Garmin: The Little Device That Doesn't

Apr 5 2013


(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

Yo, check out this new gadget I got, it’s called a Blackberry.  It’s great for taking care of stuff on the go, like a mobile computer, except that I can’t look at photos or videos or fling cartoon birds at abstractly rendered pigs or really do anything but send emails…but I think it’s pretty nifty because what else out there is better? Yeah, my Blackberry’s almost as cool as this thing I got for my bike—it’s called a Garmin.

Of course, in many ways the Blackberry comparison isn’t really apt. Because the Blackberry, as dull, graceless, and monolithic as it was, actually turned out to be pretty damn good at the one pedantic task it was designed to accomplish. The Garmin, eeeeh not so much.

There’s an old saying—or maybe there isn’t and I just made it up, and if so there should be an old saying—that the best bike part is the one you notice least. For all drool and fingerprints displays cases have caught in their name over the years, Chris King headsets or Phil Wood hubs don’t exactly make themselves known on bike. Unless you’ve been riding something worse—and recently—you’re not going to notice your bike coasts longer or steers more smoothly

But that Garmin—whoof—you better believe I’m noticing it. I’m noticing it when it sits there for three-to-five buzz-killing minutes before each ride, showing me a basically full progress bar, just trying to detect that one last satellite whose absence somehow the other twenty it’s talking to useless. I’m pretty sure, since the damn thing has a tendency to pronounce me 20 feet below sea even in the best of conditions, that that twenty-first satellite really isn’t really the difference between precise tracking and might-as-well-write-a-map-on-the-back-of-your-hand.

I’ve also noticed my Gamrin while forcing my  wrist through the cringe inducing contortions required to access it’s awkward side buttons on a ride. Like seriously—who designed this? The buttons are about two millimeters off the top of my handlebar, another two to the left of my stem bolt, and they’re coated in a relatively stiff rubber material offer nothing in the way of tactile feedback. Trying to operate them on a cold day or through a long fingered glove is like trying to work a typewriter through a the bottom of a trampoline

Of course, I could just move the Garmin from my bars to my stem, but then I’d be staring even further into my own belly-button every time I wanted to see some data from the the thing. You know about potholes, Garmin? Road debris? Curbs? Dead animals? I don’t know if you guys have ever ridden a bike, but gazing into at a glare-mottled, low-contrast screen that’s near perpendicular to my direction of travel ain’t exactly the best way to go about doing it.

Actually, I do know that you guys ride bikes because you have a part that solves this problem—a tiny piece of injected molded plastic that juts forward from the handlebar and lets you keep an eye on your data and the wheel in front of you simultaneously.  You probably should have shipped to every owner of a Garmin cycling unit with an apology card as soon as you got the first crate over from China. But no, you didn’t want to do that. Instead, you’ve decided to sell it to your long-suffering customers, as an add-on, despite the fact that cheaper and faster-to-market versions from other companies already exist.

And you know the worst part is—it’s that all that stuff I just mentioned, it isn’t the worst part. Actually, I guess that’s the SECOND worst part because the worst part is your GPS device isn’t reliable at being a GPS device. I’m not talking about drifting off course a little, or mysteriously shutting down mid-ride as sometimes happens. I’m talking about the days where you turn it on, you start it, you ride with it, it functions normally, you come home, you go through the stop/reset/off dance routine that somehow passes as “save to disk”, plug your device into your computer and suddenly the previous two, or three, or seven hours of your life are mysteriously gone.

I mean, maybe you’re so used to high-centering motorists on railroad tracks, or leading them down logging roads that no longer exist, that you think your customer base is just willing to   accept some range of error. But I don’t think you understand what these rides mean to the people using your devices to record them.  

Cyclists sweat it out in grungy basements all and cobweb-ridden attacks all winter long to for to shave two or three seconds of their favorite climb, or sustain an extra watt or two. Even people who aren’t competitive and who don’t care about the numbers still like to see where they’ve gone, and to share and compare routes with their other weird cyclist friends.

And When riders take a Garmin on their bike vacation to the Rockies or Europe or some other, even further removed locale, they’ve probably spend hours pouring over Google Terrain maps to plot that one, perfect route—because in a lot of cases, it’s a once in a lifetime visit. For us, the data we collect while riding is as integral a part of the trip as the pictures we take or the unpronounceable beers we drink. To my mind, you thinking the current failure rate is acceptably doesn’t just make you a bad company—it makes you guys [expletive].

But hey, maybe I’m being too harsh. You did step up to sponsor one of the most ostensibly progressive cycling teams in recent memory, and even five years after one of the more notable retailers in the Industry began refusing to speak your name, you’re still at it.

And to be fair, I have technically only experienced legacy devices–abeit legacy devices you still sell for the princely fee. I burnt through three(!) Edge 305s before getting bumped up to to the 500 I currently use. So maybe the new devices are better…but I doubt it. from what I’ve read, you do have front facing buttons, but reports of laggy, low-contrast screens, a janky user-interface, and a general recommendation not to upgrade if you’ve got a 500 and make me think that not much has changed. And the alleged killer feature—real-time location tracking that requires a smartphone—doesn’t make any sense . There’s already a bevy of smartphone apps that offer this feature in a cleaner, more sharable format, for free—and that don’t require a batter

-burning requiring a bluetooth connection to get the job done.

And maybe this is kinda the root of the problem. I don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel, or think outside the box or ask “What Would Steve Jobs Do?”. Honestly, I’d be willing to suffer  through all the other crap—bad buttons, ugly screen, whatever—if you could promise me a device where riders who’d ever experienced data loss were the exception rather than the rule. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask—because if you guys can’t come up with it, you can sure as hell bet that someone else will.

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