The Maps and Character Set Problem of Garmin Watches

Garmin watches sound like one of the best choices for the traveling runner who goes different places in the world.

Many smartwatch features, navigation with actual maps – it sounds great. Most of the time, they are great watches.

Too bad that Garmin has some issues regarding international use, especially in a case like mine, as someone who works between Europe and China, from limited mapping to lacking support for languages.

Understandable Restrictions

Parts of the issue are understandable:

No company wants customers to go around their local sales outlets and buy wherever in the world their products come cheapest.

Nor would or could they put detailed maps for all the world on all their watches when most of them will only be used around the places where they were bought – and when more money could be made through add-ons.

Different regulations in different countries also need to be taken into account.

Thus, watch models are equipped somewhat differently for different markets.

Still, there are silly issues. Case in point with me: I travel between Europe (Austria) and China, and run in both places.

The Problem with Maps

The understandable problem with maps is that e.g. my Forerunner 945, bought in Europe, would have topographical maps for Europe and only a basic world map.

To travel and go outdoors with a Garmin with topo maps in the USA, I’d have to purchase, download, and install those maps.

That’s fine.

The China Problem(s)

China offers particular challenges, as the government still likes to consider GPS as something of a spy tool.

Chinese smartphone apps for routing work perfectly (at least on roads, not so much on trails); one can forget about Google Maps because those are blocked (and the map view still has the offset demanded by the Chinese government).

No topographical maps of China are available for download for Garmin watches, and even just using the Garmin Explore app requires switching to a sort of China mode – which uses a map that is not good at all.

Not Garmin’s fault that there’s only the basic world map to use, then, but it is annoying.

The basic world map shows Chongqing somewhat okay… because it’s very focused on roads
For an area like that of Emeishan, where I went hiking, it is utterly useless, however

The contrast that is still making this all bad: WearOS is blocked from many of its functions, but Mapbox / OpenStreetMap maps work and are tremendously good – which is how I came to really like WearOS for the outdoors, especially in places like China.

Of course, Garmin has no Mapbox maps integration – it wouldn’t make money from that.

The Language Problem

What is tremendously aggravating: Garmin watches only support the languages of the regions where the watches were bought, except (maybe) for necessary exceptions. And by support, I mean the most basic of support.

Thus, I can set my Europe-bought Garmin Forerunner 945 to operate in and correctly display various languages that Garmin considers right for this particular market.

Whenever I get notifications in Chinese, however – and that is often enough, since I communicate in Chinese quite a bit (not only) when I am in China, and of course use several Chinese-language apps that are essential for living there when I am there – they cannot even be displayed correctly.

All one sees are the boxes that indicate that the proper character set for displaying that language is not installed.

Considering how international and (thus) multilingual modern communication can be for people who are not just at home in one place, this is quite unbelievable.

This Is Support?

And judging by my chat session with Garmin support to ask why notifications in Chinese are garbled (well, I know why, because the necessary language files are missing), Garmin doesn’t seem to care that this global brand is very provincial when it comes to that.

Session started between Julian and Gerald

Gerald: The FR945 I have for testing/reviewing is from Europe (as I am), but I communicate a bit in Chinese and am in China again for work. How can I get Chinese language files on the device so notifications are shown correctly?

Julian: Hello, you can not get Chinese characters on the European or North American watches. It has to be an Asian model to get Chinese charterers.

Gerald: Ooookay. That’s stupid. Garmin does realize that people may speak more than one language, even one’s from outside their region of residence?

Julian: It is due to the region laws that Garmin must comply when creating software and watches for each region.

Gerald: Seem to be laws that only Garmin suffers. Haven’t seen that on most other watches, iirc

Julian: The software versions on the watch differ for the Asian models vs North and European models.

Julian: I hope that I was able to help you today. Please re-contact us if you require further assistance.

Julian has exited the session

Well, that was rude. And I am 100% sure that “region laws that Garmin must comply” have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Wanna bet that Garmin watches sold in Asia *do* display English characters?

6 responses

  1. stefan Avatar

    you can install OS maps for FREE!!

    has been that way for YEARS!

    1. Ah, good reminder. I had heard of that before… okay, and taking a closer look at it, I found it so user-unfriendly, I just couldn’t get it to work for me in any way that makes sense. Maybe I’m just being stupid about it, but that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

  2. Graxxor Vidhelssen Avatar
    Graxxor Vidhelssen

    Garmin is a legacy gradually being left behind… The price for “Japanese” Garmins is truly outrageous with the 66sx(J) costing nearly $1000 with tax and postage.
    It’s protectionist bullshit and I hope their lack of competitiveness bites them where it hurts: Their sales.

    1. For someone being left behind, they still seem to be doing great in their sales… and I do wonder if it’s just because they are *the* big player when it comes to sports watches (and a few other things). I would be very curious to try out everything that’s leaking before CES 2022, but everything I hear about e.g. the fenix7 sounds like it’s just the same as before…

  3.  Avatar

    I am a victim of this chinese character issue too, I never think of displaying chinese character will be an issue in this modern world, I want return the watch and have a refund, is there anything i can do?

    1. That probably depends on where you bought the watch. Garmin itself will say that’s just how it has to be because that’s how it is.

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