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Improving Garmin GPS units

We’ve had a pair of Magellan 1420 GPSs for several years, but they’ve grown very unreliable. I suspect they have some bad capacitors in them, but I hear a lot of complaints about Magellan hardware quality even today. Recently I was able to buy a couple of 3.5-inch Garmin units for less than $20 apiece. I prefer the Magellan user interface–I think it’s easier to learn and easier to use–but for that kind of money, we’ll learn to use the Garmins. And I’ll note these Garmins are every bit as old as our Magellans, but have held up fine.

The worst thing about an old GPS is that it probably has an old map on it. One nice thing about Garmin units is that you can get free, open-source maps for them. The maps load on an SD card, and are more accurate and updated much more frequently than Garmin’s own maps. So for the cost of a compatible SD card, you can have up to date maps every month if you want them. One of my new-to-me units had maps from 2008 on it and the other was from 2010. It only took a few downloads to update them both to May 2014. Installation on my Nuvi 205 was easy: Insert a card into a PC, create a directory named “Garmin,” and extract the contents from the zip file into the directory. Eject the card, insert the card in the GPS, and power up the GPS. If you see a progress bar during boot, it’s loading maps. Once it’s up and running, go into Tools, then Settings, tap Maps, tap Map Info, uncheck the Garmin map and check the box next to Open Street Map. Full instructions are here.

The Nuvi 350 I bought, which is older, was trickier. The 350 can use SDHC cards just fine, but can’t read files larger than 2 GB. So I tried Dave Hansen’s maps but haven’t gotten them working yet. I haven’t ruled out a bad download.

Used Garmin 3.5-inch units like the Nuvi 205 and Nuvi 350 sell cheaply on Amazon–I’ve seen them for as little as $20 plus shipping–so if you need a decent GPS on a budget, you can do a lot worse. With free maps available, it doesn’t matter if Garmin still supports the unit or not, or how old the maps that come with the unit are. It also doesn’t matter what continent or country you’re in–just load a different map if you need one. So if you happen to be a world traveler, you can use the same GPS anywhere.

I think Garmin GPSs tend to take weirder, less efficient routes than Magellans do, but loading better maps on them may fix that. For what I paid for these new-to-me Garmin units, I’m willing to find out.

In searching for information, I also found a very helpful tips page, with more than 100 tutorials for using Garmin GPSs and getting around the limitations many of their entry-level units have.

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