Garmin Sat Navs: No longer #1?

Garmin Sat Navs: No longer #1?

6 September 2019 Concept Car

Garmin is widely considered the market leader when it comes to sat navs. Thanks to its unrivalled GPS system, it has built a reputation for excellence and technological innovation rivalled by few.

And yet, some doubt its status. Especially when it comes to its wearables and smartwatch division, there has been vocal criticism of its products and services.

Has the sat nav giant lost its edge?

Overview/Summary [If you don’t want to read the entire article]

Garmin has obtained a singular position on the sat nav market. Among the public at large, it is usually considered to be a premium brand, capable of commanding premium prices.

That is not to say its position has remained unchallenged.

Among the most vocal critics has been DC Rainmaker. The triathlete questioned the quality of many of the American company’s products.

According to Rainmaker, not only were Garmin’s products often buggy. Garmin also refused to take care of existing issues or to listen to the community for potential new features to make them even better.

Whether or not Rainmaker is right remains open to debate. Even on his own website, the vote was split down the middle. One thing’s for sure, though: His criticism only relates to Garmin’s sports products, such as smartwatches. When it comes to sat navs, it is actually very hard to find any serious problems whatsoever.

An unlikely success story

In fact, if you think about it, the success of Garmin to continue making money by selling a product which customers could get for free – by using a sat nav smartphone app – beggars belief. The sat navs produced by Garmin and its close rival TomTom are, in fact, so perfect that they’re hard to improve upon.

So does Garmin still have the edge over TomTom? There is as yet no official verdict. But although TomTom seems to be closing the gap and may even have overtaken the market leader in some respects, Garmin’s DriveSmart 55 once again topped reviewers’ end of year lists. According to many in the industry, it is the best affordable sat nav on the market at the moment.

All in all, to claim that Garmin is still number one is by no means hyperbole.


The brand manager at Garmin must have done a lot of things right. The Swiss company enjoys a stellar reputation, after all.

The company habitually turns into a market leader, whatever product it takes on. And it takes on quite a lot. From sat navs to wearables, from professional marine instruments to sonars, from 360 degree cameras to altimetres for helicopters.

Garmin obviously does have its competitors. But very few of them can command the same premium prices. The conclusion seems clear: Others may offer the same functionality. But none offers the same quality.

Or do they?

At least when it comes to their popular consumer products, Garmin’s leading position has sometimes been questioned. Only recently, a major article criticised their mentality and ‘buggy products’.  And on their official forum, there has been open criticism about the way the company deals with de-bugging.

If you’re thinking about buying a Garmin Sat Nav should these reports and opinion pieces worry you?

What is the fuss all about?

In the age of the Internet, everything gets criticised. There are even websites and long forum threads for people who hate tomatoes. Tomatoes!

So, obviously, not every comment on Garmin will be positive, either. However, when blogging triathlete DC Rainmaker recently wrote a feature on the Swiss brand, this was more than just a random voice on the web. Rainmaker has a big audience. And the comment section was full with fellow triathletes agreeing on his critical stance.

Rainmaker had two main issues with Garmin:

  • Their products are inherently buggy.
  • Garmin is not doing enough to make them less buggy.
  • Garmin doesn’t listen to their customers and is failing to implement useful features.

Essentially, he claimed, Garmin’s biggest competitors weren’t other companies on the market: It was themselves.

Is he right?

The interesting thing is that the article didn’t actually deal with sat navs. Perhaps ten years ago, Garmin was, at least to the average jane, mainly known for its car related products. Within just a few years, it turned from being one of the leading providers of sat navs into one of the leading providers of smart watches and activity trackers.

Garmin’s ultra precise GPS technology was the reason behind its success. And of course, build quality was excellent, making their watches durable and rugged. By wearing a Garmin smart watch, you were making a statement. You were serious about your sports and would only accept the very best.

The same, essentially, applies to their sat nav business, too.

Grounded in excellence

Let’s first not forget that Garmin, together with TomTom, was instrumental in redefining the sat nav. Before these two companies emerged, it was essentially a slow, impractical, inaccurate and extremely expensive plaything for rich luxury car enthusiasts.

Garmin and TomTom changed all that. Their first models were still not exactly cheap. But they were at least affordable and prices would quickly fall to even lower levels. This new sat nav generation had a decisive advantage: They were no longer fixed inside the car, but could be carried along with you. You could also use them in different vehicles. Best of all, GPS technology, machine intelligence and traffic information improved. Soon enough, the routes calculated by their algorithms were better than human ones ever could be.

Premium brand, premium prices

Right from the start, Garmin was considered a premium brand, while TomTom seemed to have more accessible pricing. Whether or not this impression was ever correct is open to debate. TomTom provided possibly the best map material. But the precision of Garmin’s satellite data was second to none.

For many, that was reason enough to pay premium prices for their products.

Different markets

Remarkably, TomTom and Garmin have held on to their top spot in the sat nav industry for what seems forever. In the past two decades, many competitors have left the market and given up. But not a single new one has come along and seriously challenged them.

Even more remarkably, TomTom and Garmin continue to make money with stand alone sat navs although these devices should realistically no longer exist anymore.

Better than ever

german sat nav 2
After all, mobile phone sat nav apps have matured and are now arguably even better than stand alone models. Still, these two companies have continually improved their products enough for consumers to spend somewhere between £150 and 400 on them. That is an achievement in itself.

If the criticism is mainly coming from the side of the smartwatch- and wearables segment, that is more than understandable. After all, this is not yet a mature market. Products are still changing quickly. So are customer demands. The pace of the industry implies there will be more bugs. This applies to premium products like Garmin’s as well.

Sat navs still great

Things are different on the sat nav market. After reading DC Rainmaker’s article, we started researching the web for further criticism and potential problems.

There was absolutely nothing to be found. And this despite the Internet being, as you will know, a pretty big place.

Simply put, people are loving their Garmin sat navs and would gladly recommend them to anyone. Compared to TomTom, the differences are slim. But so is the price difference. TomTom’s premium models have become slightly more expensive, while Garmin no longer commands the very high prices it once did.

Whomever’s brand manager at Garmin right now – their job is still as enjoyable as it used to be. And rightly so.

PS: For a closer look at the the best sat nav, visit our in-depth take on the subject.


What are common issues with Garmin sat navs?

According to Phonesupporthub, the most common issues with a Garmin sat nav are “failure to turn on, failure to detect signal, sudden shut off during use, unresponsive touchscreen and GPS locking up.”

As you can see, these are entirely trivial problems, which can usually be resolved pretty quickly.

Finding even the slightest trace of more serious criticism is hard. Obviously, if you search long enough, you’ll find forum comments saying that a Garmin “chooses questionable routes and loves to switch itself off at really crucial moment” or that they could “think of nothing in history that could suck worse.”

These, however, are exceptions. And you’ll find the same occasional hate for TomTom as well.

In general, Garmin’s are so perfect as to be problem-free.

Which are Garmin’s best sat nav models?

As we mentioned in the article, both Garmin and TomTom have slimmed down their palette. There are, however, still plenty of older models available. Many of these are actually pretty great. So it makes sense to consider these as well.

The Garmin DriveSmart 61 LMT-S is sometimes considered to be Garmin’s best sat nav. Even t3.com, who openly admit they favour TomTom’s maps in general, think this is an excellent choice. It is very affordable as well.

Auto Express also loved the DriveSmart, writing:

“The touchscreen is extremely responsive and we found its menu layout the best on test. Garmin’s traffic alerts were accurate as it got us around some heavy congestion and the map layout was easy to understand, although it missed some jams the TomTom found. The live weather alert was also a helpful addition. The DriveLuxe’s excellent voice guidance was the best here.”

If you have more cash to spare, the Garmin DriveLuxe 51 LMT-D is a great alternative. T3.com refer to it as a “do-it-all sat nav, but with a price to match.”  They also consider the Garmin Zumo 396 the best motorcycle sat nav.

SatNavDebate, meanwhile, are huge fans of the DriveSmart 55, but love the Garmin DriveSmart 61LMT-D as well. As a very bare bone, stripped-down alternative, the Garmin Drive 51/61 LMT-S will do, although it offers very little other than a functional navigation.

Interestingly, Auto Express was wowed by this model in particular, praising its all-around high quality features at a budget price.

TomTom vs Garmin

In the early years of sat nav technology, the market was full of different brands. Most of them came from the realms of IT. Others, such as Blaupunkt, came from car technology  and saw the sat nav as a natural extension of the radio. And then there were those firms who had made a name for themselves with high-quality maps and naturally feared that sat navs were the nails in their industry’s coffin.

Only a few years later, things have changed radically. If you’re interested in a stand-alone sat nav these days, you have only three choices: TomTom, Garmin and various no name products. The largest share of drivers, meanwhile, has made the switch to sat nav apps on their smartphone.

Add to this the fact that Garmin and TomTom have also considerably thinned down their catalogue and you have a situation where you can choose between somewhere between two and four different models at best.

Faster decisions

This, of course, is anything but a bad place to be in as a consumer:

  • You can arrive at a decision much faster.
  • All models are pretty good, so the risk of making a bad investment are low.
  • Even with a far smaller selection, there’s sure to be a suitable model for every budget.

The question remains, however, whether TomTom or Garmin is the current number one on the market.

All but impossible to decide

In all honesty, deciding between these two brands is an all but impossible task. Sat nav technology has advanced so far that there has hardly been any real progress over the past few years. Mostly, the two leaders are  treading ground, adding a few nice features here and there and gradually bringing down the prices of their entry level models.

That said, there are still quality differences between the remaining manufacturers, Here are a few observations by the excellent Sat Nav Debate website:

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen TomTom really close up to Garmin in their performance.”
“The difference in performance is really not measurable, however there is still a difference in price with the TomTom’s being more expensive to buy and some of the TomTom units require you to be connected to your smartphone to use the traffic alerts.”

PC Mag, on the other hand, comments:

“Garmin’s user interface is still unparallelled. It offers clear, easy to read icons and colourful map graphics. TomTom has been improving with font readability, but Garmin always makes everything large and easy to glance at quickly while behind the wheel. (…) Where TomTom pulls ahead is with its real-time HD traffic service. First, it’s more accurate than Garmin’s, at least in our anecdotal testing across several reviews. But while HD traffic costs extra, TomTom often throws in a year for free, and the regular real-time service also does a good job. With Garmin devices, points of interest are categorised down to several levels, making it easier to find specific kinds of stores and restaurants. Garmin avoids bundling everything under, say, “Shopping,” leaving you to sort through dozens of entries all within a few miles away for everyday errands. Garmin’s POI search updates in real-time as you’re driving, complete with compass directions.”

Consumers agree

If you look at user comments on online forums, the general feeling seems to be that users agree with that sentiment. It is very hard to find a definitive winner in the battle between the two industry giants.

One thing you’ll quickly notice is that many users are very loyal to a brand for many years – until they encounter an issue and switch brands. And then, of course, there are those who, after many years of using stand-alone sat navs, decide to save the money and opt for a smart phone app instead.

And then, to make things even more complicated, you’ll find avid advocates of Navigon and Becker, which are among the small selection of competitors TomTom and Garmin still have.

Garmin’s best is still the best of the market

So, as you can see, a lot comes down to questions of requirements and taste.

In general, however, quite a few observers feel that regardless of these considerations, the Garmin DriveSmart 55 is really the best sat nav on the market at the moment.

This model is based on the timeless Garmin 61LMT-D, one of the eternal classics of the industry. For the new model, Garmin has considerably improved the display. As a result, navigation has never looked sharper. Safety camera alerts and map updates are naturally part of the package as well.

TomTom may have a slight advantage with its top end products. But when it comes to the regular consumer, Garmin has made a huge step forward with the DriveSmart, possibly the best cheap sat nav on the market at the moment.

Here, more than ever, Garmin really is still number one.

6 September 2019 Concept Car