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Garmin Head-Up Display Offers Safer Navigation, at a Price

Smartphones and navigation apps like Google Maps have made it easier than ever to navigate to new destinations. But taking your eyes off the road for even a second to look at your phone’s screen brings potential safety risks.

To help reduce the dangers of distracted driving, GPS maker Garmin has come up with a new solution called the Garmin Head-Up Display (HUD). The accessory, which sits on your dashboard, connects to your iPhone, Android or Windows Phone device via Bluetooth, and projects directions from its Garmin StreetPilot or Navigon smartphone app onto your windshield. By displaying information in the driver’s line of sight, Garmin argues that it’s safer than using just your smartphone for navigation.

After test-driving it for the past week, I agree that it is less distracting. While I typically rely on the voice-guided directions from Google Maps, I often find myself looking at my iPhone to double-check my next turn. With Garmin HUD, this information was constantly displayed right in front of me, so there was less temptation to glance at my phone. Garmin’s app also provided accurate navigation.

That said, there are some downsides. Setup and installation can be cumbersome. Applying the reflective transparent film to your windshield isn’t easy. Also, because the Garmin HUD can only be powered by the included car charger, it means you’ll have an unsightly wire hanging down your console.

The other issue is price. The accessory itself costs $150 and requires you to use one of Garmin’s navigation apps, which runs another $50. It’s certainly cheaper than the HUD systems found in some of today’s high-end cars. But it’s an extra expense and another device to keep track of. Still, if you value safety, the Garmin HUD is definitely worth a look.

The Garmin HUD is about the size of a small GPS device, so you can easily bring it with you on trips where you’re renting a car. It measures 4.25 inches wide by 3.46 inches tall and 0.73-inch thick, and weighs less than a pound. It kind of looks a large pager (remember those?) with a rectangular screen, and is attached to an adjustable dashboard mount.

The latter is pliable, and can be twisted and molded to fit the shape of your dashboard. I placed the Garmin HUD near the base of my car’s windshield, just slightly to the right of the steering wheel. The adhesive bottom was strong enough that it kept the Garmin HUD in place even when I drove over potholes or rough roads. But it doesn’t stick permanently to your dash, so you can use it in multiple vehicles.

The only complaint I had about the design is that the Garmin HUD can only be powered using the included cigarette-lighter adapter. The cable connects via a port on the left side of the device. It took some arranging so that the wire didn’t obstruct any controls in my center console. It would be nice to have the option of charging the device at home, so you can go wire-free. On the plus side, the cigarette adapter features a built-in USB port, so you can charge your smartphone simultaneously.

The Garmin HUD provides two different options for how directions are reflected from the HUD’s screen and into your line of sight. One involves sticking a transparent film onto your windshield, and the other is to attach a reflector lens to the device.

The film requires more work to install. You need to spray the inside of your windshield with water, position the film to where you want it and then use a credit card to squeeze out any air bubbles. If you ever need to remove the transparent square, it can’t be used again. And Garmin only includes one in the box (the company sells extras on its website for $10 apiece).

I chose to use the reflector lens, because it’s easier. It snaps right onto the top edge of the device, and I found it works just fine. The only issue with the snap-on display is that because it sits at an angle, it might limit where you position the Garmin HUD on your dashboard, depending on the shape of your car.

To be clear, the Garmin HUD isn’t a GPS device itself. It needs to be connected to your smartphone, and displays information provided by the Garmin or Navigon navigation app. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with Google Maps, Apple Maps or other third-party apps.

For my tests, I downloaded the Garmin StreetPilot app to my iPhone 5, which includes maps for North America, and connected to the Garmin HUD via Bluetooth. Setup was a breeze, and took less than a minute. Then, using my car’s auxiliary jack, I was able to pipe the app’s voice-guided directions through my car’s stereo.

I used the Garmin HUD to navigate to multiple destinations around San Francisco, and a day trip down to Santa Cruz, Calif., (about 70 miles south of San Francisco) over the Labor Day weekend. After punching in an address, the Garmin HUD immediately showed me a large arrow to indicate the direction of my first turn. It also displayed distance to the next turn, estimated time of arrival, speed limit and my current speed (if you’re over the speed limit, it will display a small red alert icon).

Since the Garmin HUD presented me with the information I needed, it was much less distracting than my usual method of using Google Maps. I didn’t have to dart between looking at the road and my iPhone to view upcoming turns. (I often do this when there’s some distance between turns to make sure I haven’t missed anything.) Plus, I could also still see the road in front of me, since the screen was transparent.

I also like that, when driving on a highway, the Garmin HUD shows small arrows at the bottom of the display to indicate the number of lanes, and highlights which one you should be in for your next turn. The Garmin HUD automatically adjusts the brightness of the projections, and I had no problem viewing it in bright sunlight or at night.

For each destination, the Garmin app provided accurate directions. The app automatically pauses your music when speaking directions. That said, I thought voice guidance wasn’t as natural-sounding as Google Maps, and route recalculations were a hair slower.

Overall, I liked the Garmin HUD. For those willing to pay for it, it displays all the information you need to get to your destination, and does so in a less distracting manner than your smartphone alone.

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