Blue View - Finding the Right GPS for Blue


Our Ford Transit didn't come with a GPS. That was an option the previous owner didn't feel was necessary when he bought the van, probably because it spent most or all of its life in Brooklyn. We do need one, and on our initial travels, we used a smart phone as our GPS. Our iPhone works reasonably well, but the display is small, and the ambient road noise sometimes overwhelms the voice commands when we're at highway speeds. Since we plan to be traveling a lot over the next few years, we wanted something better.

We started by listing our criteria:

  • Large display – at least 7”.

  • Loud enough to be heard in Blue at highway speeds.

  • Free upgrades.

  • Maps of all of North America.

  • Availability of maps in other countries. We're okay with buying the maps if they are reasonably priced.

  • Voice activated commands.

  • Compatible with a backup camera. Blue has a back-up camera now, but we have a huge blind spot on the right side when backing out of a parking space. As long as the co-pilot is aboard and can check out the passenger side window, we're good. If I'm driving by myself, however, I have to resort to my dad's technique as he got older – back up until you hit something or people start honking their horns. While that method worked for him for a number of years, I think I'd rather mount a camera on the roof that gives me a view in that direction.

  • Reasonably priced. Some of the trucker and RV specific GPSs are $600-$800, which seems exorbitantly expensive to me. I'm thinking more in the $300 area.

  • Bluetooth connectivity with our smart phone.

After looking at the specs for all the available units, reading hundreds of reviews and researching pricing options, we decided on the Garmin Drive Smart 61 LMT-S. We found it on sale at The GPS Store and bought it. I charged it up, connected it to the wifi system in Lin's house and downloaded all the updates. It was an easy install in Blue, and after our roadtrip from Boston to Chesapeake and on to Las Vegas, it seems to meet almost, if not all of our criteria:

  • The display is 7” and is sharp, crisp and quite readable in differing light conditions

  • The volume is quite adequate for Blue's noisy interior. The volume control can be voice controlled, so I can quickly increase or decrease the volume while I'm driving.

  • It comes with free lifetime upgrades and has maps for all of North America pre-loaded.

  • Currently, maps are available for Europe, the Middle East, most of Africa, South America, New Zealand, Australia, India Southeast Asia and China. The prices aren't terrible, ranging from $70 for India to $170 for New Zealand and Australia.

  • It has a set of voice commands that enable the driver to access most of the main features. By using the wake-up phrase, ( we set our wake-up phrase to “Wake-up Blue”), a list of commands is displayed. So, I can easily navigate to an address, find the nearest Dunkin' Donuts, or adjust the volume without touching the display. The GPS does a reasonable job of recognizing and understanding both our voices. It sometimes has problems recognizing unusual street names or businesses, but no more so than Siri or Alexa.

  • It has an optional backup camera. The camera has a wireless connection to the GPS, so the hook-up should be straightforward. I hope to get it installed in the next few weeks.

  • It is available on Amazon for $240. We bought it on sale for $190. Definitely a bargain, especially since we are used to buying marine GPS/chartplotters.

  • Bluetooth connectivity. It was easy connecting it to our iPhone, and Garmin has an app that allows us to make hands-free calls, get traffic info, find available parking and a host of other things. Another feature is a 'find-my-car' app that automatically remembers where we parked Blue and gives us directions to him.

Some other features we didn't know we wanted, but now find useful:

  • Display of the current speed limit and a chime that warns me of a change in speed limits ahead. It seems pretty accurate, except in construction zones.

  • A warning that the traffic light ahead has a red-light camera.

  • A reminder that I've been driving for more than two hours without taking a break.

  • Active lane guidance. As we approach a highway exit, a picture of the exit appears. The lanes I should be in are highlighted.

  • Landmark based instructions – instead of saying “Turn left in ¼ mile”, or “Turn left at Broad Street”, which may or may not actually have a street sign, she says “Turn left at the McDonalds”.

All in all, we couldn't be happier with our new GPS.