Have you ever wondered why GPS devices are so expensive when they are designed for motorcycles? Upfront I can already tell you, I don’t have an answer. Anyway, let’s talk about it and about GPS devices in general and see what we can learn about them.
Stand alone GPS devices are on the brink of extinction
How can I start a story without bringing up some context first? Two main items come to mind. First is that portable GPS devices for vehicles are likely on the edge of extinction. Our smart phones take care of our navigation needs these days. New cars already come with their own navigation systems or they have an interface to connect and in some cases display your smart phone on the car’s own dashboard or screen.
For motorcycles, things are a few steps behind. While some riders use their smart phones as a GPS on their motorcycles, you get mixed results for this kind of use. For one thing you cannot operate all smart phones with gloves. Second, smart phones are more delicate devices and more challenged when under the elements and on off road rides on a motorcycle.
I’ve been hearing recently about “disruptive innovations.” The smart phone is perhaps the most disruptive of all innovations of the last 10 years. The I-phone, for example, is only 9 years old and together with other smart phone devices that were released right after the I-phone, they have transformed our lives and how we operate in all areas of work and play. Smart phones virtually ended telephone land lines, they are pushing consumer cameras off the market (the so called point-and-shoot cameras are basically gone), they challenge laptops, they will end the use of credit cards, they are our office operations on the palm of our hand, and yes, for our topic at hand, eventually they will make GPS devices redundant, even for motorcycle applications.
For now, though, I appreciate Garmin, Tom Tom and all other companies who continue to produce GPS stand alone devices, offering them on applications that work for hikers, cars, boats, airplanes, motorcycles, even when it is likely that one day they will no longer be needed for several if not all of these applications as stand alone devices.
I really like GPS Devices!
The second contextual factor I want to bring to the front of this conversation is about my relationship with GPS devices and maps. I like paper maps, but I love GPSes.
I have paper maps for every location I traveled to. Even when virtual maps are available on line, and I can plan a ride using software and a GPS, I like the physical contact with a paper map, the perspective you get from following a line on paper. When riding on a new location I like to eventually pull the map out and get a broader perspective about where I am and where I’m going next.
But I really like GPS devices. My relationship with GPS devices started early when these products had just become available as consumer devices somewhere in the early 2000’s. The first time I used a GPS made me realize how convenient they are, and I remember exactly how it happened. I lived in Columbus, OH, the heart of it all, at that time and had an ongoing project in Springfield, IL, land of Lincoln. I used to fly frequently between Columbus and Springfield, this was the time when TWA existed and it had a hub in St Louis. Remember TWA? To fly to Springfield I had to change planes at the Saint Louis Airport, where I would take a turbo-prop plane for the short hop to Springfield.
On one of those trips, in 2003 I believe, I was coming back to Columbus. I had been dropped off at the Springfield airport and walked to the TWA counter to learn my flight from Springfield to St. Louis had been cancelled (side note: today we have apps on our smart phones that provide us with instant instant flight information – another disruption from this innovation, displacing a good amount of staff on airport desks – I fly may times in a year and I rarely, very rarely interface with staff in the many airports on my travels). But this story is not about smart phones, it happened before smart phones existed, so when I learned about the cancellation of my flight, I also learned no other flights were available, it was the last flight of the day to St. Luis., and I was stuck in Springfield.
Well, there was an option, I could rent a car and drive to St Louis. The two airports in question are 113 miles apart, a trip that is supposed to take 1h 45min if there is no traffic. I negotiated a deal with TWA and rented the car, although they told me it was going to be a close call considering the travel time, plus the time it would take to return the car, and the time to get to my gate.
Luckily the rental car came with one of those early GPS devices, similar to the Nuvi 260 I would eventually purchase in 2005. I was new to GPS devices, in fact, it was the very first time I manipulated and used one. I entered the address where I had to return the car at the St Louis airport and went out on my drive. Time was tight, there was no margin for error. I instantly loved the directions given by the GPS, I was not going to spend time stopping to look at maps or backtracking after getting lost.
I learned how convenient it was to have the ETA feature (estimated time of arrival). As I drove south on 55 (incidentally a portion of 55 going north or south from Springfield is also the famous Route 66), I was gaining a few minutes on the ETA, traveling slightly (slightly, right) faster than the speed limit. When I arrived in St Louis and merged onto I-70 west towards the airport, if memory serves me right it was somewhere around 7 or 8 in the evening, traffic was intense on I-70 and the ETA started going up. And then I hit construction.
The road was closed for several miles, including the exit I should had taken to get to the airport, forcing me to exit I-70 and get on a detour. I was in trouble by this time, I thought I was done with trying to arrive on time, I would miss my flight, and I would still get lost. That’s when I heard another great feature of the GPS in action. As soon as I exited the freeway the words “recalculating” from the woman’s voice on the GPS came up and soon it put me on another route telling me again where to go, and I arrived on time to get to my flight. I was relieved. And I was impressed.
I have another very similar story when a GPS was a savior again, this one was in California in 2006, and this other story carried a bit of extra drama. Maybe I will tell that other story at the end on this post, I don’t want to make the post yet longer.
What is relevant from this drive from Springfield to Saint Louis is that it got me hooked on GPS devices. Not that I didn’t like gadgets already and not that I already had my eyes set on a GPS, but I learned how really convenient these devices were, there was not way back from that experience. Sine I bought my first GPS in 2005, whenever I travel by car or motorcycle, I always want a GPS at my disposal. I love perusing information on my GPS, from the ETA, to alternate routes, to gas stations, restaurants, hotels, ATM, attractions n the area I’m riding or driving, besides the directions themselves. And now, with my latest GPS, I also have weather and traffic information, as well as telephone call notifications thanks to a blue tooth connection with my phone (here you go, the smart phone shows up again).
I agree with most people who say a GPS does not substitute a map. I also agree that using a GPS can create a tunnel vision effect distracting me from landmarks as I get fixated on the directions the GPS provides me. Therefore, I strongly recommend that at a minimum the rider studies the maps of where he or she plans to ride before engaging on a trip with a GPS. However, all in all, taking in consideration the appropriate caveats, I find GPS devices an indispensable tool for my car or motorcycle trips.
GPS devices are great, but why are they so expensive for motorcycle applications?
However, I continue to wonder, why are these devices, when dedicated for a motorcycle, so expensive? Are we paying the “extinction” tax (similar to the oil depletion tax subsidies we all pay)? Perhaps this price differential resides on the differences between a car and a motorcycle GPS?
The two versions of motorcycle GPSes currently available from Garmin, the 395LM and the 595LM, cost $600 and $900 respectively.
I’m not sure about the prices of Tom Tom and other brands that might be available for motorcycles. But I know Garmin GPSes have a motorcycle surcharge of sorts because comparatively to the 395 and 595 devices, two years ago I bought a Nuvi 2497, a car dedicated GPS, for $130. That’s a fraction of the price of the Zumo devices.
I’ve browsed and lusted after motorcycle GPS devices for many years, always wondering when their prices would come down enough to make sense for me to buy one. Car devices did become less expensive but motorcycle devices became more sophisticated and more expensive. So I never bought one.
That’s why I use that Nuvi 2497, an inexpensive car GPS, on my motorcycles. As an alternative, or back up, I carry with me a GPS device designed for hikers (Garmin Oregon 450), I also carry my smart phone, and at least a paper map for each state or region I will be traveling on.
Despite liking GPS devices I’ve only bought three such devices so far, all of them Garmin devices: A Nuvi 260 (more than 12 years old now), the Oregon 450 (about 6 years old, I believe), and the Nuvi 2497 (two years old) which is now my main GPS device. The three of them work well even after being exposed to all kinds of weather, from rain to hail, to sandstorms, to dirt and gravel roads. They have survived everything I encountered so far on my motorcycle rides.
What are then the differences between a motorcycle GPS and a car GPS? Are these differences enough to justify the price difference? I can tell you again: I still don’t know the answer to the price difference question. But let’s explore the possible reasons for this price differential.
What are these differences between a car and a motorcycle GPS?
To try to answer this question I looked at the official Garmin specs and the key differences across three devices: the two motorcycle devices (Zumo 395 and Zumo 595) and my Nuvi 2497 device. Lets talk about the price differences first. The Nuvi 2497 I use cost me $130. Today, a GPS with similar features, the Garmin Drive 50LMT, is rated at $230 (interesting price increase, but the 4 inch GPSes, like my Nuvi 2497 are no longer available).
That means, the Garming Zumo 595 costs 3.5 times more than the Garmin Drive 50 LMT, and the Zumo 395 costs 2.6 times more than the Garmin Drive 50 LMT. If you don’t want blue tooth connection, you can get the Garmin Drive 50 for less than $200.
Main difference: Is the Nuvi 2497 waterproof?
I assume the first thing that comes to everyone’s mind is whether the GPS is waterproof, a very important characteristic for motorcycle use.
The Nuvi is not waterproof. But is it really? My two non-waterproof GPS devices have been on rain, hail and sandstorms. And they have never failed. So far. 12 years and counting…
How do I manage that? For one thing, its case appears to be waterproof already from Garmin. Of course there are the various water ingress points such as the on/off button, the card slot, speakers, the microphone (the 21497 can be voice actuated) and the cable connection. None of these are waterproof. That’s when Gorilla tape enters the conversation.
What I’ve done to both my Nuvi 260 and more recently to my Nuvi 2497 is to cover all water ingress zones with Gorilla tape.
I did the same thing for the Nuvi 2497. I covered the on/off button, the speaker, the microphone, and the card slot with Gorilla tape. After two years I recently took a closer look and realized it needs some adjustments (picture below shows the tape coming unglued). But this device has never failed me so far. The thing is, even if it had failed, I could buy another two of them before I would get to the Zumo price.
Probably the most difficult component to keep dry is where the cable connects to the back of the unit. I use a RAM mount (another important item that makes it work on motorcycles) and covered the connecting cable with Gorilla tape on top of the RAM mount. In this case, I tried using Powerlet cables so the unit can be mounted and dismounted without removing it from the RAM mount. But the Powerlet cables did not deliver the promised performance. More on that later.
As mentioned before, despite the improvised nature, this set up has proven to work, keeping this GPS operational under all types of riding and all weather conditions. It is not perfect, it requires keeping an eye on it. It is here where you can make your first calculation: is the inconvenience of adding Gorilla tape to several parts of this GPS a problem? What if water enters the unit and damages it? Well, how many times this has to happen, how many Nuvi devices you need to buy before you get to the price of the motorcycle version? So far I’ve been using this method for 10 years without a problem, without failure.The bottom line? I’m not sure making the Zumo line waterproof explains the cost differential. But for me, since the devices I use have survived the elements so far, then the price differential does not justify it.
Another main difference: How bright the screen is!
Let;s try something else. A car device does not need to be too bright since it is likely it will be seen on the interior of a car, which is shaded.
WQVGA color TFT with white backlight
WQVGA color TFT with white backlight
For a motorcycle device, this is different. You will be under the elements and under direct sun light. The TFT display with white backlight of the Nuvi (or the Zumo 395 for that matter) is not bright enough, depending on where the sun is. Direct sun light is the worst possible scenario for these screens. At night or on cloudy days it is fine. A transflective display is great under direct sun light. Is it worth the investment? If I were to buy one of the two Zumo devices for this reason it would have to be the Zumo 595, and then the $900 is too much, in my opinion. It is more than what I consider worth for the benefit of having the brighter screen.
Other Motorcycle specific specs?
So far, the cost of making the device waterproof and have a transflective screen may explain most of the cost differential. However, these two items have not become essential for me to have on my devices, therefore, they have not justified the premium price. Therefore, let’s go forward and examine more specific motorcycle features of the Zumo line and how it compares to my Nuvi.
Tire Pressure Monitor
No adventurous routing …
No tire pressure monitoring system
Smart notifications via Smartphone Link.
Garmin Adventurous Routing™:
Tire pressure monitor system
I assume it comes with smart notifications
Garmin Adventurous Routing™:
Tire pressure monitor system sensors sold separately
I would like to have the tire pressure monitors and the routing capability. For the routing I use my Oregon 450. It is small, since it is meant to be a handheld device, but it is very doable in a motorcycle application. It would be more convenient to have all of that in one unit. That would be one feature I would like to have on a new device.
Then again, the reality is that I only really use it when going off road. Perhaps it is because of the inconvenience of having to bring the Oregon 450 with me, setting it up, is that the result is that most of the time, by a great, great margin, I’m only using my Nuvi, even when going off road. Point for the Zumo line here.
The tire pressure monitor is a convenient feature. It hasn’t justified the expense to me yet, but in the future this is something to look into. Some motorcycles already come with their own tire pressure monitors these days. For now, point to the Zumo line.
Did I miss any other essential features here?
A clear disadvantage for car GPSes when using on a motorcycle are the cables and the micro-USB connection. The Nuvi devices devices come with a regular and large 12 V plug and a long and bulky cable and a very fragile connector with the GPS (micro USB). Besides being bulky, they are not meant to be connected and disconnected on a regular basis, where dust and water may get into the connections. I’ve tried instead to use Powerlet cables, as mentioned before, but for some reason they don’t work very well.
Frequently these cables get disconnected, no matter how much tape I use to keep connecting points tight, and the GPS turns off or keeps turning on and off. It is really a problem. Therefore I’ve given up the Powerlet option after many tries and have resorted to plugging and unplugging the GPS using the long and bulky car cable. It uses a bit more of Gorilla tape (I can re-use it but there is only so much the tape can take until it no longer seals the connections), but so far, so good… If there is an achilles heel for the car GPS on a motorcycle application, that will be its cable and connectors. Point for the Zumo again.
The bottom line is that, in my opinion, I don’t need to buy an expensive GPS to have a navigation system for my motorcycles. There are risks associated with it but so far it has worked very well for me.
Maybe I’ve been lucky, but my car GPS devices have survived all sorts of riding and types of terrain without a problem. Rain and hail have not been a problem, a sandstorm has not been a problem either. From dirt to gravel roads, nothing has been a problem for my Nuvi devices either.
But then again, why is the Zumo line so expensive? Is its waterproof capacity what makes it so expensive? Is it the capacity (software) to offer a route and track system? The navigation software cuts across so many Garmin products, you would think there are economies of scale on the programming of the device. Is it the tire monitor pressure system? Is it the transflective display? Are there other features I forgot to mention? All in all, at the end of the day, I’m happy with the budget device I have. Would I prefer to have a Garmin 595? Yes. Price it much lower and I will buy one tomorrow.
The counterpoint: There is one exception to my analysis. I do think motorcycle GPSes are really convenient on BMW motorcycles, since you can navigate the GPS menus without taking your hand from the handlebars. The combination of the built n control and the GPS and its proprietary mount makes it yet more expensive. But I do see value on it, something to consider. (Note: back to the disruptive innovation, I can see how eventually such a clever wheel (or similar device on a motorcycle) will control your Smart phone and hence your smartphone built-in GPS and the stand alone GPS will still be gone. It is just a question of time, the wheel has opened the door for this possibility).
Meanwhile, when my Nuvi 2497 dies I will get the next Nuvi available or equivalent. And as you can see, I don’t have an answer. Maybe you have your own answer for how much you are willing to pay to have the one device that will take care of all your navigation needs on a motorcycle.
Bonus feature (or making the long story longer yet):
The other story I mentioned earlier, when a GPS was a savior, was in 2005. It is very similar to the story in Springfield. This time it was in Sacramento, California.
I was coming back from Sacramento, after a work meeting with a colleague of mine. I did not have a smartphone yet, the I-phone was released in 2007, so I had my Nuvi 260 with me because we rented a car in Sacramento.
We finished our business, returned the car and went to the United desk. When we got there there was a crowd of people around the agent. Yes, the connecting flight to San Francisco, from which we would catch our flight to Eugene had been canceled. No other options were available that late in the day. My colleague had her daughter at home with a sitter and the sitter would not be available to stay another night, so she really did not want to miss the San Francisco to Eugene flight.
I brought up the rental car scenario to the United agent, they said United was not going to pay for it. As we were negotiating this, and I do negotiate almost anything, another passenger, wearing a gray suit, arrived. He was really agitated and just said: I will pay for the car and we travel together to San Francisco. I looked at my colleague, she nodded yes, and that was it. We had transportation.
Very similar to my story in Springfield, making it by car would be very, very close! Everything would have to work very well for us to arrive on time for the connecting flight. The distance between the Sacramento and San Francisco airports is 105 miles via the faster route, and is expected to take just less than two hours to arrive.
We got the car, well the guy on a suit got the car (I can’t remember his name, I think it was Greg, let’s call him Greg). As soon as we start driving we started to learn Greg’s story. First of all, his flight was departing 3o minutes earlier than hours. If our time was tight, his was even tighter.
The second story Greg told us, as we are already on the I-80 towards San Francisco is that he was an attorney working out of New York City. He had come down to Sacramento for a deposition on a malpractice law suit against a dentist. As he is finishing his work he gets a phone call from a hospital in NYC, and he learns his wife had been admitted in the emergency area of the hospital due to a health issue (I don’t remember what it was, I think it was heart related). His two young kids (under 6 years old) were at home with the cleaning lady.
This guy could not afford to miss his San Francisco to New York flight. I became the co-pilot and operations manager. I think the car rental agency was National, and because now I learned Greg was really in a hurry I called the car rental company and got the exact location for delivering the car, I took my Nuvi 260 out of the bag and entered the address and got an official ETA. The ETA was tight, very tight. We would make it if we did not need to return the car. So Greg steps on it, we are driving upwards to 85 mph. My colleague on the back seat complains about the speed we are traveling and we both turn and say “shut up”. Well, we did not say it that way, but we did tell her we would be fine, just relax. But we slowed down some.
So I had another idea, and called National again, asking for a curb side delivery of the car (as in deliver the car at the United departure area of the airport). After a few back and forth conversations, and explaining our situation, they said they could not do it as we requested at that time, but offered to let us drive to National, close the deal (return the car), but stay in the car and an agent would drive us to Greg’s check in area.
The GPS helped us navigate the freeway system as we arrived in the San Francisco area and then took us straight to National. The agent jumped on the car with the paperwork, took the drivers’ position, and delivered us to Greg’s gate. We haven’t heard from Greg since the time we said goodbye to him at the United desk in San Francisco, but we know he did not miss his flight.
And the Nuvi 260 was really helpful in making sure he did not miss his flight. We did not miss our flight either.
Thank you for reading!
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional rider, and obviously not a professional writer. I write this blog as a hobby and because of my passion for motorcycles and motorcycle riding. I’m not affiliated with any business or organization related to the content of my posts, I’m not paid to write and publish my posts. The potential income generated by advertisements you may come across on my posts are going to WordPress, the organization hosting my content. I pay WordPress to manage and host my content, I would have to pay more to have advert-free posts.