What do you get when you yank the phone parts out of the Garmin Nuvifone? The obvious answer is "just a regular Garmin Nuvi." However, that's not exactly the case, as the Garmin Nuvi 295W retains more than a few of its smartphone bits, including a 3-megapixel camera and Wi-Fi connectivity. The Garmin 295W features nearly identical hardware and software as the Nuvifone G60 with a few mostly invisible changes, but is this new device raising the bar for portable navigation devices or simply lowering the bar for a smartphone that we've already judged as mediocre?
Externally, the design is the same. The PND features a black, soft-touch finish that seems oddly impervious to all but the greasiest of fingerprints. The unit measures 4.4 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick and features a 3.5-inch, 65,000-color touch screen with a 272x480-pixel resolution, which is a bit on the small side for in-car navigation. Still, the screen is of reasonable brightness with crisp colors and remains legible in all but the most direct sunlight.
Along the unit's top edge are a power/lock button and a headphone jack. Along one of the unit's black chrome-trimmed sides are a volume rocker and a camera button. Along the opposite edge you'll find a microSD card slot, Mini-USB port, and car dock connection point. The back panel of the device is home to the 3MP digital camera (no flash) and a removable cover, behind which you'll find the 295W's removable 1,200mAh lithium ion battery.
Holding the Power/Lock button powers the phone on or off, depending on its current state. Once powered up, pressing this button puts the 295W to sleep. Tapping the same button again brings the user to a lock screen, where a lock icon must be double-tapped to reawaken the phone.
The Nuvi 295W uses a version of the Garmin Nuvifone's "Breeze UI" interface with the obvious exception of the system's functionality. The home screen features a two-tiered design with two-thirds of the screen being dedicated to two large circular icons for selecting a destination and viewing the map. Along the bottom edge (or right edge, depending on orientation) of the screen is a scrollable list of icons for secondary functions such as Web browser, e-mail, music player, or camera.
The destination and map screen should be immediately familiar to anyone who's ever held a Garmin Nuvi-branded PND in the last decade. The unit's menus and maps feature bright, colorful icons and the maps, while fairly basic-looking, are crisply rendered and easy to understand at a glance. The unit's resistive touch screen doesn't allow for any multitouch gesturing such as pinch-to-zoom, so the map interface relies on buttons for all of its zooming needs.
Like the G60 that came before, the 295W features a built-in accelerometer and an interface that can be viewed in portrait or landscape orientation; the former being great for handheld navigation and the latter best used in the car. We didn't experience any of the accelerometer fickleness that was present with the G60. However, the change from portrait to landscape orientation did seem to take a beat longer than we were accustomed.
The onscreen keyboard, which is used for destination entry and in the 295W's various applications, also features portrait and landscape orientations. Landscape is the easiest to use, thanks to its more generous key spacing and QWERTY layout. Garmin's intuitive autocomplete function learns words that you frequently input and suggests them when it recognizes the first few letters being input. A dedicated autocomplete button allows users to select the suggested word and helps in quickly inputting information. However, we found that our inputs were slowed considerably when using the unit in its portrait orientation because of a combination of the onscreen keyboard being more cramped when in this orientation and, oddly, rearranged in an awkward alphabetical layout instead of the more familiar QWERTY.
Upon unboxing the Garmin Nuvi 295W, users will find the portable navigation device and its lithium ion battery, a suction-cup mount cradle, an adhesive dashboard disc, a 12-volt Mini-USB power cable, and a Mini-USB sync cable along with the usual assortment of Quick Start guides and user manuals.
Under the hood, the 295W features nearly identical hardware to the Nuviphone G60 with the obvious exception of its lack of a cellular antenna and SIM card slot. The 295W retains its Wi-Fi antenna and can connect too the Internet to access data to fuel its various auxiliary functions. Unfortunately, we had a hard time getting the device to reliably connect to public hotmspots that required a log-in during testing, yet our WEP secured home network was accessed quickly and easily. Your mileage may vary.
At its core, the 295W is as solid a GPS navigator as any Garmin we've tested. Garmin preloads the unit with maps of the continental United States and Canada and offers turn-by-turn directions with text-to-speech spoken street and POI names. Oddly, the unit does not have any sort of graphic lane guidance for freeway interchanges, which seems like a bit of a step backward in navigation technology. Additionally, the unit features no traffic data technology, which is a bit of a black mark when many new PNDs in the 295W's price range are offering some sort of free FM traffic deal.
Outside of the core navigation functions, the 295W features a rudimentary Webkit-based Web browser, an e-mail client with POP3 and IMAP support, Google Local search, and weather forecasts. All of these features require Wi-Fi connectivity, so if you live in a free Wi-Fi desert, you won't get very much use out of them.
The digital camera can be accessed via the home screen icon or by holding the camera button on the unit's edge. The camera application features simple geotagging of photos and a basic gallery function, but no other options or settings. The camera automatically focuses before each shot and can be prefocused by half-pressing the shutter button. Photos taken under average office lighting levels were blurry and noisy with a bluish-green tint. Outdoor photos turned out considerably clearer.
With a cold boot time of nearly 2 minutes, we found that it was often best to put the device to sleep when we weren't using it, rather than fully power it off. Between its 250-hour standby battery life and the included 12-volt car charger, keeping the Nuvi 295W juiced shouldn't be an issue. Users who want to go untethered with the 295W can count on an estimated 4-hour continuous-use battery life. Despite the slow start-up time, it obtained a satellite lock in a mere 60 seconds from a cold boot and nearly instantaneously from subsequent restarts. Additionally, positioning fidelity was on par with the rest of Garmin's offerings, which is to say great when given a clear view of the sky and iffy on narrow streets tucked between tall buildings.
Without traffic data, the Nuvi 296W had a bad habit of leading us straight into bumper-to-bumper traffic. However, in a side-by-side comparison with Google's free navigation software, the lightning quick routing of the Nuvi made Google's cloud-based navigation option seem downright sluggish, particularly when wandered away from the land of strong 3G data connections. During our rerouting test, the Nuvi was able to quickly recalculate a path to our destination before the Google phone even realized that we'd strayed from our route. There clearly is an advantage to locally storing your map data.
The performance of the Nuvi 295W's non-GPS functions is, on the other hand, less than stellar. The screen's resolution, while perfectly fine for viewing a map from two feet away, is a bit too low-resolution for browsing and reading content on the Web. The Calendar, Tasks, and Contacts applications' legibility was better thanks to their larger font sizes. However, none of these functions offers any obvious way to sync with Microsoft's, Google's, or Apple's productivity software, which means users will have to manually enter all of their appointments and to-do lists.
When we took a look at the Garmin Nuvifone G60, we concluded that the device was a fine navigator but failed as a smartphone. Free from our high expectations for a smartphone and judged as a PND, the Garmin Nuvi 295W is painted in a better light and earns a higher score.
However, our experience with the 295W was still something of a roller coaster ride. When the device was guiding us from point A to B, the 295W impressed, yet whenever we found ourselves attempting to do anything else with the device, we were met with frustration.
Users who do a good deal of on-foot urban navigation will appreciate the way the Nuvi 295W fits in the hand in portrait mode and its easily accessed pedestrian routing options. They may also enjoy the unit's simple digital camera for quick snaps and, if they find themselves in an area where open Wi-Fi is plentiful, occasionally check their e-mail or do a quick Google search with the unit's Web browser.
However, for users who will primarily be using this unit for in-car navigation, we think that the 295W's biggest competition will come from simpler devices, such as the Nuvi 265WT, from within Garmin's own ranks. Sitting on the same shelf as this a simpler device, we find it difficult to justify the 295W's complexity. Both devices are equally good GPS navigators and are comparatively priced, but the 265WT invests in those features that would be useful to a driver behind the wheel: a larger screen, lifetime FM traffic, and Bluetooth hands-free calling. Comparatively, the 295W's camera and Web browsing features are neat tricks, but frankly they're not very useful in a GPS device that will likely live alongside a feature phone or a smartphone that will probably already feature these capabilities.