[Loadstone] A Voice to Guide You on the Road

Geetha Shamanna geetha at millernorbert.de
Fri Dec 14 02:09:36 GMT 2007

This New York Times review provides a nice overview of devices on offer in 
the mainstream GPS market.


                        A Voice to Guide You on the Road


    G.P.S. didn't always stand for Global Positioning System, you know.

    In the beginning, it stood for the Grunting and Pointing System, used
    by cave men to indicate the nearest watering hole. By the
    horse-and-buggy era, G.P.S. had evolved into a different navigation
    technology: Guidance by Pony Sense.

    In the automobile age, G.P.S. came to mean Grumbling by Peeved Spouse.
    ("Why won't you just stop and ask?")

    Today, G.P.S. is a beautiful thing. A receiver in your car can learn
    its own location from 24 government-owned satellites overhead -- your
    tax dollars at work.

    You're guided to a destination with colorful moving maps on a touch
    screen and an authoritative voice ("In 200 feet, turn right").

    I went looking for G.P.S. models that fulfill three requirements.
    First, each must be tiny (about the size of an index card),
    self-contained and battery-operated, so you can take it hiking or
    biking when it's not plugged into your car's cigarette lighter.

    Second, each must display live traffic and accident data -- and offer
    to reroute you as necessary. (The traffic data is available mainly in
    big cities and on highways, and costs extra -- usually $50 to $80 a

    And finally, each must pronounce actual street names -- not just "Turn
    right," but "Turn right on South Maple Street." That feature makes an
    enormous difference when you're flying blind in a new town.

    As it turns out, only the top models meet those criteria.

    Each also plays music and photos; makes wireless connections to
    Bluetooth cellphones for hands-free calls; and offers a built-in
    database of United States and Canadian roads stored in memory. (Units
    that keep the data on hard drives are slower, more fragile and more

    Each receiver also knows about millions of points of interest:
    restaurants, cash machines, gas stations, parks, hospitals and so on.
    Most let you call one of these places (through a Bluetooth phone) with
    one tap.

    Now, even these top-of-the-line units are imperfect; in a world where
    roads are constantly changing, a G.P.S. receiver is only as good as
    its most recent database update. But in general, these are absolutely
    incredible machines. (For a complete table of features, visit

    Cobra Nav One 4500 ($520). This is probably the chattiest G.P.S. unit
    ever made. "Now enter the street name," it says. "You don't need to
    add suffixes like `east' or `avenue,'" it advises. And so on.

    But to her credit, the first thing Ms. Chatty tells you is how to turn
    her off. And the truth is, these voice prompts make the Cobra
    infinitely easier to use than its rivals. It's like having a company
    rep in the passenger seat, explaining what each button does.

    That, alas, is the Cobra's chief virtue. The navigation screen is
    pretty cluttered, and the animated "please wait" logo makes too many
    appearances, suggesting that the Nav One's processor isn't quite up to
    the task.

    The Cobra's feature list is shorter than its rivals', too; for
    example, the Cobra and Magellan are the only units here that can't
    play music and voice prompts through a clear, unused FM frequency on
    your radio (a feature that works great outside metropolitan areas).

    [6]Harman Kardon Guide + Play GPS 810 ($600). This intriguing unit
    comes with a toadstool-shaped control knob that attaches to a
    dashboard, console or steering wheel, and lets you control the G.P.S.
    unit wirelessly.

    In other words, you don't have to lean or reach to operate the touch
    screen. Since you can interact with portable models even while you're
    driving (unlike built-in car systems), you could argue that the
    wireless knob makes the Guide + Play just a little bit safer.

    The G+P loses safety points, though, with its other unusual feature:
    it can play videos loaded from your computer. But you'll watch them
    only when you're parked, waiting to pick someone up -- never while
    you're driving. Right?

    The software is clean and responsive. The navigation is generally
    smart; like its rivals, the G+P offers either an overhead map view
    (2-D) or an extremely helpful 3-D view. It's like seeing the landscape
    from the cockpit of a helicopter.

    Magellan Maestro 4250 ($450). Like any gadget in a car, G.P.S.
    receivers are a distraction, and therefore a safety risk. So it's
    amazing that speech recognition didn't arrive in these units sooner.

    On the Magellan, it's not much; you can say things like "Magellan, go
    home," "Magellan, nearest A.T.M." or "Magellan, nearest Italian
    restaurant." You have to speak loudly, and you have to speak close to
    the unit. But it's a start.

    The Maestro's price is the lowest of the bunch -- not a bad feature.
    Neither is its built-in AAA database of restaurant, lodging and travel

    The screen display is excellent and the navigation is good, especially
    the magnified split-screen view that appears at each turn. You can
    choose which kinds of unfortunate traffic events you want brought to
    your attention: road work, slow traffic, stopped traffic, accidents
    and so on.

    On the downside, the Magellan can be slow to compute routes, or
    recompute them when a wrong turn is made. And the maps aren't as
    refined-looking as the TomTom's or [7]Garmin's.

    Garmin Nuvi 680 ($620). Garmin's top domestic model is smooth, fast
    and good-looking, showing the kind of polish you can achieve when
    you've been playing the G.P.S. game for years.

    The screen is incredibly bright, with beautiful 2-D or 3-D maps. You
    have a choice of voices, including two with cute Australian accents.

    The Nuvi can receive MSN Direct, the wireless data broadcast that
    [8]Microsoft originally created for its wireless wristwatches. Once
    you've signed up ($50 a year, or $130 lifetime), traffic flow is
    indicated with color coding on the maps. Better yet, you also get
    weather, local movie showtimes and even local gas prices. It's pretty
    great to have all that right on your dashboard.

    Nitpickers will note that on this unit you can't exclude a particular
    road from your route, and the speaker is too weak when the road noise
    is loud.

    TomTom GO 920T ($500). This top-of-the-line TomTom looks stunning,
    even before you turn it on. Its 3-D display is the most elegant
    available, with the smoothest animation and smartest layout.

    A light sensor dims the screen at night; a speed sensor tracks your
    place even in tunnels; and an audio sensor cranks the voice volume
    when the road gets loud.

    Then there's the speech recognition: Rather than fussing with a touch
    keyboard to input destinations, you can just speak them when prompted.
    ("Chicago. Riverside Lane. Two hundred.") You're on your way in

    The Help Me screen is also ingenious. Its icons include "Where Am I?,"
    "Walk to Help" (which guides you as you take the TomTom out of the
    car) and "Drive to Help" ("Nearest car repair," "Nearest hospital" and
    -- my favorite -- "Nearest dentist").

    The 920T can get its traffic data either through a windshield wire
    antenna or via a Bluetooth cellphone with an Internet data plan. (If
    you use the antenna, you pay $60 a year for the data service; if you
    use the phone, the service is free for now, although TomTom says that
    it eventually plans to charge $25 a year.) And TomTom's brilliant,
    fledgling map-sharing program lets you update your receiver's maps
    with errors and updates reported by other customers.

    The windshield suction cup isn't as good as Garmin's, and the voice
    lady consistently pronounces bridge as "branch." But over all, this
    receiver represents the high-tech state of the art.

    The whizzy TomTom, the superbright Garmin and the more-limited Harman
    Kardon are all light-years more advanced than anything you can get
    preinstalled in your car. (Besides, buying one of these portables
    means you can move it between cars.) They completely transform the
    business of driving.

    They're expensive, but they earn their keep by saving you the G.P.S.
    of getting lost: Guessing, Panicking and Swearing.

pogue at nytimes.com.

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