March 29, 2006

GPS Devices

The idea behind consumer GPS systems is simple – they aim to guide you from anywhere to anywhere else. Think of them as new-age Melways – but with the interactivity and accuracy of the 21st century.

Over the summer break I tested several consumer GPS devices in getting from my house in Port Melbourne to Mt Buffalo. I simply inputed my destination and the GPS device showed me a detailed map of the route, including all the routing information like KM to destination and the specific route I should take. Once you are on your way all of the devices I tested started directly you verbally. They’d say ‘turn left in 100 metres, the take the third exit off the round-about’ with navigation like this you can really focus on driving rather then worrying about your direction. If you do make a mistake, all of the devices will re-route you on the fly, that means they’ll all recalculate your journey and either tell you to do a U-turn or take you in a different direction altogether.

A word of warning; while in Melbourne I tested the devices on getting to destinations I already knew how to get to – some of them improved on my route, but too often their suggested route was longer and more time consuming. Specifically in Melbourne it would be nice to program all the devices to say ‘take me on roads without Tram lines’. However, all devices do let you avoid certain roads – you just need to be conscientious enough to program your preferences in.

All the devices I tested were portable devices, and all come pre-bundled with mapping software. It is possible to by third-party software to turn your PDA in to a GPS device. Additionally, all devices I tested came with in-car mounting systems and cigarette power adaptors.

In Car Systems:
Tom Tom GO 500 ($1199) – This unit was by far the easiest to use. The touch-screen interface was simple and clutter free. Inputting destinations and saving favourites was as simple as following the on-screen display. The voice instructions were loud and clear, and the mounting kit for the Go 500 is first class. The Go 500 also integrates Bluetooth meaning, if you have a Bluetooth phone the Go 500 can be your hands free unit. The Bluetooth software also allows you to dial and receive calls via the Go 500’s interface.

Navman iCN 520 ($999) – This is Navman’s mid-range GPS unit and I liked it. Similar to the Tom Tom, the iCN 520 uses a touch-screen interface but also has handy buttons to the right of the screen for easy access to features. I found Navman’s interface good, but not as intuitive as Tom Tom’s. The iCN 520 is also a more portable solution then the Tom Tom’s and could easily be used while walking as the device can fit in your pocket

Navman’s iCN 320 ($549). This device is smaller and cheaper then the 520 and this is evident when you first switch on the iCN 320. The first omission in this cheaper version is a touch-screen (in my opinion a critical component of any portable GPS system) – making it more difficult to access and use the device while driving. Where the iCN 520 and the Go 500 let you change options with a quick glance, the 320 has fiddly controls that force you to pull off the road when trying to change any settings.

Asus MyPal A636 ($999) using Co-Pilot Live software. The A636 is a Windows Mobile 2003 device and is the most feature rich of all the devices tested. It has Bluetooth, WiFi and GPS plus doubles as a PDA. Generally I’m not a fan of Windows Mobile devices (I find the interface clunky compared to Palm OS and Symbian) but the A636 and Co-Pilot Live software was very impressive and worked well together. Co-Pilot live is intuitive and easy to use and the software can be operated from the touch screen without the need to pull out the stylus – a big plus. GPS reception was good and routing accurate. One particular feature of Co-Pilot was its ability to notify you of fixed speed cameras – very useful while driving on the Hume Highway where there must be at least 4 in each direction.

Navman PIN 570 ($899) also runs on Windows Mobile 2003 but was the least intuitive device to use – infinitely more difficult to use then the A636. I was constantly struggling to enter address details – and this device really does require the use of a stylus – something that is impossible while driving. However, once I got the address inputted navigation was satisfactory however in strong sunlight the display becomes difficult to read. Additionally, the PIN 570 doubles as a PDA (like the A636) however it doesn’t have any of the additional networking features like Bluetooth or WiFi.