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A Look at the Garmin StreetPilot 2620

By Tom Gonser (04/05)

You're up bright and early, and ready for a day's travel in your RV. It won't be a long day --- perhaps 200 miles, and most of that on the Interstate. But first you need to navigate from your RV park through town to find the entrance to the freeway....

You've been driving for a couple of hours, and your fuel gage is beginning to complain. What are your closest options ahead for filling up?

It's late in the day, and you're wondering whether there's a WalMart in the town just ahead -- and if so, exactly how do you get to the WalMart from here?

[Ed Note 10/2011: Since this piece was first published, many new and lower cost options have become available to RVers. However, the primary points illustrated here are as valid today as when first published.]

These are typical of the kinds of questions we have when we're out on the road. And of course they're also the kind of questions that we can get answers to if we have a good GPS system on board -- and most importantly know how to use it!

When it comes to mixing GPS with RVing, the options are many. At the high end are dedicated, built-in systems that have an external antenna and a large, easy to read screen. At the other end is the small hand-held GPS that makes the perfect tool for boating, hiking, or geocaching. While the screen display on these tiny units isn't large enough to be easily seen while driving down the road, some of them can be connected to a laptop running a mapping program, which can add a visual presentation of where you are at the moment on a map -- and even provide audible instructions on when to make the next turn.

Between these two extremes is a variety of mid-sized units that have a screen large enough to see while driving, but small enough to be portable -- letting you move them easily from your RV to your towed or towing vehicle. We decided to test one of these mid-range units, and settled on a product from Garmin, the StreetPilot 2620. Its high capacity hard drive comes pre-loaded with street level maps for the entire United States and Canada, and also information that lets you quickly locate "places" by category (fuel, rest stops, shopping, restaurants, RV parks, etc). The bright color screen is approximately 2" by 3", and the images are crystal clear. There are two ways to use this GPS. It can be set by using the touch screen feature, or you can set it using a small remote control unit.

The size and weight of the 2620 makes it easily portable. It has no batteries to wear out. Instead, it plugs into any available DC outlet. While it comes with semi-permanent mountings, more popular is its included "bean bag" mount, which can be placed anywhere on the dashboard -- and it stays there. We've found satellite reception to be excellent so long as the unit has a clear view out the front window. (It especially loves our little Jeep Wrangler, because it can "see" through its fiberglass roof as well.) There is an optional antenna that can be plugged into it, but most RVers will find it completely unnecessary.

If you've ever used a hand-held GPS, there's not really much more to learn in order to use this unit right away. After I turn the unit on, it "finds" the positioning satellites, and soon shows my location on its built-in map. If I want to set a new route from where I am at the moment to, say, my son's home in Bellevue, Washington, I can select my current position as the starting point, and my son's address as the end point. When I enter his address, I'll first enter the street number, and then enter the street name. If he lives at 123 N Maple Avenue, the screen will let me "touch" the numbers "1", "2", and "3" -- then I touch "OK" to enter that part of the information. The next screen ask for the street name. It only wants the name of the street, i.e. "Maple". The screen has now become a keyboard, so I can touch the letters that spell Maple, and then touch "ok" again. The unit already surmised I was looking for streets in the State of Washington -- but I could easily have changed that, or narrowed it to a specific city or town. Since I just let it look for streets named "Maple" in the State of Washington, it came up with quite a few candidates -- only one of which was in Bellevue. So I merely "touch" that one to select it as my destination.

The unit the calculates the exact route, street by street and all highways in between, from my exact present location to my son's home in Bellevue. I'll then begin hearing the audible prompts: "Drive 500 feet east, and then turn right". That happens to take me up my driveway to the point where it intersects with the street we live on. From then on, she (we've begun to think "she's" traveling with us!) will anticipate every turn we need to take, and give audible directions as we approach each turn. For example, as we're approaching the main street of our little town, "she" will first say "in point seven miles, turn right". Then as we get closer to the turn she might say "in four hundred feet turn right". I thought we might actually stump her since we live on an island. But as we approached the ferry terminal she said "in two hundred feet turn right and board ferry". After we'd made that last right turn onto the ferry ramp I pushed the button that says "speak", and she responded with "board ferry". Pretty savvy lady... When we get near Bellevue, she'll alert me to the approach of the exit from I-5 that I'll be taking ("In point nine miles exit right, then turn left.."). And after that she'll guide me through each turn until at last she'll say "in point 2 miles arrive at destination -- on left". Yup -- that's the place!

The unit has a number of preferences that are important to RVers. Most critical is the ability to provide road preferences, and to identify what type of vehicle you are driving. RVers will usually have a strong preference for major highways, and an aversion to minor roadways -- and the unit will use these preferences in selecting which roads to use. You can also select whether you're driving a motorcycle, car, or bus. RVers with larger rigs will inevitably want to identify themselves as a "bus", with the obvious desire to avoid roads unsuitable for larger vehicles.

Even "she" is programmable. She can speak several foreign languages, and even her English can be American or British. We actually prefer the British accent -- it's just kinda' cool. And how much information she provides can be controlled too. Not only is the volume adjustable (on a scale of one to ten), but she can be asked to be silent, and provide on-screen written directions only; to give distance to next turn and turn alerts only; or also to advise in the event she should lose the satellite signal (as in a tunnel), or if you go "off route". In the event you don't follow her directions, whether purposefully or otherewise, she'll say "off route, recalculating". Then in a few seconds she'll provide new routing to the same destination, selecting the most suitable route from where you happen to now be. If there's a detour ahead, or a stretch of roadway you'd otherwise like to avoid for some reason, you can program the unit to take you the best way "around" that road segment. Handy when you see a huge traffic tie up ahead, and wonder what side roads might get you around it.

But driving direction are just a part of the information available. It has a huge database of restaurants, points of interest, shopping, fuel, rest stops, etc. And each of these categories has sub-categories to narrow the choice of what you're looking for. Under "lodging" for instance, you can further define whether you're looking for a motel, hotel, B&B, RV park, etc. And you can get even more specific. If you're looking for a Safeway grocery store, you'd first touch "find", and then select the category "shopping", and then select (by touching) a sub-category called "grocery". And to get to precisely the grocery store you want, you'd use the touch screen to spell out "Safeway". It would immediately find the Safeway grocery store closest to you (and likely a couple of others a bit further away) and list them for you -- the closest one first. By touching the one you want, presumably the one indicated as the shortest distance from you, "she" will calculate the best route there for you, and begin providing audible directions.

At first I thought the database must be focused primarily on large cities. But we live on a small Island, with a downtown area of only a few square blocks. When I tested "her" by asking her to find stores, restaurants, etc. in our small town of Friday Harbor, it seemed they were just about all there. And of course I wouldn't have had to know the name of any of the businesses or attractions, since it would find them automatically by just selecting the appropriate category -- e.g. grocery stores or movie theatres.

If you choose not to enter a route when you use this unit, it provides background of a map of where you are, with your position showing exactly where you are on the map. You can watch yourself move down a street. By using touch "tabs" on the screen, you can also cause it to display several elements to choose from, including such things as current speed, direction, elevation, the next cross street you will reach, and even the address numbers of the current street you're on as you pass by.

As with all GPS units, you have the ability to create new waypoints. If you find a pleasant place to park for the night and you want to "remember" it, simply press and hold the appropriate button and it will create a new waypoint for you, and store it permanently (or at least until you erase it). You can enter a name for the new waypoint ("SamsRV"), and also choose from a large variety of visual icons that represents the type of location you're storing. There are all kinds of icons, depicting restaurants, fuel stops, banks, and even RV parks. In time you'll begin building your own private database of places you might want to find again some day -- and get directions that will take you back to that very same spot.

Is "she" perfect? Well, yes and no. "She" really is perfect. But she can be no more perfect than the accuracy of the database of information she has stored inside. The maps, street addresses, and places are all part of a huge database of "MapSource" data. And we've found a few imperfections in that data -- though they are few, and usually located in the most remote of areas. One "bug" we found was on our own Island. When we want to drive to town we take a roadway that over time has been relocated. Somehow that updated information never found its way into the current MapSource data, and she will get confused on part of our way to our small Island town. But as soon as we're past that errant stretch of road, she's right back on course again.

The bottom line of all this is GPS can be a very valuable -- and even fun -- aid to both navigation and finding places of all types and descripion wherever your travels in North America might take you. But the wise user of these units will always be blending a measure of common sense with the instructions the GPS will provide -- because though the lady may be perfect, the information she's been told on rare occasion is not!

Note: As of 2011 there are many more advanced units on the market, and prices have improved significantly. However the "basics" of using GPS for RVing remain as described above....