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New for 2023: Garmin Drive 53 car navigation

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I'm very glad Garmin still makes these.

Garmin recently released the Garmin Drive 53; this is a basic car navigator. I personally use a more advanced model, the Garmin DriveSmart 66. The bigger 76 and 86 are also available.

The North American version of the 53 is a back-to-basics navigator from Garmin, which is something they do very well. It doesn't have Wi-Fi so connecting to a computer is required to update the maps once or twice a year. It doesn't have Bluetooth so you can't connect a phone to it (which in this case is a good thing, I'll talk more on that in a moment). The only two flavors the 53 comes in is either with or without traffic reporting. The Drive 53 & Traffic model means it comes with a charge cable that also acts as a traffic receiver which covers most major cities. You can see the traffic coverage map here to see what's covered.

Some may ask why a standalone car navigator is still made today. The answer is that it's necessary.

There are two main reasons for this.

Most people drive a car that's an average of 12 years old

I'm not kidding. It's 2023 as I write this, and a 12-year-old car means a 2011 model. To put that in perspective, the vast majority of '12 cars didn't have infotainment screens in them. Some had GPS navigation, but if you tried to update a '12 car's navigation system, yeah, good luck with that because that's almost impossible.

If the car, truck or SUV has no infotainment system, just use a phone, right?

No.

Phone coverage is nowhere near where it needs to be in the United States

If you take a look at any phone coverage map (all the phone carriers have one on their web site), you are given the impression you get true nationwide coverage just about anywhere you go in the US.

Do you?

Yes, conditionally.

The condition is that the only real thing you're more or less guaranteed with nationwide phone coverage is the ability to place and receive calls, and send an receive text messages. That's it.

Where navigation is concerned, the ability to place/receive calls and send/receive texts isn't good enough. If you're going to use Google Maps or Waze, it's required to have a strong data connection for those apps to work properly. Try to use either of those outside of a major metro and... well, good luck with that.

When your navigation absolutely has to work everywhere, you get a standalone navigator

Phones work by means of a terrestrial network. A standalone navigator gets its position by receiving a signal from satellites in space. Yes, really, and no, you don't have to pay extra for that as GPS satellites are funded by taxpayer dollars.

How do the maps work if the navigator doesn't connect to the internet? Answer: They're preloaded on to the device.

Does it cost anything to update the maps? No.

How often are the maps updated? Two or three times a year.

How do you update? Garmin Express.

Things people complain about with standalone navigators

The #1 complaint is that the map data isn't as up-to-date as Google Maps.

For example, if there's some new apartment complex that was built just three months ago, that obviously won't be in the map data. The workaround for this is to get the coordinates and save as a favorite in the Garmin navigator. For whatever address isn't in the navigator, you can always get the coordinates and get to wherever you're going that way. This is very useful not only for newly constructed places but also anywhere that doesn't have an address defined.

How to get coordinates? If using Windows, load up Google Maps or Bing Maps in a browser and single-right-click:

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42.637692, -73.166859 would be typed in as N 42.637692 W 073.166859 in a Garmin navigator. That spot is the parking area next to the Massachusetts Veterans War Memorial Tower on Mount Greylock. Obviously, that place doesn't have an address - but - with a Garmin navigator you can navigate to it when you have the coordinates. And yes, the navigator will work even when all the way up on top of a mountain.

Do you need to remember coordinates? No, because you can punch in the coordinates and save as a favorite in a Garmin navigator, then name the favorite whatever you want. After that, you can choose to navigate to that favorite whenever you need to.

The #2 complaint is that traffic reporting isn't as good as Waze.

Waze works by using crowdsourced reports from Waze users that connect to the internet over a smartphone data connection. Garmin navigators like the 53 don't do that because it doesn't connect to the internet. The 53 "& Traffic" model gets its traffic reports (for mostly highways and city areas) via TMC. No, you don't have to pay for it and it's automatically enabled if you're in an area with coverage.

There is no way a standalone navigator can compete with an app that uses crowdsourced reports, and there is no way a crowdsourced app can ever be truly good outside of a major metro.

When in the metro, that's where Waze works best because that's where the most cell towers are. When outside the metro, you are always better off with the Garmin - especially anywhere the phone has a weak signal or no signal.

The #3 complaint is "weird routes".

There is no navigation system that gets the route 100% right 100% of the time. Not possible. It doesn't matter what system you use, be it by Garmin, infotainment or your phone.

You will always find Amazon user reviews of Garmin navigators where people gripe and yap about weird routes. You will always find user reviews in the Google Play Store of Google Maps and Waze users that say the same thing.

How do you get better routes? You look at your route first before you go. With a Garmin navigator, once you pick a destination and route is calculated, all you have to do is tap the top green bar to get all the info. If any part of those directions looks weird to you, don't use them. Pick another road and the navigator will auto-recalculate and adjust. This has been a standard feature in Garmin navigators for well over a decade.

Who is the Drive 53 best for?

The Drive 53 is best for anybody that has any reason not to use infotainment or the phone for navigation, simply put.

Maybe you drive an older car. Maybe you travel to places where the phone can't hold a strong data connection. Maybe you prefer a dedicated navigator where the user interface always stays the same (which can't be said for phone apps where "updates" randomly move things around).

Again, if you have any reason not to use infotainment or phone for navigation in a car, then you want a Drive 53. Also remember that if you want the traffic charger cord, make sure to get the Drive 53 & Traffic model, which is $20 more than the no-traffic model.

Published 2023 May 2

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