Review: The latest in navigation technology helps new GPS units make your trip more efficient and more interesting.
GPS devices seem to be on everyone's holiday wish lists this year. And it's no wonder, as eWEEK Labs' tests show that today's global positioning system can do a lot more than just navigate.
For this review, I looked at four automotive navigation GPS receivers, from the big names in this market: Garmin's Nuvi 760, Lowrance's, XOG, Tomtom's Go 920 and Magellan's Maestro 4250.
First, some general things you should know about these products.
GPSes depend on U.S. Air Force-owned global positioning satellites. There are times when the Air Force can invoke what it calls "selective availability." In that circumstance, only military navigation units can get accurate information. Everyone else gets degraded positioning.
All of these devices depend on databases from Navteq to provide the directions from wherever you are to wherever you want to be. These databases include addresses and points of interest. The points of interest can include anything from government buildings to grocery stores. How the Navteq database information is translated into directions depends on the software provided for the GPS units by their respective makers.
All of the GPS receivers I tested operate with a touch screen that allowed me to enter location information, but they differ in how that information was entered. For example, some would let me type in "Safeway" to get to the local grocery store, while others required that I type in the address.
There are also differences in how each device provides spoken directions for each turn, route change or other direction details. Some feature text-to-speech, which allows the unit to say the name of streets and other features you're approaching. Others depend on pre-recorded voices and are restricted to more generic information such as route numbers.
Each of the devices I tested is also annoying in its own way. They will all get you to where you want to go, but there will be times when you'll wonder why you bothered using a GPS in the first place.
Garmin Nuvi 760
The Nuvi760 is designed to be more than just another GPS. Accord-ing to Garmin, the new Nuvi is a "personal travel assistant." In addition to providing turn-by-turn navigation, it provides information on points of interest, currency conversions, a measurement unit converter and a world clock.
The Nuvi760 will play MP3s contained on an SD memory card and display photos. Garmin offers additional databases that include travel guides for areas around the world and a guide to finding the lowest gas prices. The music, as well as the navigation instructions, can play through the Nuvi's internal speaker or, via the Nuvi's built-in FM transmitter, through your car radio.
The device also includes an integrated traffic receiver. This allows the GPS to show traffic incidents in a region and route users around them. During my tests in the Washington, D.C., area, I was able to watch accidents clog the Capital Beltway in anticipation of a threatened snowstorm.
In general, the Nuvi acquires satellites very quickly, although I was able to frustrate its efforts by asking for a destination before it knew where it was.
With the 760, Garmin has added the ability to load multiple destinations into the Nuvi. This means you can enter, for example, the grocery store, the gas station and your office, and the GPS will route you from one to the next. You can specify which location is the final destination and which will be stops along the way.
The Nuvi guides users to their destinations with a very mechanical-sounding text-to-speech voice. However, the voice did at least pronounce words correctly. There are other voices you can choose. But not all support text to speech.
As is the case with a number of high-end GPS units, the Nuvi will work with Bluetooth phones. You can use it to make and receive calls, and the device will dial phone numbers in the points-of-interest database.
This was probably the top GPS in this test, but only by a slim margin. At about $800 MSRP, it's also relatively expensive. But, unlike the GPS that you might find built into your car, you can take it with you.
With the XOG, Lowrance set out to provide an automotive GPS that could be used for something more than just driving around.
The XOG is smaller and lighter than the other GPS receivers I re-viewed, and it has features the others don't have. Chief among these is the ability to incorporate field and nautical databases that provide off-road maps, on-water charts and satellite imagery, in addition to the usual street and highway information that most GPS units have. The XOG even allows users to display satellite imagery with maps superimposed.
Four GPSes Get You Where You Want to Go-And More
The XOG fits in a pocket easily, and the water-resistant unit is rugged enough to be used outdoors while hiking or boating. You can turn off the turn-by-turn navigation if you wish so that the XOG can be used in cross-country mode.
The cartography databases and satellite imagery are available for download from Lowrance.
Like the other GPS units in this review, the XOG will play music and display photos. However, the XOG does not have an FM transmitter. It does, however, have an audio output jack, so you can plug the XOG into your car's auxiliary audio jack and listen that way.
While the XOG is smaller and has fewer features when compared with the other GPS receivers in this review, it also costs less (about $300). The XOG also is very easy to use, with a tabbed interface that's quite clear. Typing in an address is intuitive, although I did find the points-of-interest database difficult to search-there had to be an exact match with whatever was in the database or the unit couldn't find what I was looking for.
The XOG also offers a unique Route Via function. With this feature, users enter as many as 10 destinations and the device will automatically determine the most efficient means of going to all of them. Yes, that's right-that traveling salesperson math problem that used to drive you nuts in high school is now solved by a GPS.
The XOG provides directions in a clear, easy-to-understand voice. However, this unit does not support text to speech, so you'll be told to turn at specific route numbers but you must look at the screen to see the name of the street where the turn takes place. (Speaking of turns, Lowrance units are set up to prefer right turns when calculating a route. This is a routing strategy pioneered by UPS, which claims that it's the most efficient means of getting around.)
Magellan Maestro 4250
If you're planning to take a road trip, the Magellan Maestro 4250 is probably the GPS for you. It includes travel information from the AAA TourBook in its points-of-information database, and you can call up details on that hotel ahead or that restaurant at the crossroads quickly and easily.
On the other hand, if there's one GPS I tested that requires second guessing, this is the one. On a trip of about 100 miles during the test, the Maestro 4250 routed me 18 miles down an interstate in the opposite direction, only to have me make a U-turn back to the original route.
Other than that half-hour excursion, the Maestro worked very nicely. It reported traffic tie-ups and found alternate routes, and it was able to search its points-of-interest database with only approximate information.
The unit is about the same size as the Garmin and the Tomtom GPS units - in other words, about the same size as a Palm T-series PDA. It would fit into your pocket, although not as easily as the Lowrance XOG.
The Maestro includes the ability to accept commands by voice recognition. While this feature did work in my tests, I had to disable it because the unit became confused when I was issuing voice commands to the vehicle in which it was mounted.
Assuming you don't have this problem, the Maestro 4250 will dial your phone using Bluetooth. You can also have the unit call for help or for roadside assistance from AAA.
Like the Garmin, the Maestro keeps track of the time for local sunset and sunrise, and it switches its screen from a daytime mode when it's light outside to a night mode after sunset.
The Maestro 4250 does have an SD card slot, but it's for backing up your address book. The device does not play music or display photos. It also doesn't have an audio output jack (it doesn't need one) or an FM radio transmitter (ditto). If you connect with your phone using Bluetooth, it uses the Maestro's internal speaker to play sound.
Four GPSes Get You Where You Want to Go-And More
The text-to-speech feature is more natural sounding than the one on the Garmin GPS. However, it sometimes pronounced the word "Virginia" as if it ended with an "r."
That one bizarre routing experience aside, the device found routes that were slightly more efficient than the other GPSes' had suggested. Unlike the Lowrance device, which prefers right turns, the Maestro seems to be able to predict which turns will work out the best.
The Maestro costs $500; AAA members will receive twice the warranty that other users get.
Tomtom Go 920T
Tomtom's $700 Go 920 has a lot going for it, but it has a couple of drawbacks that should give potential buyers pause.
It has the best text to speech, a user-friendly address entry that's voice prompted, and maps of North America and Europe already installed. In addition, the traffic alert system looks far ahead on your route of travel and can let you know about problems ahead of time, while also proposing alternate routes far enough in advance to be really useful.
But the system won't tell you what side of the street an address is on. The other GPS units I tested will tell you something like, "Destination is 400 feet ahead on the right." The 920T will tell you how far it is to your destination, but not whether it's on the left or right. This may seem like a minor complaint, and it is if you travel exclusively in areas with well-marked addresses. But travel in an unfamiliar urban area without street addresses visible, and it's another story entirely.
Likewise, if you travel in a rural area where all the address numbers are on one side of the street along with the mailboxes, you're basically out of luck. This one shortcoming alone, when the Tomtom is used in the Washington, D.C., area, can lead to all sorts of unexpected events, especially since address markings seem to be invisible nearly everywhere.
If you can look beyond this, the Tomtom is a well-designed GPS that's easy to use, flexible and fully featured. It will accept voice commands or can be controlled with a remote. With the remote control, you don't have to lean forward to press buttons while held in place with your seatbelt.
The Tomtom device also has unique Map Share technology. Find a mistake on the map (and there are many in these databases), and you can upload the correct information and share it. I could, for example, send out the correct location of my home and all Tomtom users would have it. (Everyone else would have the same wrong location that Navteq publishes.)
The Go 920T lets users view photos, as well as listen to music and instructions through a car radio. Users can even summon the device's "help me" function, which requires a Bluetooth connection to your phone. Users also can exchange position with other Tomtom users using SMS.
The 920T comes with a docking station that can be used to charge the GPS as well as to access traffic and weather information. Unlike the other GPS units I tested, the 920T seemed to be able to receive satellite signals from inside of eWEEK Labs' Washington offices.
Where the 920T really showed its value was its ability to spot a newly formed traffic tie-up on infamous Interstate 95. It alerted me miles in advance with a detour icon, and mapped the shortest way around the traffic event. I was able to confirm later that an accident had stopped traffic on the highway only a few minutes before the 920T issued the alert.
On the down side, the mounting point where you attach the GPS to the windshield is very difficult to use without actually looking at the back of the unit, and that's hard to do. And the tested unit had a problem pronouncing the name of the town where I live: It said "Clift" when it's actually "Clifton."
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Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.