How Garmin Updates Work

By: Molly Edmonds

A Garmin GPS unit. See more pictures of essential gadgets.
A Garmin GPS unit. See more pictures of essential gadgets.
Associated Press/Reed Hoffmann

Here's a sight that might unnerve members of the Neighborhood Watch: A car is slowly driving down the street, as the passengers inside make notes on electronic tablets. Even from the outside, it's impossible to miss the amount of equipment in the car -- there are computer monitors and video cameras on the front dashboard. Is this a gang casing the neighborhood? Will a string of burglaries or kidnappings follow? Just what are the people in that car doing?

While it's always a good idea to report suspicious activity to the authorities, in this case, you might find out that the group was performing a more innocuous service. Every day, field agents from Navteq, the United States' largest digital mapping company, are out and about in car and on foot, ensuring that their maps are correct and up-to-date. Their cars are updated with high-tech equipment that allows them to collect data on the go, and if there's an area that's inaccessible by car, they'll head out with handheld devices to complete their research.


­With the new information, Navteq updates its digital map collection, and then sells it to companies like Garmin, which produce the GPS devices that many of us have come to rely on for getting around. Garmin, in turn, codes the information so that it's compatible with specific devices and offers it to customers in the form of map updates. While GPS system owners may also need occasional software updates, the map update may be the most important if you want to maximize the effectiveness of your GPS device.

There's a saying that as soon as you buy a new car or computer, they're out of date. Maps are much the same way. Between road construction and restaurants going out of business, last year's map may not get you to where you want to go. Find out how to get the all-important Garmin updates on the next page.


How to Get Garmin Updates

Updating your Garmin requires less work than reading a map.
Updating your Garmin requires less work than reading a map.

Installing Garmin updates is fairly simple. You can determine whether you have the latest software by accessing your device's settings (usually done by tapping on the wrench icon). You can compare your settings to the latest ones listed on Garmin's Web site.

The map updates are available in either a hard copy disc format or as an online download. If you choose to go with the hard copy option, you order the disc from Garmin, copy it to your computer and attach your Garmin to the computer to sync the devices.


If you'd rather not wait for your local letter carrier to bring you the newest map, you can download the map updates directly from Garmin's Web site. Before you do so, you'll want to make sure you have adequate space for the download on both your computer and your Garmin -- the update will first be copied to your computer and then to the device. And because this is such a sizable download, only high-speed Internet will do; DSL and dial-up fans should order the hard copy.

­To start the download, connect your Garmin to your computer with a USB cord. Then, you can click the update you want on Garmin's Web site (updates may differ slightly depending on which model of Garmin you own). The update has intuitive, step-by-step directions for launching the update. One thing to remember, though: When the menu provides you with a serial number, be sure to make note of it. You will be asked to enter it later in the update (a serial number is also provided with the disc). The serial number can only be used once, so unfortunately, you can't update numerous Garmins with one map update. Once the download begins, it may take several hours to complete. If your Garmin device needs any software updates, these will usually be installed as the map update is.

While most software updates are free, there's a fee for the map updates, which may run as much as several hundred dollars. However, depending on when you bought your GPS system, you may be eligible for a free upgrade; you can find out if you qualify by checking Garmin's Web site or contacting the customer service directly.

In 2009, Garmin announced a new program in which use­rs could receive regular map updates for as long as they owned the device for a single upfront fee. The program may make it easier for customers to have the latest information, but there are some users that have bristled at having pay any additional fees to maintain a previously purchased Garmin. However, the benefits to the updates can outweigh the costs. Find out more about benefits of Garmin updates on the next page.

Benefits of Garmin Updates

You'll never miss a Starbucks with the latest Garmin map update.
You'll never miss a Starbucks with the latest Garmin map update.
Associated Press/Paul Sakuma

Perhaps the work and cost associated with Garmin updates seems a bit ridiculous to you. After all, didn't you already buy the device so you wouldn't get lost? Shouldn't it be accurate for more than a few years? To answer that question, it's worth reviewing how your Garmin works. When the Garmin receives satellite signals about your location, it's only provided with your global positioning, not where you are in relation to a street grid. To the GPS satellites, it's irrelevant whether you're traveling down a one-way street; you're merely a speck moving in relation to your last known position.

To maximize the directional feature of a Garmin, however, you'll need an accurate map. Many things serve to make maps obsolete in a short period of time. The names of streets may change. Highway exits could close to accommodate roadway construction. New traffic laws may permit actions such as left turns during peak travel times. Gas stations, ATMs and fast food chains may open at a new location, while other restaurants, hotels and shops are forced to close. If you really do want to use your GPS to find the nearest Italian restaurant and the quickest way to get there, then Garmin map updates are essential.


It's easy to imagine the consequences of an out-of-date Garmin: You're driving around, looking for that left-hand turn you're supposed to make, only to find out that an entire city block has been converted to a parking garage. Even if you're not in a hurry, that would be frustrating, but think of the tension if you're trying to make a doctor's appointment or job interview. Imagine the time and gas you'd waste during a vacation if the friendly electronic voice emanating from your Garmin couldn't locate your hotel.

If you use a Garmin only sporadically, then it's possible that you don't need every single map update. But if you rely on your Garmin to get you around, particularly in unfamiliar locales, then regular map updates ensure that you're on the right path. After all, you wouldn't send visitors out to explore your hometown with a map from the 1850s; with the amount of construction that happens every day, driving with an out-of-date Garmin would be much the same.

For more on GPS and other cool car gadgets, see the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Ellison, Craig. "Garmin Promises Lifetime Map Updates." PC Magazine. Jan. 7, 2009. (Feb. 2, 2009),2817,2337958,00.asp
  • Garmin Web site. (Feb. 2, 2009)
  • "How to Install Garmin's Map Update 2009: A Step-by-Step Guide." GPS Magazine. May 19, 2008. (Feb. 2, 2009)
  • Navteq Web site. (Feb. 2, 2009)
  • Peters, Jeremy W. "Marching Digital Maps to America's Ever-Changing Roads." New York Times. July 9, 2006. (Feb. 2, 2009)