Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant has made it easier than ever to add voice control to thousands of devices. It was only a matter of time before Alexa conquered the car.
The new Garmin Speak is a $150 device that integrates Alexa voice recognition into a small, windshield-mounted speaker and display. By blending the ease of talking to Alexa with Garmin’s longstanding expertise with in-car navigation, it promises to be simpler than a touchscreen.
But does it work? I spent a month driving with it in both old and new cars to find out.
What is it?
The Garmin Speak is a small cylinder about 1 3/8" in diameter. That’s about as big around as a half-dollar coin. Its depth is just a little more, about 1.5”.
There is an OLED screen on the front, a speaker in the back, and a low-gloss black anodized finish. Like the Amazon Echo, the Speak has an LED ring that surrounds the front screen and changes color to indicate which functions the unit is performing.
Two small buttons on the left side are for muting the microphone or taking phone calls, and a power connection is on the right. A ball-and-socket connects the mount to the top of the device, and its low profile allows inconspicuous mounting to the windshield within the driver’s field of view but without blocking important visibility.
What does it do?
Simply put, the Garmin Speak adds Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to your car. You can ask for directions using natural speech—"Take me to 123 Main Street in Springfield"—and the Speak will give you turn-by-turn directions, spoken by Alexa and indicated by arrows on the display.
You can also ask Alexa to help with tasks such as creating reminders, to-do lists, checking the weather, and controlling other smart devices in your home—even while you’re out.
Garmin says you can get voice-activated access to entertainment, information, and even shopping—just like your Echo offers at home. It’s possible to store addresses in the companion phone app for quick recall, too.
How does it work?
The Garmin Speak doesn’t have an internal battery, so it must be plugged into a 12 volt outlet. The cord on the included adapter is long, and Garmin recommends tucking the wire in behind trim pieces.
Having a solid, consistent source of power is important, because Alexa is always listening, ready to spring into action when asked—and that consumes power quickly.
Because it uses your device’s data connection to stream media and get updates, Garmin Speak also must be paired with a companion app on your smartphone. The Garmin Speak app is compatible with a wide cross-section of Apple iPhones and iPads and with Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or better.
The lack of compatibility with earlier Android versions means it won’t work with many newer, low-cost handsets, which is disappointing.
In order to enable navigation, you have to activate the Garmin Skill (Alexa’s capabilities are called skills). You also need to be logged into your Amazon account, and tell Alexa to activate the device.
Does it work?
In short, the Speak is both fantastically simple and overly complex.
Without question, it is an excellent navigation device. Simply asking Alexa to take you to your destination is much easier than programming a car’s navigation via touchscreen or using an aftermarket setup.
Despite the Speak’s small screen, vital information is clearly displayed with easy-to-understand directional arrows. It even shows you which lane to be in.
Although some drivers may find it hard to read, I think the Speak’s small size works to its advantage. Many drivers mount their phones or aftermarket navigation systems in their line of sight, which blocks visibility and reduces safety. Bright screens on those devices also add distraction and make night driving more difficult.
However, setting up the Garmin Speak proved frustrating. The multiple steps—download and install the app, connect via Bluetooth, enable the Garmin skill, activate the device, log in to Amazon—can be confusing to get through, especially for the sort of person who finds a car’s touchscreen too complex.
In theory, setup is a one-time occurrence. But during our tests, the Speak occasionally disconnected from our phone, seemingly at random.
And there’s another issue. Yes, it’s cool to just ask Alexa for what you want—“Play ‘Eye of the Tiger’,” for example. But without any kind of interface, it’s difficult to select a particular episode of a podcast or skip around an album. Asking for songs by name works, but we bet most drivers will steal a glance at their playlists instead.
With it mounted on the windshield, it can require a bit of a stretch to press the button on the Speak to accept a phone call. I found myself flipping back and forth between Bluetooth and my paired phone for calls through the car’s system instead of using the Speak, and that was more distracting than usual.
The Garmin Speak may be cool, but at $150, it is not a must-have. While the navigation is good, Garmin offers it as a stand-alone app. The voice control is responsive, but setup is confusing and its limited set of controls means users still have to learn certain commands that are more specific than natural speech.
The Speak is also redundant. Both Siri and Ok, Google offer excellent voice recognition and simplified interfaces for in-car use. Newer cars come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which make it easy to access your phone’s familiar interface right from the car’s integrated touchscreen.
Finally, the Speak’s small internal speaker has limited fidelity, so it’s best used for speakerphone functions. Long periods of listening are fatiguing.
Those who really want Alexa in the car can buy a $30 Echo Dot and tether it to a smartphone’s WiFi hotspot. For everyone else, a good smartphone mount will do the trick.