphic lane guidance that displays a visual representation of highway intersections with valid lanes highlighted, and a feature called EcoRoutes. EcoRoutes is a collection of green driving tools including a fuel economy assessment, a series of green driving challenges, and a routing algorithm that attempts to calculate the most fuel-efficient route from point A to B.
The Nuvi 1690 was quick to boot and locked onto the satellite signals within 2 minutes of powering up with a clear view of the sky. We had hopes that, given access to cellular triangulation and potentially some sort of dead reckoning technology, the Nuvi 1690 would offer better positioning in tunnels, covered bridges, and urban canyons, but the PND doesn't seem to take advantage of either of these methods and got confused when driving on the lower level of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge or when passing through long tunnels.
With full bars on the NuLink signal meter, the Nuvi features relatively quick Google POI searches. Searching for one of our favorite sandwich shops took about 12 seconds to return results from the time we hit "Go." Searching the preloaded POIs for the same sandwich shop yielded almost instantaneous results. You can probably guess which search we usually defaulted to for the rest our testing.
One component that gave us trouble was the 1690's color touch screen. The screen seemed less responsive than many of the previous Nuvi models that we've tested, and it required a bit more pressure to register inputs. This was particularly frustrating when it came to inputting addresses using the onscreen keypad. Additionally, we periodically noticed the screen flickering slightly when the Nuvi was downloading data over the network, such as a POI search or when pulling a traffic update. We don't know if this is also the reason for the laggy screen response, but we do think that perhaps better RF shielding is in order.
Even without the NuLink service, the Garmin Nuvi 1690 is a solid portable navigation device. However, if you can live with the thought of being advertised to while you drive, the addition of connected data for a variety of safety, convenience, and entertainment uses is what really helps the 1690 earn its high feature score.
We ran into a few issues with the screen that cost the 1690 a design point and should probably be addressed in the next revision, but nothing that we'd call a deal breaker.
Performance was also quite good, but we feel that there were a few missed opportunities with cellular triangulation and dead reckoning tech that could help with tracking the vehicle's position when the satellite signal gets shaky. However, these are really bleeding-edge GPS technologies, so their apparent omission doesn't hurt the performance score too badly.
Overall, the good far outweighs the bad, putting the Nuvi 1690 near the top of our short list of recommended devices.