[Loadstone] A Voice to Guide You on the Road
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
By DAVID POGUE
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
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 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).
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.
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 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
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
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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