Vexed by the voice of his Garmin

The Baltimore Sun

I got into it with my Garmin the other day.

This was on a drive downtown when I decided to ignore its instructions and take a different route.

"Recalculating ... ," the voice-prompt said.

"You're always recalculating," I snarled. "All you ever do is recalculate."

"Turn right onto Charles Street ...," the voice said.

"Why does everything with you have to be so rigid and programmed?" I snapped. "Why can't we just take any old road and see where it goes?"

Until a few weeks ago, I was perfectly happy to get around using road maps, Mapquest and the uncanny sense of direction I've possessed since an early age.

Then the oldest son gave me a Garmin for Christmas.

"Affordable navigation at your fingertips," he said.

"You sound like a commercial," I said.

"The latest in GPS technology," he said.

"Now you sound like William Shatner."

"This will change your driving life," he said.

And it did. It gave me someone to fight with in the car when my wife wasn't around.

The Garmin works just fine. It's actually saved me with directions a few times. But, for weeks, I tried to figure out what it is about the thing that was so annoying.

Then it hit me: It's the voice.

The voice sounds eerily like the voice you get when you dial 411 for information.

Sure, that voice sounds pleasant enough at first - at least when it's asking you: "City and state, please?"

But all you have to do is stumble over one word and the voice turns on you.

"Sorry, what listing?" the voice says.

And now there's a decided edge to it.

Now the first traces of irritation have crept into the voice.

Now the voice seems to be saying: "Look, I'm trying to help you here. But if you can't even pronounce the city correctly ..."

That's the kind of voice I hear from my Garmin.

So I called Garmin to see if there was anything I could do about this pain-in-the-neck voice.

I reached its media-relations manager, Ted Gartner, who was at a trade show in Orlando, Fla.

Gartner said Garmin gets a few complaints about the voice on their GPS products, but most people seem to like it.

"We get people who like it so much that they name their voice," he said.

They name their voice?

"Yeah," he said. "I had a guy come up to me right here, and he said: 'Ethel got me here today. I couldn't have done it without Ethel.' "

He called his voice Ethel?

Well, my voice sounds more like a Sybil. You know, like in that famous movie? The woman with the 16 different personalities or whatever?

My voice sounds like she's getting more and more stressed out.

And she's ready to snap at any moment.

Gartner said Garmin has actually come out with a couple of customized voices for its GPS units that customers seem to like.

"One's a voice called Dr. Nightmare that makes this scary 'mwah-ha-ha' voice," he said. "The other's Elfred the Elf. And I won't even attempt that one. It's sort of high-pitched."

Dr. Nightmare?

Elfred the Elf?

Look, I just want a GPS voice that doesn't sound irritated when the driver takes a different route than the recommended one.

At this point, Gartner told me the most amazing thing. After I told him what kind of Garmin I had, he said: "You know, you can change the voice on that one."

Sure, I know that, I said. But I don't want a British voice or an Australian voice or any of those other la-dee-da voices.

"No," Gartner said, "there's an American man's voice on there, too."

There is?

OK, I said before hanging up. I'll try the man's voice. It can't be any more annoying.

Sure enough, I went back into the GPS unit and found the other American voice. And both voices have names! Turns out that Garmin calls the woman's voice Samantha. And the man's voice is Jack.

So I gave Jack's voice a shot on the way home from work recently.

"Turn left on Centre Street," the voice said.

"No, Jack," I said. "Going a different way, buddy."

"Recalculating ...," the voice said.

Hmmm, what was I hearing in that tone?

A hint of condescension? The first traces of exasperation? An ineffable sadness setting in?

Anyway, I'm still using Jack's voice on the Garmin two days later.

Oh, I'm not crazy about it. But I guess it sounds better than Samantha's.

Samantha, she really sounds like she needs a vacation.

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