Garmin iQue M3 Review

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Garmin M3 GPS-enabled PocketPC, a followup to the older M5, sacrifices certain of its predecessor's features in exchange for a much more palatable price tag. We find out whether the trade off was worth it.

Design and Construction

In an aesthetic sense, the M3 is bland. It's utilitarian enough that it should fit in alright in a variety of vehicles without either looking garish or looking too drab, which is certainly what Garmin was going for.
In a functionality sense, the M3 is still bland. It's designed for one thing, to do it well, and to do it without many frills. No unneccessary buttons or features, no fancy addons--all you need is five buttons, the standard jacks and ports, and a screen.

Although the icon on the bottom right button resembles a standard power icon, it's actually a stylized Q, denoting the button for the QueMap application. While this app automatically launches when you turn on the GPS, the button is available in case, you get lost on the Today screen, I suppose. The real power button is in the top center.
Sitting on the back of the device is the panel antenna that serves the GPS reciever. As soon as you unlatch this, by sliding down the switch seen on the upper right, it automatically activates the GPS and launches the navigator application. Close the flip, and it turns the GPS off, easy as could be asked. That's just about the most flashy hardware feature that you're likely to find on the M3.

Processor

Despite being only 312 MHz, the M3's processor is quite suitable for GPS applications. In navigational use, slowdowns only occur when doing searches or changing the map zoom. Finding a particular address or listing points-of-interest can be somewhat lengthy, as much as six or seven seconds depending on how much it's searching. Depending on the level of zoom, it can also sometimes take several seconds for the system to render the map again. But at the zoom levels that you'd normally use when driving, the redraws take only a few fractions.

The relatively low processor speed does mean that the M3 is somewhat less suited to high-end activities such as video, action games, and other uses that require a lot of bit-sorting.

Operating System

The M3 runs on Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition, slightly modified to accomodate Garmin's needs. The top system bar now includes a GPS satellite icon to indicate whether the reciever is on or off, and whether or not it has a lock. Tapping this brings up a small status panel, showing available memory, battery power, backlight, and running programs. This, along with Garmin's navigation software and GPS utility installed in the device ROM, there's not much remarkable about the M3's OS.

Garmin will not be offering an upgrade to Windows Mobile 5.0 for the M3. The hardware isn't designed for it, and it would provide relatively little benefit to this sort of device.

Display

Despite the resolution being considerably lower than the other two devices I've been using lately (my VGA Axim and a HVGA Palm TX) the M3's screen is sharp and clear. When it's installed in a vehicle, the M3 tends to be a little farther away from you than if you were holding it in your hand, which helps reduce the visibility of jagged edges. It's extremely bright, which makes it easily visible even when you're driving in the daytime.

Memory

Of the Garmin's 64 MB of main RAM, 47 MB is available to the user. This is further split between program memory and storage memory, leaving roughly 23 MB available for each. Plenty for navigation and a few programs, though you'll have to have a memory card anyway to store more and a handful of maps.

The 32 MB of flash memory is almost entirely occupied by the operating system, leaving only 2.1 MB of free flash for the user. With so little to spare, I have to wonder why Garmin even bothered with providing it to the user

Size & Weight

Despite it's relatively large length and thickness, the M3 feels surprisingly light. It's not actually that light, since it's just shy of 6 ounces, but the profile and the construction make it feel less massive than a more dense machine.

Expansion

A single SDIO slot mounted on the top of the device provides room for additional memory and/or wireless connectivity options such as WiFi and Bluetooth.

Docking

For desktop use, the M3 doesn't include a cradle, opting instead for a simple AC adapter and USB sync cable. Instead, it invests in an automotive cradle. Unlike most car mounts, based on a gooseneck design, the M3's mount has a series of rotating interlocked pieces which allow you to angle and tilt the display however it's most convenient for you. I opted to place it on the forward area of the driver's side window.

I was actually impressed by the M3's car mount. Most suction-cup mounts I've seen have a tendancy to give way after being attached for a while, but this one didn't flinch. Even with it attached to a window in the car's driver-side door, enduring the jolts of being opened and closed, it steadfastly held on as long as I left it there.

Communication

Unlike its more expensive sibling, the M5, the M3 has no built-in wireless capabilities. If you want to add connectivity of any kind, you'll need to use the SDIO slot. With only 49 MB of internal memory available, the best candidate for this is Sandisk's 256 MB WiFi combo card, which provides both storage and communication in a single package.

Audio

Being designed for in-car navigation, the M3 comes with a wonderfully loud internal speaker for shouting directions over the noise of engines, people, or what have you. While all that volume is probably neccessary for city driving, I usually turned it down a bit. When you're just driving silently along, or sitting quietly in a parking lot, it can be quite startling to hear a mechanical voice say "LOST SATELLITE LOCK!" In any event, I don't imagine that you'll lack for being able to hear the M3 when it gives you and order.

Battery

For much of the M3's use, it would presumably reside in its car cradle, being fed a continuous stream of power from the vehicle. In this sense, for its primary purpose its battery life is almost irrelevant. However, many people may use it for hiking, cycling, , or other "unplugged" activities. Although Garmin advertises 5 to 7 hours of use away from a power supply, real-world experience shows that the battery life will be somewhat less.

For GPS use, the reciever was left on, backlight at 100%, and the device used for navigation and POI searches.

For PDA testing, the backlight was set to roughly 25%, and ordinary low-impact activities performed, such as PIM, light games, and book reading.

GPS

For those who aren't familiar with the Global Positioning System, a quick outline. The main body of the Global Positioning System, also called NAVSTAR, is a network of around 24 satellites, built and maintained by the U.S. Department of Defense. These satellites sit in a complex series of orbits which guarantee that at least four satellites will be in line-of-sight from any location on Earth, at any time of the day or night. These satellites are equipped with a radio and an atomic clock, and continually broadcast their own location as well as the time of their transmission. Using this extremely precise information, a radio receiver on the ground can use several satellites to triangulate the receiver's location almost anywhere in the world. With a lock on four satellite signals, a receiver can calculate its location in three dimensions: latitude, longitude, and altitude. A 12 channel receiver such as the M3 can hold a lock on up to 12 different satellites at once, providing extra precision and insurance against the loss signal from certain satellites. Originally designed for military use, the NAVSTAR system is now broadly used by civilian interests all around the world.

The M3 also features support for enhancements to the standard GPS network. The Wide Area Augmentation System, or WAAS, was designed to reduce GPS margin of error by up to 80%, using additional satellites that sit over the continental United States to broadcast corrections for the rest of the NAVSTAR system. The net result is that the margin of error for a GPS reciever that uses WAAS is about 3 meters, compared to 15 meters for a receiver without it. Most higher-end GPS receivers feature WAAS, including many Bluetooth models. Because of the stationary nature of the WAAS satellites, these corrections only work within the continental United States, southern Alaska, and parts of Canada. A similar system called EGNOS, which the M3 also supports, is in place for Europe.

So what does all this translate into in real terms? Well, quite a lot. The end result is that a GPS enabled device such as the M3 can locate your exact position on the planet to less than 9.8 feet, 99.95% of the time. For a device primarily meant for car navigation, such as the M3, 9.8 feet is an almost meaningless margin of error. This allows it to display your location, and the roads around you, in accurate and smooth-scrolling representation, perfectly following you as you make a turn or continue past the side street.

Of course, while the M3 is primarily road-navigation oriented, it's not exclusively so. Garmin's included maps and application only support roadways, but third-party add-on programs can provide maps for hiking, boating, and even air travel.

In field testing, my main point of comparison against the M3 was my Bluetooth GPS receiver, a Dell-branded DConnex BT-308 which also features 12-channel reception and WAAS correction.

Most of the time I experienced no noticible difference in tracking. There were a few notable exceptions though. Three times--twice in a parking lot, and once in my driveway at home--the M3 lost its satellite fix for no reason that I could discern: it simply dropped. Going under a bridge caused the M3 to momentarily stutter in its tracking, catching up several seconds later. In none of the former instances did my Bluetooth GPS indicate a change in lock status, or fail to track my movement. Pulling into a garage with a metal roof promptly caused both receivers to drop their locks, but this is hardly unexpected.

Of course, having the location data is only half the battle. The rest is displaying it, mapping it, and using it to provide navigational aid.

The QueNav application that's built into the M3 has strengths and weaknesses. It's a good application for navigating. Even if you don't have a route programmed, it will tell you exactly where you are, what roads are coming up, nearby locations, etcetera. It's not great if you want to look at a map. You can't pan the map display, you can't zoom into a different area, and you can't perform functions such as tracing the distance between two points. You can search for addresses, but not tap on them. Overall, while the software works as advertised, it's not something that I would use to replace another mapping program such as TomTom or Mapopolis, or even a conventional paper map.

As with almost any mapset, there are a few noticible errors. Certain establishments are missing from the points-of-interest database. For instance, under the category of Chinese food, it lists the New China restaurant on North Main Street near the bank, but not the Ho Ho China Buffet farther up N. Main in the old Ames plaza. It didn't bother me too much--I don't really like Chinese food. After turning onto Curtis Road, the M3 spent several minutes insisting that I was on Cherry Street before it caught on to reality.

Altogether, the M3 is about as good of a "pure" navigational system as you can get out of the box, though it has room to be improved. A more map-styled viewing mode would be apprecciated, as would a simplified points-of-interest search. But if your primary concern is a flexible, high-end GPS navigation device, the M3 is a contender.

Conclusion

The M3 serves well in the arena for which it was designed. Outside its niche, it's lacking for the more advanced features found in other devices. In the end, it comes down to an exercise in what features matter the most, and what you're willing to give up to goet them.

Pros:

* Integrated GPS
* Good accessories
* Reasonable price

Cons:

* Marginal handheld features

Bottom Line

The M3 makes for a solid and reasonably reliable GPS navigation system, though it's less suited for more than basic handheld computing functions.