Simplified Car Navigator
GPS Product Review
by Tony Mactutis
Release 5, updated December 6, 2005
i3 GPS unit Daytime Map Colors 3D View Mode
Where does the i3 fit in Garmin's Product line?The StreetPilot i3 (and its close cousins, the i2 and i5) continue Garmin’s efforts to make GPS car navigation more affordable and accessible to the non-technical consumer. Like the c3x0 models, the i3 is extremely simple to use and has a limited number of features so as not to confuse people unfamiliar with GPS equipment. What the i3 is NOT is a replacement for the much more "feature rich" StreetPilot 26x0 models. The i3 offers a simple to operate, capable car navigator with the essential features of other car navigation units but with few of the "frills, bells and whistles" that many users have come to expect from Garmin. As a comparison, the i3 appears to be competing with the reduced feature set and operational simplicity found in the typical OEM car navigation system, but at a vastly reduced cost.
The i3 comes complete with all of the parts necessary to
mount the unit to your windshield or dashboard and plug it in and
operate in your car.
What comes in the i3 kit?
The i3 screen is a medium brightness TFT daylight viewable-with-backlight screen. i3 has no marine feature set and no hiking features are provided. The unit takes 2 AA batteries but does not have a charger built-in. If rechargeable batteries are to be used, they must be removed for charging.
The USER INTERFACE is very different to other Garmin units which use a touch screen for user input. Only three controls are present: an on/off switch, a ‘back’ button for returning to the previous menu, and a thumbwheel/button. All three controls are on the front of the unit. Note that the screen is not a touchscreen. All options are selected by using the thumbwheel to scroll through menus, then pressing the thumbwheel to select an option or submenu. To return to a previous screen, the user presses the 'back' button. On the right side of the case is the connector which serves as both USB cable and automobile power cable connector. The external antenna connector is located on the upper left side of the unit.No RS232 NMEA data output is provided. Like the SP2610 and Quest, the i3 automatically turns ON and OFF with the power application from its external power cord. A switch is provided to turn the unit on and off manually as desired. The i3 seems to be designed to provide "ordinary non-technical people" with a high performance SMALL SIZED, SMALL COLOR SCREEN GPS CAR NAVIGATOR. The i3 is straightforward to use and the manual is a bit better than average. Still, there is no substitute for a few hours of "playing around" with the unit in consort with the manual for quick learning and discovery of available features.
Except for its very small screen (and lack of touchscreen), the features of the i3 make it a fairly direct competitor to the Magellan RoadMate 300 and to the TomTom GO.. A detailed comparison of the features of the Quest, c3x0, and SP2610/2620 models can be found HERE. Our Magellan RoadMate 500/700 review can be found HERE. Our review of the RM300 can be found HERE. The StreetPilot 2610/2620 review can be found HERE. As stated before, none of these units can provide the capabilities of a full featured hiking and marine oriented handheld unit.
Street priced at about $350 or less, (check latest prices here) the i3 is a low priced Automatic Car Navigator. While the i3 is not a full featured unit like the SP2610/2620, it does provide guidance in the same class and maps that are the equal of even the most expensive of todays car navigators. The "non-technical user friendly" ease of use, ease of map installation (and even no map installation at all on the i5) make this unit recommended for the non-technical user.
What about map loading and Map
StreetPilot i3 uses a USB data interface for map loading and data input/output. Map selection, map build and download for the provided 128 MB TransFlash card took about 20 minutes via the USB cable. The i3 can be told to shut off at the end of map loading if you wish. The i3 has no standard NMEA input/output capability. The i3's furnished 128 megabyte TransFlash map memory will hold approximately the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and California. The user can purchase a larger memory card (up to 2 GB) to hold more data.
routeable basemap for your region just like VISTA/LEGEND COLOR (LC/VC),
and StreetPilot models. Also packaged in the i3 kit is the
system for the USA and Canada (for North American users). The
North American model i5 comes with
maps for all of the USA and Canada or for all of Western Europe
With the Navteq brand maps, users will have the most detailed highway and residential street level GPS uploadable maps available for the USA today. The USA coverage area for furnished Navteq maps is the entire USA and ALL of Canada. The i3 allows a user to automatically route using both the CitySelect maps and/or the Base Map. Thus, with a "routeable base map", you can automatically route from an address in New York City to San Francisco with only CitySelect map sections for NYC and SFO loaded. The base map will provide information (and "road lock") for all highway routing between metro areas. Garmin provides the only autorouting system that I am aware of that can do this sort of intercity routing without the need to load intermediate maps as you go from one Navteq region to another. Garmin is shipping the i5 with its new CitySelect 7 preinstalled so no basemap is needed. Check Garmin's Cartography site for a list of countries and vendors to contact for compatible 3rd party maps.
Other maps compatible with i3
City Navigator (Navteq Maps, the best GPS routeable maps available in
covered), MapSource MetroGuide USA (however note that
Garmin reports that Metroguide does not contain
routing attributes when downloaded to the i3, so it is not recommended). Possibly other Garmin maps
will load and operate, but Garmin
supports only the maps that they list as compatible in the i3
For those confused about the differences between City Select and City Navigator, Garmin had this to say: "when we move to version 8, we will be eliminating City Select, and will only offer CityNavigator. This is good, since it will reduce the confusion between the products. Also the price of City Navigator has come down."
For now however City Select-based route Quality is rated "good" and in fact routinely gives routing the same as I would have chosen. Sometimes the route generated is just OK, but after all, these devices are just machines and they are operating without the local traffic knowledge an individual user has. One downside for i3 as compared to the $3000 models is that many of the more expensive models have some sort of "dead reckoning" capability to permit navigation to continue for short intervals when signals are lost. Such signal loss can happen in city canyons such as NYC, Chicago, LA, and London where high rise buildings can block the satellite signals. In fact, i3/c320/2610/2620 do have "poor man's dead reckoning" in that when signal is lost, the GPS assumes you continued on your last heading and speed for up to 30 seconds. This 30 seconds covers most ordinary driving. The real dead reckoning capability is available in the Garmin StreetPilot 2650/2660 and in a few other units such as the VDO Dayton MS5000. The 2650/2660 will require a connection to the automobile speedometer output and backup light to be able to function in dead reckoning mode. Without these inputs, it will function same as the i3/c320/2610/2620.
The new i3 version of CitySelect 7 provides for selecting map data in state (or in some cases half of a state)-sized "chunks". The user can either click on the individual states (or half-state, in the case of large states like California or Texas) or drag a box around the region of interest using the mouse. All states in the box will be selected. A click on a previously selected state deselects it.
Automatic ROUTE GENERATION with the i3 high speed processor, while not as fast as the c3x0, is quite fast. The calculation of a 500 mile route usually takes about 20 seconds and a 2700 mile route was not much longer at about 30 seconds. Off Route, reroute recalculation with the i3 typically takes a few seconds and it generally tries to take you back as quickly as possible to your ORIGINAL route.
The i3 model does NOT offer the capability to create a route on the PC and download it to your GPS for execution. You can create points-of-interest and download these to your i3 for use as destinations. The i3 allows for a single VIA point per route. If you create one while a route is active, the i3 will route you to the via and from there to your destination. When you have passed the via, you can enter another one if you wish.
Note: As of this date, NO OTHER map products (from alternative vendors) can be uploaded into Garmin GPS receivers except those offered by Garmin and Garmin LICENSEES for the purpose. (See Garmin Website's Cartography section for a full list of map offerings.) This same proprietary relationship exists for other vendor's consumer GPS products as well.
What's new in the i3 models?
Like all modern car navigators, i3 gets rid of almost ALL of the bad effects of GPS measurement error that bother many people. When you use CitySelect, the i3 will "lock" your vehicle track to roads as long as you travel on the road. This feature does not operate with MapSource R&R, USA Topo, or WorldMap among others. Automatically generated routes using CitySelect or CityNavigator maps "rubber band" to the roads in the route. Once in a great while, you may find an isolated road segment where the map is so far off that road lock will jump off the road. On the windy road leading up to my house, the woods at the edge of the road seem to momentarily interrupt reception of the gps signal and the i3 loses the road lock, thinking that I am actually on the lower road. It corrects itself as soon as I get out of the trees.
Another useful feature with CS/CN maps is that (when not in guidance mode) all approaching cross street names are displayed prior to arrival.
We found the audio and visual guidance directions very satisfactory. A typical audio/visual sequence would go something like this:=================================================================
AUTOZOOM zooms the screen in and out automatically as you approach turns so you have time to make decisions.
Route selections for CAR/Motorcycle, Bus, Truck, or Taxi, or Emergency vehicles are provided so you can be properly routed depending on your vehicle type.
CitySelect now features about six
"points of interest" in the USA. These include: Food and drink, Lodging, Attractions,
Shopping, Services, Transportation, and Emergency and Government. In
area, there were a few restaurants we had not known about and
few prominent ones are missing. Likely this will
the case. Despite some obvious updates and additions, the
restaurant listing sometimes appears a few years old. Listed
"Attractions" include theme parks, museums, schools, parks and
such. The listings were quite satisfactory though the placement
particular restaurant or gas station might vary plus or minus a
hundred feet (once, half a mile) from the actual location.
feature could be very handy in a strange city. Do not be overly
at imperfections such as your favorite restaurant being missing or some
restaurant that is out of business for 5 years still being in the POI
list. The POIs come from a multitude of data sources and it is
impossible to insure accuracy with the resources available for the task.
The user can give the GPS a Street
Street Intersection or select one of the, for instance, Restaurants in
accessory map data base module and it will LOCATE this address or
automatically and plot it on the map screen. The i3 can then
automatically create a "turn-by-turn" route to this destination from
wherever you are. This is a very useful feature and it has worked very
our tests. Be prepared for a few well known items (such as my local
office) to be missing from the "attractions" list. Still, if you are
unfamiliar with an area, what IS included will be quite useful.
Are the 128
Trans-Flash MAP MEMORY enough?
The "comes with the kit" 128meg map memory will be enough for many users. The fact that the full USA coverage basemap can be used for navigation on interstates and major roads and highways mitigates the need for full coverage of the high detail maps-- but... Personally we do like to have the full detail maps loaded just in case we need services or a good restaurant while on the interstate highway. Still, if you rarely travel more than your own state plus one to four other nearby states, (on average), the i3's 128 megs of TransFlash map memory will get you there just fine. As mentioned above, the user can purchase a larger memory card (up to 2 GB).
When you need complete detail for a PARTICULAR city or rural area you are going to visit, you can load from your laptop, or other IBM type Personal Computer, high detail maps from CitySelect 7 into the memory using the furnished USB cable. Note that with the i3's special version of CS7, you MUST load a full region consisting of an entire state (or half-state, in the case of larger states such as California). You cannot load smaller map sections as you can with the standard CS.
The basemaps in the i3 do not allow the user to route to anywhere ON the basemap. However, if you are going from, say, Chicago to San Francisco and back to Miami with a stop in Denver, you might load detailed maps for the four urban areas of interest and let the basemap be your guide THROUGH other areas and still have lots of empty memory in your user map cartridge for other areas. The unit automatically transitions from the basemap to the detailed maps when the detailed maps are available and back again as you move out of the detailed map areas. While it is quite easy to load new maps from a laptop computer into your i3, having a basemap for the entire USA and Canada that will route you between towns and cities can eliminate the need to load highly detailed maps for intercity travel. That said, DO NOT expect that the basemap is as accurate as the City Select maps from Navteq. There will be some areas where the map error is larger than 150ft and the c320 will think you are offroute and will recalculate. This is a minor irritation for some people but if you just ignore the problem when it rarely occurs, things work out fine.
What are the Technical Specifications of the i3?
Feature and Function Highlights
We do not recommend i3 for hiking or marine activities due to its reduced feature set optimized strictly for automobile use.
The i3 used for this review includes no basemaps outside the Northern part of the Western Hemisphere. The basemap of North America includes maps of USA interstate, national, primary and secondary state highways, cities, larger towns, waterways, rivers, and coastlines and high population parts of Canada and Mexico. (Note: See Garmin Base Maps description for more information on Base Map content.) Base Maps are included in the i3's internal memory while USER Uploadable Street Maps on DVD provide street level detail of user selected areas which are loaded to the TransFlash memory cards. Garmin (unlike some Magellan models) provides no capabilities for the user to change from one basemap to another.
Additional features include:
The trip computer works similarly to other late model car navigators. With i3, you will notice that when you come to a stop, the estimated times do not go to infinity, but hold a realistic value. The GPS calculates estimated times based upon road classes in your Route and modifies the estimation by your actual speeds on the various road classes. It also computes the actual road distance between turns (waypoints) instead of using straight line distances. The results give fairly accurate estimated time to various points, even when using different road classes, like traveling on the freeway, and then exiting later on some local roads. Usually it slightly underestimates the time principally as a result of unexpected traffic congestion which randomly occurs. However in heavy traffic (ie. with prolonged periods of stop-and-go) the estimates can be very inaccurate. Unlike other Garmin units, the i3 does not seem to take into account the driver’s current speed.
The GPS allows the upload/download of points-of-interest only.
The data fields on the main display screens ARE NOT user configurable on the i3 models.
The i3’s 'Find' feature includes: Address, Food, Hotels and More, Recent Finds, My Favorites, Intersections, and Cities. Under ‘Food, Hotels and More’ are options to select: Spell Name, Food, Fuel, Lodging, Shopping, Bank/ATM, Entertainment, Recreations, Attractions, Community Services, Hospitals, Transit, and Auto Services. However, some of the locations of restaurants, hotels, etc. are misplaced by considerable distances. Since the data is at least a year old, some businesses are "missing" but overall the data is quite accurate and useful.
When not routing, a "Driving Status" line on the top of the Map display indicates such information as "Driving South on Roswell Road". This can be quite useful in cities where you don't exactly know which street you are on. Also as you are driving, the name of each approaching side street is displayed allowing finding side streets in the dark.
Brightness on the i3 does NOT
adjust for ambient light conditions like the SP26xx models.
automatic changeover from night to day mode as needed is provided.
User ICONS are NOT supported in the i3.
The i3 operates from external power in the range of 11 to 24 volts DC or from its internal battery. Battery life on our i3 unit was about 6 hours. The i3 shuts down 30 seconds after external power is removed and turns back ON when external power is restored. If the user wants to continue operation on batteries, they can click the thumbwheel within 30 seconds.
A special mobile power cable is supplied with i3. You will need the USB DATA cable (furnished) to load maps and/or to upload points-of-interest from your personal computer.
The external antenna connector, a MCX coax jack, is located on the right rear of the unit. The normal antenna is built inside the unit and is not removable. The Garmin GA-27C and the GA-25MCX amplified antennas can be used if the display is not located near the windshield, or if the windshield contains heating elements or a radio antenna.
The i3 does not support
Subjective Observations of Performance
I tested the i3 throughout western
under both urban and rural driving conditions.
Errors in turn directions were extremely rare.
The unit did lose road lock every time I climbed the hill to my
house, but picked it up again as soon as there was some separation
upper and lower road. What I believe happens is
that the woods on each side of the road momentarily block the gps
signal, causing it to go into its 'dead-reckoning' mode. It
extrapolates my current course and speed, and since the road is windy,
it projects my course onto a different road than I am actually
on. In any case, as soon as I clear the trees it recovers (almost
instantly). In other cases
the unit told me to turn where a turn was impossible due to the
a median one or two years ago. As with
other gps units, the i3 lost contact with satellites when driving
‘urban canyons’ of downtown Seattle.
When starting up, there was never a failure to lock to SVs in a reasonable time (which was usually about 15 seconds). Time to reacquire when emerging from a tunnel or from between tall buildings was much faster (perhaps 1 second or less).
All Garmin GPS models including the i3 have a form of "dead reckoning" for moments when signal dropouts occur. For instance, if the is tracking along and just before a sharp turn you invert it and block its antenna, it will continue to track straight for about 30 seconds. It also provides a very good data smoothing filter to throw out random fixes that are way off track. This results in an exceptionally smooth track on a moving map display. Even with this filter, there was no overshoot apparent during quick stops, sharp turns, and similar maneuvers when normal continuous tracking was taking place.
I found the display controls exceptionally easy to learn and use. The overall system is suitable for car navigator use by users not familiar with computers and computer technology. This is especially true of the i5 which comes with maps already loaded. What the average user has to work with on a day-by-day basis is very simple to understand and manipulate. The menu system and arrangement is generally quite intuitive and easy to learn to use.
I asked my wife (who is a preschool teacher and about as non-technical a person as you will find) to give the unit a try for several days and she found it to be extremely helpful. It took about 5 minutes to go over the basics of its operation and after that she had only occasional difficulty. For example, she once searched for a destination in the wrong category and therefore could not find it.
One concern of mine with other gps units such as the Garmin 26x0 line has been their high visibility to potential thieves, and the corresponding ease with which they can be stolen. This is much less of a concern with the i3 as its small size makes it very easy to tuck into an unused spot on the dashboard or windshield. For windshield mounts this does leave the problem of how to route the power cable out of the way, as it is not long enough to run it over the roof into the rear of the car.
One noticeable surprise with the i3 was the ease with which it
lock from inside my home office. The
Garmin 2620 had not been sensitive enough to do that.
Note that in general you cannot depend on being able to track
satellites from indoors.
For this review the i3 was moved
back and forth between vehicles quite a bit, and for the most part the
windshield mount held up well. However there were two occasions
when I had not given the unit a firm enough push (against the
windshield) when locking the mount down, and it fell off while driving
a few minutes later.
Our overall impressions are that the i3 is Garmin's version of a low cost Automobile Navigation System with limited feature set but with exceptional ease of use. We consider the i3 to be "very good" in the low price class of Car Navigators. (Check Latest Prices Here.) We think the i3 is a good product for the money.
*Problems and Quirks noted in using the i3.
the included CitySelect software initially proved difficult on my
home. The setup program on the included
DVD apparently does not install a necessary registry key. I
phoned Garmin Tech Support and (after waiting on hold for 30 minutes)
was connected with a support technician who was able to diagnose the
problem very quickly. He sent me these
instructions for correcting the problem. I followed them and
was back up and running in short order. While I was pleased that
Garmin was able to quickly resolve the problem, having to wait on hold
for so long during work hours was extremely inconvenient. Also,
this is apparently not a new problem with Garmin GPS units as a google
search turned up others who had experienced the same problem with other
The map display readability is the worst problem of the i3. The road on which the route is moving is displayed clearly. However, cross streets and nearby streets are shown on the routing map with such low contrast as to be unreadable in bright sunlight. We find that named cross streets and nearby streets and landmarks to be extremely useful in showing exactly where you are at a given time.
Garmin Car Navigators, entering street names can be a
might know a street name as AC Lewis Road, or A C Lewis Road or
or Bay Water or Baewater or Arbor vitae or Arborvitae and the spelling
not match the local convention. The user MUST spell it like
Garmin/Navteq database or the address cannot be found. This can
not being able to find a street that you know is there. Navteq
that their convention is to run initials together and use caps, so you
try that if you get stumped with a street name with initials. For
street address with a highway number, try just the number such as 32
POI groups are incomplete (though they are VERY VERY helpful). For example: I found that my local post office was not included (but MOST are). I am afraid relief here will be forever in coming.
On occasion, we see the router generate "funny routes" such as taking a busy numbered federal highway instead of a nearby freeway. Overall, the performs as well as other Car Navigators we have used. Garmin tells me that these problems WILL be looked at if users will go to http://www.garmin.com/cartography/mapSource/errorForm.html and fill out the report form. Lets ALL do it! Overall, I must say that every edition is better than the one before as to routing problems.
Which GPS do I like to use when I go on automobile trips? The StreetPilot 2620. I must add that the i3 is a great unit when small size and lower cost are part of the equation. It seems ideal for the person who is "computer hostile"... That said, I personally prefer the SP26x0 units because of their MUCH more capable and flexible feature set and because of their much more readable display screen.
If anyone has any additions,
error corrections or other comments, please feel free to Email.
For those interested in learning more about the inner workings of the GPS system, I recommend the following books:
Introduction to GPS: The Global
Positioning System, by Ahmed El-Rabbany (for a good overview), and
Understanding GPS: Principles and
Applications, edited by Elliot D. Kaplan, for a much more in-depth look
at the engineering, science, and mathematics behind the GPS system.