It was a rain-spattered night in the City of Angels and I was behind the wheel, lost and alone in the kind of neighborhood where, if your tire blows out, you just keep riding on the rims. Each maybe-this-will-help turn just took me deeper into the heart of darkness, and the fuel tank was getting parched. Finally, somewhere between La Brea and the pits of hell, I remembered. I rummaged in the glove compartment and pinned my hopes on guidance from above. "Turn left in 100 yards," said an angelic female voice. I did as I was told. "Continue for one point five miles, then merge right onto Highway 101." I yielded to her firm but friendly entreaties until, at last, I maneuvered the rented Taurus into a parking spot at the Comfort Inn on North Highland. I gave my digital companion a grateful pat, unplugged her and took her back to my room, where I enjoyed a hard-earned minibar nightcap while she sucked AC from the outlet by the sink.
Yes, my friends, it's a scary world out there, but a satellite navigation system does help take the edge off when the going gets tough. The technology involved is fairly amazing stuff. Starting in 1978, the Department of Defense began launching a series of solar-powered satellites, each equipped with an atomic clock and a radio transmitter, into orbit. By 1994 the full complement was complete, 27 satellites covering the entire earth's surface, beaming information to GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers back on earth.
The satellites basically say "here's my name" and "here's the precise time where I'm flying." The GPS receiver on the ground includes its own accurate clock. By comparing the time the satellite sent its signal with the time that signal reaches the GPS receiver, the latter can figure out the exact distance between them (a pretty sharp bit of calculation, when you consider that radio signal travels at the speed of light).
So far so good, but that still doesn't tell me that I'm standing at the corner of Bowery and Delancey. For that you need to receive signals from three different satellites with three defined distances (the GPS receiver can pinpoint your position using triangulation). And with four signals, it can calculate your altitude, too. Those satellites are very far away (circling 12,000 miles overhead). They send out weak signals (just 20-50 watts, compared with 100,000 watts from your local FM radio station), yet a basic consumer-grade GPS can figure out your latitude and longitude anywhere on the globe within about 20 to 40 feet, and the professional models used by surveyors and such hone this accuracy down to about one centimeter. Of course, you have to be outdoors with a clear overhead view for this magic to occur—the low-power GPS radio signals can't penetrate into buildings.
Knowing where you are is a big deal. In fact, for those rugged souls who tromp into the wilderness with nothing but paper maps, protein bars and really expensive hiking boots, that's all they ask from a GPS unit, and there are plenty of inexpensive handheld devices to suit their needs. I, on the other hand, want to know not only where I am, but how the heck I can get where I'm going, which requires far more from my technological sidekick. For starters, built-in maps and a screen to read them on. Second, the artificial smarts to look at those maps and plot a turn-by-turn course from here to there. A synthetic voice to read the directions aloud (preferably without the note of disdain that creeps into my wife's voice when I'm lost) is also important so I can keep my eyes on the road. While it's not an absolute requirement, something called text-to-speech technology really helps. Instead of simply "Turn left in 50 yards, the navigation system can say "Turn left on Pine Drive in 50 yards"—a very useful clarification when entering a complex intersection at high speed.
Live traffic updates are the most intriguing recent addition to the navigational mix. Real-time traffic info is the killer app that will convince drivers who generally follow the same route every day to invest in a navigation system. Sure, you know the way, but real-time traffic info can tip you off about an accident on the highway you ordinarily use and, what's more, suggest an alternate route… in a perfect world.
Stuck here in 2006, real-time traffic is very much a work in progress. Its usefulness is limited by the spotty and slow system that reports congestion to a central command and then relays it to the public. I test-drove it in the New York area and sometimes found myself already stuck in traffic jams my handy dandy receiver had yet to tell me to avoid. Some systems use information delivered via XM satellite radio. Others rely on FM radio transmissions via the Clear Channel network. Each requires a monthly subscription charge (from $4 to $10 depending on the package) and covers only limited regions at this stage. The monitoring system is bound to improve, which will make it desirable, but the service has limited value at present.
I concentrated on portable navigation systems for this roundup, as opposed to systems built into the car dashboard (either purchased with your car or installed afterward). There's an undeniable appeal to a sleek built-in system that doesn't take up extra room, draws power from the car itself and automatically mutes the radio when it has something to say. On the other hand, I put a premium on the ability to move a nav system from car to car, accompanying my daughter if she's driving off to a far-flung friend's house or flying off in my briefcase when I'm headed for a rental car in a strange city.
Car navigation systems have improved dramatically since I first tried one several years ago. The receivers that pick up satellite signals are much more sensitive, making them better able to get a fix in an area with tall buildings or overhanging trees. These units used to require plug-in power at all times, from your car or an AC adapter (which was usually an extra-cost accessory)—if you wanted to figure out your itinerary the night before, you were out of luck. All of the systems reviewed below have internal batteries that last several hours, so you can dispense with the power cord altogether for most trips and preplan in peace. Portable units used to come with cumbersome clips that attached them precariously to ventilation system air ducts—today a suction-cup mount that sticks firmly to the car windshield is standard equipment. The information databases that help you find the nearest "Points of Interest" (POI)—ATM machines, hotels, gas stations, restaurants and the like—have been expanded dramatically. Some units I tested boasted listings for more than six million places, making navigating far from home much simpler.
Still, it's important to understand that, even when the nav system can pinpoint your location precisely, the information in the database will inevitably have some flaws. I found myself driving to bank branches that no longer exist or, more disconcerting, being told to make illegal turns. I also found while driving in familiar areas, the recommended route didn't always match the best route that a local might drive. Bottom line: you can't turn off your brain when you turn on the navigation system. That said, all of the systems have the ability to create a new route if you deviate from the originally plotted course, so even with a few extra turns, you will reach your destination without overwhelming aggravation. And that's well worth a few hundred dollars' investment.
I've divided the available options into two groups: less expensive solutions for drivers who only veer off into unfamiliar territory from time to time, and more elaborate (read, expensive) tools for frequent travelers.
For Weekend Wanderers
Assuming you already own a laptop computer, you can turn it into a pretty capable navigation system for about $100. Microsoft Streets & Trips 2006 with GPS Locator, as the tortuous name suggests, includes both street-level mapping software for the entire United States and Canada and a small GPS receiver unit (about 1.75 inches square) that connects to a laptop via USB cable. Several points favor using your laptop as a navigation device. The large screen means you can show both the map view and text directions at an easily readable size. The keyboard is also useful, at least during the trip planning stage when you're sitting comfortably in your hotel room. And your computer has plenty of processing oomph to quickly create new routing instructions. However driving safely using laptop navigation is an iffy proposition. With the laptop on the seat beside you, glancing at the screen requires taking your eyes off the road for quite a while (versus a smaller unit that can be mounted on the windshield in front of you). The Microsoft system does offer verbal instructions, but they don't include street names. I like the Streets & Trips software (available by itself for about $40) for trip planning purposes, but it's only practical as a software/GPS combo if you have a copilot willing to guide you along.
The navigation category getting the most buzz lately is cell-phone-based GPS systems. Shouldn't come as a surprise—the twenty-first-century development that no respectable citizen will set foot outdoors today without a cellular leash makes the handset a tempting target for every imaginable digital add-on function.
My first attempt at cell-based navigation paired a phone I really like, the Cingular 2125, with a software/GPS unit combination from ALK Technologies called CoPilot Live Smartphone ($299). The phone is a slender, lightweight model running Windows Mobile 5.0 software, meaning you can easily copy all the info you store in Microsoft Outlook (contacts, appointment calendar, to-do list, even incoming e-mail) to the handset, use the included Internet Explorer software for Web surfing, and fetch e-mail on the road. The phone even does a nice job playing back music files, video clips and photos. So why not teach it to give directions?
Setting up the system is simple enough. Install the CoPilot application on the phone and on the PC (for loading maps onto the phone and planning trips on the computer). Once in the car, the included GPS receiver sits on the dashboard and, while it does require a wire for cigarette-lighter power, it connects to the phone via Bluetooth, just like a wireless headset. After the GPS receiver quickly found my location, I specified a destination (a local university campus) from the points-of-interest database easily enough and pulled out of the driveway, a cellular headset in my ear and the phone in my top pocket.
It didn't take long to get into trouble. The system seemed about half a beat behind at all times—I'd get to an intersection and have to wait for turn instructions, as if the phone's built-in microprocessor was chugging to keep up. The service road/main road setup a block from my home proved baffling—the phone kept telling me I could get directly onto the main road, which would have required plowing through the town's fairly expensive landscaping. Much worse, after I'd maneuvered onto the main drag myself and allowed the software to recalculate the route, it told me to make an illegal left turn onto a major highway.
But the cell-phone solution wasn't a dead issue. We're now starting to see GPS receiver chips built right into the phone itself. I brought two of them in for review, and the situation quickly improved.
Verizon's VZ Navigator is a $9.99 monthly/$2.99 daily subscription service. Download the software directly to your phone and instantly gain access to turn-by-turn navigation with voice prompting and a huge POI database. Even with a small screen the maps are easy to read and the verbal instructions (including spoken street names) are loud and clear when you turn the speakerphone on. While you will have to be outdoors to actually navigate from place to place, you can search for locations and view maps indoors or out. You can't pre-store a trip itinerary, but you can save each stop on your route as a "favorite place" and quickly get directions from here to there. Search capabilities are first-rate. For example, you can ferret out local eateries by the type of cuisine, and any business listing you pull up comes complete with phone number (and the option to dial it with one click). Another clever touch is the option to create a route based on the fastest, shortest or simplest route, and even specify whether you're in a car, in a truck (where certain roads are restricted), on a bicycle or on foot. The menu system isn't perfect—I found myself wondering periodically how to get back to prior menu screens—and learning how the system worked took a little effort (an informative list of Frequently Asked Questions solved the problem after I searched the verizonewireless.com Web site). And if you are planning to use the system while driving, an optional car mounting kit (starting at about $20) is really a necessity. All in all, VZ Navigator gets high marks for accuracy and practicality. It's available on only two phone models (the Motorola 325, a standard flip-top model, and the LG 9800, a keyboard-equipped clamshell design with stereo speakers and Bluetooth headset compatibility), but more are in the works.
The competing TeleNav service will work with a wide variety of phones (see telenav.net for the list), including several Blackberry models and Nextel phones, for about $10 a month (depending on your carrier and your cellular data plan). The system has a few innovative twists, some of which make good sense (the ability to plan a trip on the TeleNav Web site and have the results downloaded automatically to your phone), some of which don't (you can call a toll-free number, recite an address and have its coordinates sent to your handset, but it's easier to just use the phone keypad). Searching for points of interest near your location is simple, and there's even the option to rank local gas stations by price, which is pure genius in today's economy. The on-screen maps are excellent, surprisingly clear and well labeled. That said, I preferred the VZ Navigator product overall. The menu system was easier to use, GPS accuracy was superior (starting navigation from a mall parking lot thoroughly flummoxed TeleNav), response time was less sluggish, and if there was a way to get the TeleNav system to repeat verbal instructions, I couldn't find it. Moreover, I couldn't find much without a lot of trial-and-error searching, since there was no user manual for TeleNav on the Nextel Motorola i870 phone I used. I wouldn't jump to Verizon just for superior navigation, though—both systems offer powerful solutions at an attractive price, and you can't beat the pocket-size convenience.
Nav for Nomads
Cell phone solutions aren't bad, but they can't compete with a dedicated navigation device for frequent travelers. A stand-alone system has internal maps and smarts, so it can calculate and recalculate routes quickly, even if you're out of cell-phone range. Screens are larger, hence more legible, and verbal prompts are louder and clearer than your cell's speakerphone. And your route planning can be more extensive, programming in multi-stop itineraries and calculating detailed trip information.
Cell-phones aren't the only handhelds that can be transformed into navigation systems—personal digital assistants can also be morphed effectively. The PDA offers a handsome LCD display, speedy microprocessor and decent memory capacity—add a GPS receiver and software and you're good to go. For this roundup, instead of assuming you own a PDA and want to enhance it, I went with a complete solution from well-known GPS maker Pharos. The Traveler GPS 525 ($550) is a full-fledged Windows Mobile PDA, meaning it's ready to handle personal info and documents imported from your PC, play music and video files, and even surf the Web using built-in wireless Wi-Fi networking. And stuffed inside the petite 4.4-ounce package is a full-fledged navigation system, with built-in GPS antenna. The 2.8-inch screen is crisp but fairly small (rotating to a horizontal view helped), and the speaker isn't very loud (a headset or output to your car stereo is highly recommended). On the other hand, all your contact information is automatically loaded onto the PDA when you synchronize it with your computer—getting directions to any of these folks is as simple as choosing one from a list. If you don't need a PDA, there are better navigation-only ways to spend your money. But if a handheld organizer makes sense in your busy life, the Traveler GPS 525's powerful PDA plus integrated navigation, without any bothersome add-on adapters, delivers a solid one-two combination.
The companies duking it out in the navigation arena aren't exactly household names. Pharos? Thales? TomTom? Sony noted the lack of 800-pound consumer electronics gorillas on the playing field and decided to plant its big feet with the Nav-U Personal Navigation System. You might imagine that Sony's entry would be festooned with multimedia frippery, but you'd be mistaken. In fact, the Nav-U is a straightforward, well-designed device at a reasonable price ($600). I was on my way out the door to an appointment at a corporate headquarters I'd never visited before when the Nav-U arrived. I quickly unboxed it, mounted it on my windshield, plugged in the cigarette lighter adapter and took the quick on-screen tutorial. Street maps for the entire mainland United States are preinstalled so within 15 minutes I was on my way. Turn-by-turn directions were spoken loudly and clearly using a well-designed two-way speaker system, though there was no text-to-speech system. The 3.5-inch touch-screen was bright and sharp, the controls logically configured and big enough to poke at effectively at highway speeds, though the inability to zoom in and out of the map was annoying. Weighing in at a suitcase-friendly 11 ounces, Sony's first foray into the nav world is an effective, if not particularly innovative solution.
Thales Navigation, the company that pioneered consumer navigation by developing the Hertz NeverLost system in 1995, offers a full range of GPS systems. I took a look at its new value-priced model, the Magellan RoadMate 3000T ($599). Similar in size and shape to the Nav-U, if less sleekly styled, the RoadMate also lacks text-to-speech capability, but does offer a worthwhile enhancement: in addition to providing right or left directions for the next turn, it tells you about the turn after that as well—very useful when trying to figure out which lane you should enter. The 3000T also features a photo viewer and a digital music player (there's an SD memory card slot for loading media files). Unfortunately, you can't play music and use the navigation system at the same time (the Garmin system reviewed below handles this better). Unlike most of the navigation units in this class, the Magellan uses physical buttons along the edges of the device to control many functions instead of asking you to poke repeatedly at a touch-screen. This works well in most cases, though the text-free icon labels on the front buttons can be confusing. The 3000T offers a huge points-of-interest database (over six million entries) and supports downloading of additional entries, a feature not available on the Sony model. You also have the option to upgrade to real-time traffic service with the $149 TrafficKit add-on.
Smaller and more powerful than the Nav-U or 3000T (albeit far more expensive, at $857), Garmin's nüvi 350 is one of my favorites. Yes, the name is a little odd (a lowercase "n" and an umlaut over the "u"—must have been a closeout at the silly names boutique), but the combination of portability, ease of use and worthwhile extra features leads me to forgive its creators. For starters, the nüvi measures just 3.87" x2.91"x0.87" and 5.1 ounces—small and flat enough to fit easily in a briefcase or even a jacket pocket, yet the bright, sharp 3.5-inch display (measured diagonally) is still big enough for easy reading. The on-screen menus are thoughtfully designed. Turn it on and three big buttons appear: where to?, view map and travel Kit. The first takes you to the navigation choices, with six million points of interest conveniently organized into icon-illustrated categories on multiple screens. Spoken instructions include text-to-speech capability, which worked well.
View map instantly shows your location and the surrounding map area, with streets neatly drawn and clearly labeled. And travel kit includes a host of interesting features. My favorite is an audio player that handles MP3 files and downloadable audiobooks from Audible.com (there's room for files in internal memory along with a slot for an SD memory expansion card). Playback pauses automatically when the navigation system needs to point you in the right direction, then picks right up where it left off—a fine alternative to balancing the volume of your car radio and your nav system. There's also a digital photo viewer, world clock, currency converter and calculator. And, for $75 each, you can purchase a digital language guide that displays and speaks common phrases in six tongues, or buy travel guides to popular European destinations. There is an optional traffic receiver, but it undermines the unit's portable appeal (it requires permanent installation, including tapping into the car's radio antenna).
Just a bit larger (5.5"x3"x1" and 6 ounces) and, at $650, about $200 cheaper than the Garmin, the Mio DigiWalker C310 offers solid navigation software (courtesy of Destinator, whose system also powers several cellphone solutions) plus two valuable "extras." First is MP3 playback, similar to the nüvi: load music files onto an SD memory card and play your tunes, automatically interrupted and restarted based on navigation prompts. You can also copy your Microsoft Outlook contacts to the device and use them as destination points for the nav software. The DigiWalker maps look fine, but turn-by-turn voice prompting is disappointing: there's no text-to-speech capability, and the cybernetic speaking voice is positively unpleasant. System response also felt a little sluggish while driving, acknowledging turns a beat or two late and letting me go a long way before realizing that I'd gone off-course and required a recalculated route. As a budget-priced solution, the Mio unit delivers all the basics: accurate navigation, five million points of interest in the database and easy-to-use controls, plus the spiffy iPod white styling that's invaded pretty much every digital product category. If I were spending this much, however, I'd probably pop for the extra money and vote nüvi.
Last but certainly not least is the TomTom 910 ($799), the most full-featured model I test-drove. It covers all the basic functions and often reveals a hole card that trumps the competition. The screen, for example, is a bright four-inch wide screen display, where others deliver narrower 3.5-inch rectangles. Preloaded maps include not just the U.S., but Canada and Europe too. The text-to-speech system does a nice job and there's a wide selection of speaking voices from which to choose (personally, I like having Kate's firm but somehow friendly British accent order me around town). The windshield mount is near-perfect, compact for easy portability and rock-solid when attached, and the included wireless remote eases tweaking of volume settings.
Then we get to the more surprising features. The TomTom connects wirelessly to a variety of Bluetooth-enabled cell phones (listed at tomtom.com/phones, though I found the system worked fine with the unlisted Cingular 2125). Once the GPS and phone meet, you can place and answer calls hands-free through the nav unit—you can even download all your contact numbers to the TomTom. The phone also lets you tap into an array of wireless services, including traffic information, weather reports, and safety camera warnings, and allows you to download additional maps and points of interest on the fly. And if on-the-go music and audiobooks sound good, you're in luck. The system's 20-gigabyte hard drive has plenty of room to store music, Audible.com audiobooks and digital photos. Add an optional $20 cable and you can hook the unit directly to your iPod, with the song and playlist names displayed on the TomTom screen for easy tune selection (and yes, the audio restarts and stops when the nav system wants your attention). The built-in speaker system offers only so-so audio quality, but a set of earbuds will solve the problem. Like Little Bo Peep's flock, we're all bound to get lost from time to time. Fortunately, armed with a powerful satellite navigation system, you can find your way home without sheepishly asking for directions.
Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.