Just announced at CES 2008, the Garmin Nuvi 780 is the new widescreen navigator from Garmin that has the MSN Direct version services built in. Being part of the 700 series, it includes a lot of the high end extras that you'd expect including text-to-speech, maps of North America, 5+ Million POI, Bluetooth Handsfree and the ability to do optimized routing. This Nuvi 780 was equipped with the SiRF chipset.
As you start to get into higher end GPS units, you start to add features that are certainly advanced and can make life great if you are an intensive user of the GPS. For instance, the Nuvi 780 has advanced routing features that allows you to input several locations and allow the Nuvi to optimize the route. Something road warriors will appreciate. For me, the MSN Direct services make it pretty obvious that gas prices are going to be a must have capability going forward for any connected GPS.
Table of Contents
The design of the Nuvi 780 is pretty much the same as the rest of the 700 series; thin, wide, easy to read screen. This is not a surprise, and Garmin gets some economies of scale from the platform being as similar as possible. The data that is fed to the unit differs though from the MSN Direct receiver.
So, unlike the long thin TMC receiver, the MSN Direct receiver is a wider flair coming out of the power plug. Garmin continues to keep the major and very smart design requirement of keeping the data receiver integrated into the power cord. This is a theme that others are starting to follow, and that's a good thing for consumers. The MSN receiver has a small battery in it that when charged can receive information even while the power to the unit is cut. This is important as the data is streamed slowly and keeping all of that content up to date is a lot better for you the user.
The navigation options on the Nuvi 780 are the same as other units, with high end options added to afford you some more flexibility to set more complex routes. The main screen still offers you the dead easy option of "Where to?" and "View Map", along with a set-up button. Once you configure your Bluetooth handset, a Bluetooth button appears when the handset and the Nuvi are paired.
View Map leads you to the map, pure and simple. The screen is uncluttered and offers the view of the road in either 2D or 3D options, not true 3D with building outlines that are coming to the US in some units, but the classic elevated view from behind your car that gives many users the better perspective of matching what's ahead on the road to what's ahead on the GPS. When you aren't navigating the Nuvi 780 offers speed, direction, and when you are on the highway, you get a pop up speed limit reading. Not may favorite, but pretty unobtrusive. These speed limits have become a lot more accurate over the last couple of years, as I used to find them an absolute pain because of the in-accuracies. I didn't find any stretches of highway where the actual speed limit and the one displayed on the Nuvi were inaccurate.
"Where to?" is where all of the action is, and thanks to the easy interface, it's where you will find things in a pretty straight forward way. The "Go Home" button is front and center which is potentially one of the most used buttons when I use a GPS; navigate to where ever, don't pay attention to where you are, and then hit the "Go Home" button and you're all set.
Favorites - Not only is it like a "bookmark" list of places that you like to go that you've added from right inside the GPS, but it also pulls in the Web Favorites that you've added from the internet through the MSN Direct service.
Addresses - Still a standard format Garmin interface that has the last state remembered, so you default to the last state, offering you "Spell City" or "Search All" which is a street level search of all towns - useful if you aren't really sure which town you need to go to. If you're searching for a "Main St" type of street where it can be in several towns in the state, the list of towns with that street then comes up. You select the town last and hit "Go" to route you there.
Other - You can also navigate to "Intersections" City Centers, Coordinates, Recently Found locations and of course Points of Interest. As some readers have asked, you can not input only a zip code to navigate there. Garmin does a pretty good job of loading 5+ million POI for North America onto most of their units. The POI are arranged into easy to understand categories, and you have the ability to search near your current position, your destination (if you are already navigating somewhere), along a route - useful for finding a place to eat for example if you are on a road trip, or a gas station, and finally a POI in a different city. These are some pretty critical capabilities that the top makers adopted a while ago, that I really appreciate as a user. Not all makers, especially the low end brands have this capability; trust me, you'll want this.
MSN Direct Version 2
MSN Direct Version 2 adds a couple of potentially useful features to the service including stocks, news items as well as some pretty good semi-connected features like local events and "Web Favorites" which is where you will store things that you sent to your GPS from your computer. The live gas prices remain my favorite feature of the service after the main Traffic feature.
Web Favorites is an easy way to browse the web, find addresses on Microsoft Live Maps and send them directly to your GPS. We are looking for a new house, so integrating the MS Maps into our online routine was easy. With a few clicks of the mouse, we had the addresses sent to the GPS, along with a place we would grab dinner after cruising by a few houses. Sure it would have been easy to type in the addresses on the GPS, but to be able to wrap other activities around that address, like finding a place to eat, or something similar was a good deal. Doing it all from the kitchen table seemed pretty cool.
How it works - Assuming you have MSN Direct activated, you need an account on MS Live, which takes only a few minutes to set-up and configure to have your MSN Direct GPS associated with your account. When you then find an address on Live Maps, you click the icon on the map and you get the option to "Send to" which has "GPS in the list.
The MSN service then pops up a map to ask where you and your GPS are. This is so the MSN Direct service can beam your information out over the right radio station FM airwaves. For us, I selected the Boston area, and within a few minutes my GPS was updated with these addresses that I sent to it.
Traffic on the MSN Direct service is a bit different in coverage than the TMC network, but still helpful. All of these services are not a total panacea solution for all traffic on all roads but it can definitely help in setting expectations and letting you know when disasters lay ahead. Without a traffic receiver, any GPS would estimate my commute into Boston to be about a 40 minute drive no matter what day of the week; they simply use posted speed limits to estimate how long it will take you to drive the distance. I was able to use the Nuvi 780 with its MSN Direct traffic service to set some better expectations and let me know when there was a better route. The MSN Direct coverage of Boston has flow information as well as incident information, which is to say that the speeds of the highway are known and that they can factor into your travel time and ultimately your routing. So, starting one morning the MSN receiver took about 5 minutes to pull in traffic conditions around the Boston highways, and immediately pulled up a 19 minute delay, brining my total travel time to about an hour. I played around with the service asking to "Avoid" traffic, but the Nuvi reminded me that my route was already optimized. I left it alone, and sure enough I arrived at work about 3 minutes later than the initial estimate; not bad.
Two other times presented with about the same traffic situation, I experimented and took other routes. What the heck, maybe it was lucky the first time. In the end, both times took longer than the original day's route. Maybe the Nuvi really did know what it was talking about. I am looking forward to more advanced traffic capabilities when historic speeds are incorporated into the units, which will give them some awareness of speeds on surface roads without needing speed sensors.
I realize that the value of the traffic receiver is the fact that it can help you avoid traffic, but it also gives you confidence of driving in traffic. I find that the worst part of driving in traffic after the waste of time issue, is the uncertainty of knowing how long you will be tied up. The Nuvi 780 definitely killed that uncertainty and got me very accurate estimates of how long i would be tied up in a delay.
Tip - To make sure you have up to the minute traffic and other data in the morning, keep the Nuvi 780 in the cradle attached to the power plug. Because the power plug/MSN receiver has a small battery in it, it continues to collect MSN Direct data, and is available when you turn it on in the morning. You need to decide where to keep the unit while you do this; I have a garage, so I kept it right on my windshield. I know everyone can't leave their Nuvi on their windshield overnight, so be smart so you don't get it stolen.
The MSN Direct service has Gas Prices for local gas stations which I think it potentially the sleeper service of the MSN Direct platform. I saw this last year too when I reviewed the Nuvi 680 with MSN Direct. The service is pretty good, and fairly accurate. I was able to find gas at name brand stations that this year was up to $0.10 cheaper per gallon than the local ones that I am used to. The screen shows you the price for Regular gas, and is not configurable, so no you can't flip it to look for and price diesel as some readers have written in and asked. The savings isn't going to pay for the GPS, but it could easily pay for the MSN Direct subscription price across the year. When you consult the list, the unit will tell you how far away, the price for regular gas, when the price was updated, and the general direction you would need to go. The stations are listed by closest to farthest away. Just tap on the station and hit "Go" to navigate there.
Local Events is a way to serve up some activities by type to you for the next couple of days. Now by picking the type of event, you can see by day what's there. I was able to pull up concerts at local clubs, or sports games. Potentially pretty useful as a "OK now what should we do?" kind of stage, but I think that I might plan a bit more using the internet, and then send the address to my Nuvi.
The weather service is nice, not detailed, but gives you the outlook for your city and other cities if you want to bring them up. Can be very useful if you travel a lot and need a quick look at what the weather is going to be like for your briefly adopted city. The Nuvi 680 will give you quick icon based weather and I didn't fully appreciate the capability until I was driving the other day and a severe weather alert popped up on the main map screen. Totally useful and very helpful. The icon was unobtrusive, and when you hit it you can get a quick map of where the weather alert is applicable.
Garmin Nuvi 780 - Other Features
The Nuvi 780 has Bluetooth connectivity for handsfree operation with your Bluetooth equipped phone. I was able to easily pair it with my Blackberry and my iPhone. It only takes a couple of minutes to get the phone and Nuvi into discoverable status, get them to find each other and then pair them. They then stayed paired making it easy to turn on the Nuvi and have pretty much instant access to my phone when I was in the car. Like other Bluetooth Equipped Garmins I have used the Nuvi 780 pulls in data from your phone and allows you to access it from the Nuvi's screen. You can use recently dialed calls (that you made through the Nuvi or just on the phone alone), your phone book, and if your phone is voice dial capable, you can dial by voice command through the Nuvi. The call quality is decent and a helpful feature. I think it's definitely better than a dangled earbud type conversation.
Where Am I?
Garmin has added a good software feature that rearranges some functionality into a single button that can save you some time in your time of need. The unit has a nice view of your location (giving you LAT/LON coordinates, the nearest address and nearest intersection), and three buttons. These buttons give you access to special categories of Points of Interest (POI), including Hospitals, Police Stations and Fuel. Tapping on any of the buttons will get you a classic list of POI that tell you the closest to your location. I used it as a shortcut to get to a gas station while on my trip, and it was very convenient.
Garmin added a route-planning feature that I think is a nice addition. Remote planning is a function that Garmin needed on its devices, and it's something I would like to see on other models in the line, below this top of the line entry. The planning is fairly simple; add locations from either "Favorites", Addresses, LAT/LON coordinates, intersections, recently found locations, cities, by browsing the map, or Points of Interest. Add either the start or end point and then build from there. The magic can come after a bit of entry. If you are smart, you can figure out the order of things yourself, and if not, you can rely on the Garmin to do it for you by hitting the "Optimally Reorder Points". In my testing the unit could easily optimize the points that are fairly well spread out, and logical in the results. In other words, the Garmin does a good job on the easy stuff. I used this recently as we were searching for potential new houses. I added a bunch of addresses, let the Nuvi 780 optimally re-order them, and we were off to the races. Sure I could have taken a guess, but why? If the Nuvi can do it, let it go and trust you'll get there. I like it. Calculating a route with several stops does take a while to calculate, but overall, it's a good feature to have especially as many of my readers have pointed out for people who are on the road a lot hitting several stops likes people in sales, deliveries, etc.
A trip log is essentially a breadcrumb trail that allows you to see where you have gone and track yourself on the screen. It leaves a light blue trail on the road where you have been. So, this might be good for back tracking, but that functionality isn't in the unit, and in the case of you traveling on a one way street or highway, you wouldn't want to backtrack exactly the way you came anyway.
"My Data" is not necessarily a new feature, but it is a way to handle your data that is now a bit bigger due to all the features in the Nuvi 780. You can "Set Home Location", "Delete Favorites", "Delete Routes", and "Clear Trip Log". All useful, all pretty self-explanatory.
Garmin Nuvi 780 Review Summary
The Nuvi 780 is a good GPS, and the MSN Direct service adds a lot of value in my mind. There are three things that stand out at this level making the unit worthwhile: 1) Traffic features that accurately predict arrival time and route you around traffic in a reasonable way, 2) Gas prices - this could save you up to $100 a year depending on how what car you drive and how much you drive, and 3) Route optimization - takes a bunch of destinations and routes you the most efficient way to those destinations. On top of these features, the Nuvi 780 does a great job of navigation as you would expect out of a Garmin. I have no problem recommending this to people.