Amazon's Alexa is quickly seeping into all parts of life thanks to clever partnerships with OEMs, and Garmin was one of the most unexpected partnerships announced last year. The maker of navigation systems, dash cams, and wearables debuted the Garmin Speak at the tail-end of 2017. For $119, you get a miniature Echo Dot-like device that puts Alexa in the car with you.
At CES this year, Garmin added another device to that new family—the $199 Speak Plus. Instead of simply acting as a home for Alexa, the Speak Plus also includes an embedded dashboard camera, making it a more practical car accessory than the original Speak. While dash cams are undoubtably useful, the usefulness of Alexa in the car is debatable. Alexa rose to fame as a virtual assistant for the home, and the Garmin Speak Plus doesn't make the strongest case for it to be a necessary part of your daily commute yet.
|Specs at a glance: Garmin Speak Plus|
|Dimensions||37.5 mm x 37.7 mm (1.47 x 1.48 inches)|
|Display||17.2 mm x 9.6 mm (0.67 x 0.37 inches),114 x 64 pixels OLED circle|
|Camera||82-degree FOV, shoots up to 1080p at 30fps|
|Mics||2 mics, beamforming technology|
|Built-in Alexa||Yes, when connected to Garmin Speak mobile app|
|Dash cam features||Forward collision warnings, lane departure warnings, accident detection (G-sensor), go alerts|
The Speak Plus' footprint is so small, it'll easily disappear behind your rear-view mirror if you don't position it properly. The short cylinder measures 1.47 x 1.48 inches and has a 114 x 64-pixel OLED screen surrounded by an LED light ring on one end and a camera lens on the other. The screen shows simple direction cues like arrows and measurements that you can follow while you're driving, but you don't necessarily need to see the screen since Alexa reads out directions as well.
Only two buttons adorn the side of the Speak Plus: one to mute the microphone and one to power on the device. The underside of the device holds a microSD card slot that can take a card up to 64GB. The unit we reviewed came with an 8GB card. The larger the microSD card, the more footage you can store at once. But the Speak Plus supports loop recording, so you never have to worry about the microSD card being full. The device will erase the oldest footage first once the card gets filled up. Like Garmin's other dash cams, you can view the footage using the company's VIRB mobile app (designed for its action cams) or you can remove the microSD card and insert it into your PC.
Attaching the Speak Plus to your windshield is easy: it uses a magnetic arm with an adhesive pad that sticks to the glass. I prefer suction mounts to adhesives because they let you more easily move the dash cam to another spot. Garmin doesn't provide extra adhesive pads either, so you must choose the Plus' location wisely.
The Speak Plus' camera is the only differentiator between this device and the regular Speak, but it's an important distinction that adds a lot of value. Sure, having Alexa as a car companion is great for hands-free music playback controls and answers to trivial questions about the forecast. But Amazon has made it so most smartphone users can access Alexa from anywhere through various mobile apps—therefore, the hands-free aspect of the regular Speak is the only reason you'd want to invest in that device. At least with the Speak Plus, you get an ever-watchful dash cam in addition to Alexa.
While a number of car manufacturers are building Alexa into their vehicles, plenty of Alexa-less cars will still be on the road in the future. In those cases, the Garmin Speak Plus is one of the few ways you can get Alexa into the car. Most things Alexa can do in an Echo device can be done in the Garmin Speak Plus: read the news, check the weather, answer random questions, control smart home devices, and more. With the new Garmin skill enabled, Alexa can also read turn-by-turn driving directions through the Speak Plus.
However, Alexa doesn't totally live inside the Speak Plus. Garmin's Speak app is needed to set up the device, and it tells you during the initial setup that the program must be running on your smartphone for any of your Alexa commands to be fulfilled on the Speak Plus. While it's the dash cam that hears you, all the information is drawn from your smartphone because Alexa requires a connection (Wi-Fi at home in a device like an Echo, cellular on the road in this case) to work.
This implementation isn't surprising, especially considering Amazon has pushed Alexa voice services to many of its apps across many OSes. But it's not the best implementation because I often forgot to open the Garmin Speak app when I got in my car. In those cases, the dash cam recorded footage continuously while I drove, but I couldn't ask Alexa to do anything for me—including reading off directions using the Garmin skill.
The Speak Plus warned me that it was having trouble "connecting to the Internet" when the app wasn't open. A similar alert came through the device's speakers when my smartphone had a bad cellular data connection—something I couldn't control or fix until I drove to an area with better reception. If your phone isn't getting data, Alexa won't work at all.
The Garmin Speak app prompts you to enable the Garmin Alexa skill when you set up the Speak Plus. Since dictated driving directions aren't part of Alexa's basic skill set, you must say, "Alexa, ask Garmin to take me home" when you want the device to read out driving directions to your home. Without the "ask Garmin" portion of the prompt, Alexa will be confused, and you will be frustrated.
Garmin's driving directions dictated by Alexa are not very different from driving directions given by Apple or Google Maps. Alexa's voice tells you when you're approaching a turn, which streets to turn onto, when to stay on the road ahead, and other navigation information. If you're nervous about missing a turn, the tiny screen's arrows and distance estimations are a decent alternative to having a maps app constantly open on your smartphone.
But Alexa can tell you other things while you're driving, including traffic conditions, weather reports, and more. You can search for nearby destinations, asking Alexa to ask Garmin to find the closest coffee shop, bookstore, or Thai restaurant. This comes in handy if you're already on the road and need to make an unexpected stop.
While Spotify integration doesn't work yet on the Speak Plus, you can ask Alexa to play music from Amazon Music (a feature that's only useful if you get most of your music through Amazon). I still listen to the radio when I'm in the car, so I'd love for Alexa to be able to control my car's radio, switching between my saved stations. The closest you could get to that is connecting Alexa to an iHeartRadio account, but sometimes using the old-school, regular radio in the car is more convenient than hooking up yet another streaming service to yet another accessory.
The most frustrating thing about Alexa in the car is that it's a fragmented experience, but you may not realize how fragmented unless you've been around cars that have Alexa integrated. Automobile manufacturers are starting to embrace Alexa—Toyota, BMW, Nissan, and others either already have Alexa skills and capabilities for certain vehicles, or they have plans to create them. But some of those features are either not compatible with the Garmin Speak Plus or would require you to have special, connected car hardware. You can't assume that just because the car's Alexa skill can do something, you can do it with the Speak Plus.
For example, Ford’s Alexa skill lets you ask Alexa for your car’s mileage. Unless you have a compatible Ford vehicle with Sync Connect, you can’t ask Alexa on the Speak Plus that same question and expect an answer.
Since the Speak Plus is an accessory and not part of the car itself, Alexa can't do many of the things you may expect it to do in a vehicle. Most infotainment systems with Alexa or automobile Alexa integrations have the basic Alexa features—news and weather updates, reminders and to-do list editing, smart home device control, and more—plus special features that the car manufacturer has built in to its own Alexa skill. The Speak Plus' special feature that was most practical for me was driving guidance. I don't have a long commute, and I don't frequently take long driving trips, so I didn't have much use for Alexa while my hands were on the wheel. Anything I wanted to know I could look up when I reached my destination.