The Garmin 590LM GPS

After scrabbling about on the gravel for an hour next to the Harley, my aching knees have about had enough.

Am I really going to have to remove the goddam fuel tank?

Shaking my head, I head back inside and sit down with the laptop.  The wiring harness is a true… harness.  In addition to the expected twin power leads, with inline fuse, the harness comes with three audio/mic wires – terminated with individual connectors for headphones, audio in, and audio out – and a long wire terminated with a large, female USB connector.  The morass of wires is a fucking mess.

I’m a simple guy.  I want power to the GPS and that’s it.  I’d like to cut off the extraneous wiring, put a dot of silicone on the exposed bits of copper, and be done with it.

Alas, my google searches are indeterminate.  Some suggest you can perform surgery on the harness.  Others say that by so doing you’ll brick the GPS.

Sighing, I go to the fridge, extract a cold Pale Ale, and head back outside.

An hour later it’s done.  No surgery necessary.  No removing the fuel tank.  And the extra cabling zip-tied and coiled up under the seat.  It’s going to be okay.

My old Zumo 550 had been mounted in a beautiful, chromed piece of billet.  Looked like it could have come from the factory in York itself.

I go simpler this time, utilizing the Ram Mount pieces that came in the box.  Doesn’t look quite as good.  But it mounts up good and tight and is easily adjustable.  It’ll do fine.

A few days later the Touratech mount shows up and the BMW GS gets its turn.  Again, a few hours of scrabbling around in the gravel.  More shaking my head at the enormity of the wiring harness.  More zip-tying and coiling up under the seat.  Another beer.

And back to square one.  Finally, once again, having a GPS unit that I can use on my R1200GS, my Road King, my pickup truck, my car, or in a rental vehicle.


That old Zumo 550 of mine had been a revelation.  After using it for a while I became convinced that a good GPS was second only to electrics (for the non-cognoscenti, that would be heated clothing…) in terms of its positive influence on our sport.


Alas, after eight years of yeoman service, my old Zumo was feeling its age.  It was taking an inordinate amount of time to locate satellites – and frequently required a power cycle or two to complete that necessary task.  Its touch sensitive screen was increasingly not so sensitive, requiring greater finger pressure and more and more offering up a quizzical game on what might be selected when you did push hard enough.  And most frustrating of all, its 1GB of flash memory had long been superseded by map size requirements.  One night two summers ago I sat in a hotel room in Huntington, WV, shaking my head while trying to pigeonhole a partial map of the eastern United States onto the aging GPS.

It was clearly time for a change.

I looked at smartphones, of course.  My iPhone 6+ is a very nice piece of gear.  And mapping in that world has gotten better by leaps and bounds in recent years.

Alas, smartphones still lack the robustness, weatherproofing, and back-end-software routing and trip planning that I consider essential.

Which sent me back to the only game in town… Garmin.

Garmin has released a number of motorcycle-specific GPS units since the original Zumo.  But theirs has been a schizophrenic product road map, as hinted at by the all-over-the-place model numbers.  For a while it looked like they were trying to deprecate the original Zumo design and get everyone moved to what were essentially waterproof Nuvi’s.

It took quite a few years for them to get back to their roots.  The Zumo 590LM finally seems like the fitting upgrade that the legion of original Zumo owners have long waited for.

What Garmin charges for the 590LM is obscene and unwarranted.  More on that, anon.

The device itself?

The screen is the first thing that hits you, of course.  The whole unit has gotten larger and the screen is 2x or 3x the size of the Zumo 550.  After using the 590 for a week, picking up the old Zumo feels like playing with a toy.  Very much the same experience as picking up an old iPhone after using the 6+ for a while.

The screen itself is a mix.  Garmin calls it transflective.  The good news is that when sunlight shines directly upon it – heretofore the Achilles heel of motorcycle GPS screens, a scenario where most wash out – it remains very visible.  In fact, to me some of the very best screen viewing on the 590 is with direct sunlight in the picture.  The not so good news is that in more muted light, say in softly lit overcast conditions, the screen, even turned all the way up, is not bright enough.  Sunglasses – and, presumably, tinted shields – exacerbate that difficulty.  And if the angle is just right, even in good, bright sunlight, the screen can wash out.

I should stop and point out that I wear reading glasses for any kind of close-range work.  But I don’t wear them while riding or driving.  My vision is quickly challenged by dim light.  I suspect younger eyes won’t have as much issue with the 590 screen, regardless of conditions.  Us older guys just have to get our squint look down.

On balance, the screen of the 590 is a major upgrade over that on the 550.  The extra screen real estate combined with the much higher resolution means much more information can be presented, in a much cleaner way.  Watching and interacting with the screen is a very pleasurable experience.

The 590 is vastly more responsive than the 550, the result of a much faster processor.  Everything from boot time, to searches, to route calculations, to going into data storage mode when plugged into a computer, is very quick.  Much better than the old 550.

Garmin has also added a sleep mode which makes access even faster.  When disconnected from power, the 590 counts down to power-off just like the old Zumo – with the user having the option, just like with the old Zumo, to interrupt that and move to internal device battery power.  But with the 590, the default behavior is now to turn off the display and move to sleep mode.  Upon reattaching to external power, or by clicking the power button, the GPS instantly awakens and is ready for use.  You can still do a complete power-off by holding the power button for several seconds.

The touch screen interface is worlds better.  Very little pressure is required to talk to the GPS.  It’s not as sensitive as a smartphone, but the touch screen responsiveness is much closer to one of those than to the original Zumo.  You can even swipe the screen to pan around.  Not as quickly and lightly as the delicate swipes on a smartphone.  But it works.

The whole user interface is improved.  There is a screen of dedicated apps that are available.  Different ‘layers’ that a user can configure.  Shortcuts that can be added to the Saved Places / Favorites window.  Interacting with the 590 is a lot better than working with the 550.

Internal flash storage has been bumped from 1GB to 8GB.  A huge upgrade.  It’s wonderful to once again be able to have a map of the entire United States when you go on a road trip.  I added a 32GB micro SD card and suddenly, after years of feeling pinched, I now feel like I have plenty of storage.  I even loaded my 24K Southeast Topo map to go along with the usual City Navigator map.  Something I normally use with my 62st handheld unit while hunting and fishing.  Now, should I find myself in some off-road wilderness after that single-track peters out, I can see how fucked I truly am!

The new unit has ‘look ahead’ features that very much enhance its usefulness.  If you are following a route, the very top of the screen will tell you where your next turn is, the name of the road that turn joins, and the distance.  At the very bottom of the screen, in smaller font, is the name of the current road on which you’re travelling.

The scrolling map also presents POI (points of interest) icons for fuel and food.  A little bit less of the quick double-take as you pass some establishment and then scramble to do a U-turn to come back.

The unit alerts for school zones as you approach, a nice touch.

In addition to the speed-you’re-travelling indicator that all GPS’s have always had, the new Zumo adds a separate field displaying – where available – the posted speed limit.  It also helpfully turns the speed-travelling-indicator a magenta color if you are above that posted limit.  Garmin cautions that this field may be inaccurate – and, of course, certainly has no bearing on any legal difficulties you might find yourself in.  But I find that speed limit data for most roads, including remote secondary roads, are in the mapping database and are pretty accurate.  I find this feature very helpful.

The unit has an intelligent auto-zoom feature, which zooms in to show pertinent intersection features, where appropriate, then quickly zooms back out to show the larger map.  It works better than you’d expect.  Another very nice feature.

Lane Assist and Junction View are related features, utilized when following directions or tracking a route, that tell you which lane to be in and – frequently on major roads like interstates – dropping a split-screen with an actual picture of what the intersection looks like.  On my old Zumo I frequently had to hit the screen to see if the next turn was left or right, so I could be in the appropriate lane.  Not anymore.

The 3-D mapping looks and works great.  It gives the impression that the road you’re following just kind of gets smaller and trails off into the distance.  Just like visualizing a real road.  It’s a nice effect, probably the salutatory confluence of greater screen size and greater screen resolution.  The older 2-D option is still there.  But to be honest, I haven’t tried it.

Bluetooth connectivity is supposedly one of the 590’s strengths.  I say ‘supposedly’ because beyond pairing my iPhone to the device – something that was very simple and straightforward – I’ve not tried any of that stuff.  I don’t listen to music when I ride.  And I don’t use helmet communicators.  So although I appreciate the option to do those things, they’re far down my list of wants.

That said, there is indeed one handy thing that this robust Bluetooth capability opens up…  Garmin has written a separate smartphone app  that talks to the 590 and provides a channel for presenting traffic and weather information.  The app is free.  But you have to subscribe to the traffic and/or weather data.  And, yeah, Garmin hits you with a one-time charge for those:  twenty bucks for the traffic subscription; five bucks for the weather.

You’d think that after dropping all the serious coin that you did to buy the 590, Garmin could throw in those relatively low-cost extras.  I mean, really?!


The business of pricing aside, the app does seem to work okay.  Traffic, especially.  I’ve thankfully been excused from the pain of commuting, but if I was still in that game I could see enormous everyday benefits to knowing what the traffic situation is.  You don’t normally think of a GPS as being a great asset on a commute you’ve done a million times.  You might be wrong.

That commute aside, it’s less helpful for a motorcyclist.  Most riders I know head for the hills when they’re doing a ride for fun.  They go where the traffic ain’t, in other words.  Still, once you’ve ponied up the twenty bucks, it’s there whether you need it or not.  I’ll need to play more with the traffic and weather to see how they might be helpful, or not, in my world.

Supposedly, the 590 does Pandora through your smartphone.  Garmin thought enough of that feature that they wrote about it on the box.  I haven’t tried it.

The 590 sports one feature that I think is potentially huge:  a tire pressure management system, or TPMS.  Tire pressure is kind of nice to know about in a car.  But on a motorcycle, it’s critical.  There are very few rides I go on that I don’t first bend to each wheel, early in the morning before the first mile has been spun, and check those readings.  An automated, consistent, accurate readout of air pressure in both front and rear tires – accessible in real time while you’re riding – would be an enormous safety benefit.

Alas, the system requires yet another expenditure… sixty bucks, apiece, for the sensors that go on each wheel.  They’re simple, simply screwing onto the valve stem, but they require metal valve stems.  Those sensors then pair – Bluetooth, again – with the 590 unit on your handlebar.

Yes, Garmin continues to rape your wallet.

No, that threaded stem that you screw the cap on on your wheels is almost certainly not a metal valve stem.  Even though, um, it’s made of metal.

I have bought two of the sensors along with a pair of chrome valve stems.  I’m really looking forward to trying out the system, but am not going to pull the wheels and break the beads and install the new valve stems until I’m ready for a tire change.  So it’ll be later this summer before I get to try it on the Harley.  And later this fall, or early next spring, before the BMW gets a go.

Beyond the improvements in the interface and the screen, navigation as a whole is improved.  One thing I’ve always wished for is a ‘Scenic Roads’ option.  Garmin now provides that very thing – they call it Curvy Roads – to go with the standard Fastest Time and Shortest Distance selections.  You could get something of the same thing in the old unit by deselecting all big roads.  But this seems to work a little better.  And it certainly is quicker to get to.

Another neat navigation addition is something called ‘Round Trip.’  You select a location (which can be your current location, a saved location, an address, etc.) and then tell the GPS the distance you’d like to travel, the duration, or some remote location you’d like to hit, and it calculates several route options for you, ending with you back at your starting point.  I’ve only played with this feature a little bit, but it seems to work great.  Especially for motorcycle day trips – “okay guys, how long do you want to ride today?” – I can envision it being a great ad hoc planning tool.

The 590 includes a ‘TracBack’ feature, allowing you to reverse the route you’ve followed.  The old Zumo could get you back to whatever destination you like, of course, but more often than not via a different calculated route.  Especially on curving, complicated routes where many turns have been made, you often want nothing more than to backtrack the same route you came in on.  Now you can.  Another great addition to a motorcyclist’s toolkit.

On the back end, Garmin has equipped the 590 to recognize selected via points as ‘shaping points.’  The difference between regular via points and the new shaping points is that shaping points do not alert as you approach them and do not attempt to route you back to them if you miss one.  You make that property change in Basecamp – where any serious trip planning is taking place.  Since, for me, the vast majority of via points are simply to nail down my route, to force the GPS to route along a particular road, I don’t want to be alerted.  And if by hook or by crook I happen to miss one, I sure as hell don’t want the GPS contorting my route in Lord knows how many ways trying to make sure I go back and ride over that spot.  Garmin still has work to do, IMHO, to get us to the point where we can easily and simply ride the roads we’ve selected on a route.  But shaping points go a long way towards getting us there.

Physically, the cradle mount of the 590 is simpler and more robust than its predecessor on the 550.  The GPS unit pops in and out without any of the futzing that the old mount sometimes required.  And once seated it seems very secure.  I like it.

So, with all these cool, new things, what’s not to like?

Well, it’s hard to not be hit square between the eyes by that cost thing.  The 590LM unit itself costs a ton.  Far more than automobile-oriented Nuvi units with comparable features.  Far more, arguably, than it should.

The simple, vinyl zipper case, which Garmin included in the package with the original Zumo 550, is now a $25 extra.

The traffic and weather subscriptions are extra.

The TPMS sensors are extra.

If you have multiple bikes with which you wish to use the unit, you have to buy additional mounts/harnesses and additional mounting hardware.

The plastic weather cap that serves as a protector for the exposed pins in the cradle is a separate piece.  You’d think after spending $67.95 for a second mount/harness, the weather cap would be included.  Nope.  If you want another one, you have to buy it separately.  Another five bucks, for a part that probably costs ten cents to make.

Looked at as a whole, the Garmin 590LM ecosystem is very expensive.  Not expensive in the sense that you’re paying a premium, because it’s a top-of-the-line product by the market leader.  But expensive in the sense that Garmin is taking advantage of customers during what is probably a closing window of opportunity.

True, the market bears what it will.  And the fact that many of us have jumped suggests that Garmin has thought this through.

I think, perhaps, though, that Garmin will rue the day it made customers feel like they paid what they had to, in order to get the equipment they felt they needed, but made them feel naked in the process.

The smartphone cometh.

Other nits?

That awesomely humongous wiring harness.

The lack of a security screw.  It now takes all of two seconds – literally – to pop the 590 from its cradle.  I’m using a lockable Touratech mount on the BMW.  On the Harley?  Well, let’s just say that every five-minute stop at a gas station or convenience store will now be charged with the question of whether to pop the GPS from its cradle and take the unit inside with me, or leave it exposed to the wandering public.

The only this-might-be-more-than-a-nit I’ve discovered is the 590’s handling of Favorites.  It seems to store all the waypoints you choose to save (up to 1,000, I believe), but it only displays the closest fifty.  You can get around this limit, inelegantly, by selecting a distant city as your Searching Near… locale, but a thoughtful fellow might ponder why such clumsy machinations should be necessary.  The only thing that makes sense is the engineers were trying to limit the hit to active memory (I’m talking about actual device memory, not flash storage).  Yet even that ancient Zumo 550 of mine managed to lift its way past fifty.  You just kind of shake your head.

The last thing I’ll mention, hinted at above, is that usability science and software engineering do not appear to be Garmin’s strengths.  Their mapping software – Map Source, Road Trip, and, now, Basecamp – have always seemed rather arcane and non-intuitive.  But then that’s often true of powerful software – Adobe’s Photoshop comes to mind.

What’s more concerning is that Garmin seems to struggle at having a clarity of what users truly want and need – and then getting that implemented.  The 590 has now been out for about a year, for instance.  It’s already gone through a couple of firmware updates.  Yet in the latest release (firmware version 3.10) the TPMS system will instantly begin nattering at you when you take the GPS off of your motorcycle, on which you have installed sensors, and place it in the automobile cradle in your 4-wheel vehicle, on which you have not.  The GPS software knows you’re in your car – the vehicle icon changes to reflect that – but is not intelligent enough to deduce that the TPMS system, paired with two sensors, is for a motorcycle.

In the meantime, while ignoring that fairly obvious flaw, they took it upon themselves to have their software team implement a whole new feature called ‘Dynamic Fuel Stops.’  As if every motorcycle most of us have ridden in the last thirty years – and every car any of us have ever been in – didn’t already have a perfectly functioning fuel gauge.

Garmin is clearly not a software company.

That all said, I don’t want to leave on a sour note.  On balance, I am utterly delighted with my new GPS.   The Zumo 590LM performs amazing feats of navigation.  It is a wizard at getting you where you want to go; and, sometimes, where you didn’t know you wanted to go.  It integrates seamlessly with a leathered old motorcyclist’s wandering lifestyle.  And it works equally as well in a pickup truck, with a camera on the seat beside you, and a fly rod or rifle in the back.

I love it.

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