GPS — Finding your lost horizon

Ian Yates
2 December, 2007
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The first GPS receivers shared some attributes with the early mobile phones — they were large heavy chunks of electronic wizardry reserved for those who could justify the expense because they really needed one, or wanted one so badly they ignored the stratospheric price and very basic functionality. There are many people who still fit into the latter category, but for the rest of us, GPS receivers have fallen in price rapidly and “unknown” brands can now be acquired for less than $300 in department stores.

AMW lab looked at offerings from Mio, TomTom, Kogan, Hitachi and Garmin — but there are many, many more to choose from on the shelves, and Mio, Garmin and TomTom each have a plethora of different models within their own catalogues. And, just like mobile phones, the latest GPS receivers don’t just tell you exactly where you are lost. Along with maps and points of interest and warnings about speed traps, you get music, photo and video functions, and some have Bluetooth-enabled handsfree connections for your mobile phone. The huge widescreen Hitachi even allows you to connect your car’s reversing camera to the display.

You might at first wonder why on earth you would want to use a GPS screen to play music and look at photos and videos. But, should you decide to actually use your GPS receiver to venture into parts unknown, when you arrive there you can listen to some music, take a look at the photos you’ve been snapping along the way, and even watch the videos you shot of your adventurous travels. Provided, of course, that your snapshot camera and your video camera both use SD-cards for storage. They don’t? Maybe you also need to upgrade to something like Canon’s Powershot TX1, which handles both functions and stores the results on an SD-card.

Not long ago, GPS receivers came with screens in the same aspect ratio as televisions. It was what we were used to looking at, after all. Now we’re all looking at widescreen TVs so the GPS toys have all moved to widescreen as well. Of course, unless you take widescreen photos and videos you won’t be using all the screen space, but they do let you see a bit more geography when being used for their primary purpose, and you could always download a widescreen movie to watch by the campfire.

GPS on the road. Most GPS receivers are designed for use in your car, so the larger screens are easier to see and they also have enough screen real estate available for larger virtual buttons on their touch screens, which are also easier to see and press. Now, before you go pressing buttons while driving, every GPS vendor throws up a warning before you get going that tells you of the dangers of engaging in such a distracting activity while behind the wheel. You have to click your acceptance before the mapping and navigating can begin, although under test we did accidentally discover that just waiting a while achieves the same result on some units.

Bigger isn’t always better though, as the Hitachi proved too large and distracting when attached to the window of a Toyota Corolla — admittedly a small car. In fact, in that car, we attached the Hitachi GPS receiver to the windscreen in front of the passenger, and the driver could still easily glance across and see what was happening, while the “navigator” could easily adjust the settings and make changes to the route. This large display, however, did not seem too large when stuck to the windscreen of a Range Rover Classic, which has a much more vertical windscreen, and an elevated driving position, allowing the driver to look down on the GPS receiver rather than having to look past the unit. This also made it easier to press the buttons, which of course we only did while stationary. Promise.

Another gotcha mentioned in the instructions for these GPS receivers involves not locating the unit where it would obstruct any SRS airbags, including avoiding the area where the bag will end up if deployed. With the GPS stuck to the front windscreen to the left of the steering wheel you should be fairly safe, but some late model cars have side airbags which could collide with the display if it was attached very close to the outside edge on the right of the steering wheel near the “A-pillar”.

GPS made for walkin’.
Of course, not all Macintosh users are car owners, and there are GPS receivers designed for those who prefer to bike, self-powered or assisted, and for those who prefer to walk. This type of receiver usually takes the form of an oversized wristwatch and usually includes additional functions beyond navigation. Mostly the add-on functions provide for monitoring of pulse and body temperature, to help out those who like to go for long rambling runs, and a swag of stopwatch functions, presumably to help you get better and faster at going for long rambling runs.

Just when you thought your mobile phone had strayed so far from its intended purpose that it couldn’t possibly go any further, you can now also get GPS receivers embedded into a smartphone, such as the Mio A702. Of course, along with the phone function you also get an MP3 player, photo viewer, still camera, movie camera, calendar, internet browser, e-mail and more. This type of GPS receiver uses Windows Mobile (shudder) under the covers, but you can still integrate with your Macintosh using software like MissingSync.
A Smartphone GPS comes with a much smaller screen than the standalone units, but that isn’t necessarily a problem. All these navigators use some form of text-to-speech wizardry to provide spoken directions, so you don’t really need to keep looking at the screen. And remember, you’re not supposed to be pressing the buttons anyway while you’re driving. The level of annoyance generated by the spoken commands varies greatly between different GPS receivers. Kogan had the smoothest most natural sounding voice, sounding least like C-3PO and more like a helpful butler. The Mio voice was the next smoothest, but unfortunately also the most annoying.

This was probably because every voice option, despite different accents, still sounded like that annoying school prefect who was always right, while you were always wrong, and on top of that they’re also better at any sport you care to mention than anyone else you can think of, including yourself. Thankfully, you don’t really need to listen to the spoken voice commands unless you’re navigating to unfamiliar territory, and then the annoyance quotient recedes as the stress levels normally induced by navigating while driving are banished.

GPS meets the Mac.

When it comes to involving your Macintosh with your GPS receiver only the TomTom and the Garmins had software that wasn’t restricted to Microsoft Windows PCs, but you have to download it yourself — there’s no CD in their boxes. It doesn’t really matter, because the GPS units with no intrinsic Macintosh awareness all use SD-cards to store their updates. All you need is an SD-card reader. The Kogan even supplied a USB SD-card reader in the box — very thoughtful. Map data is generally only updated every six months from most suppliers, so even if you were forced to use a Windows PC for the update, it would only require infrequent visits to a friend’s torture chamber, or a restart with Boot Camp if you have an Intel Mac.

Speaking of map updates, all units reviewed except the Kogan were convinced there was a shortcut to our nearest highway, and all insisted we take that route which has been an overgrown feral track for at least the last five years, impassable even for the mighty Range Rover Classic. All the units except the Kogan use either Sensis or Whereis maps and they all tried to direct us down the dead-end while the Navteq maps in the Kogan knew about the road closure and directed us down the tarred main road to the highway. However, using local knowledge and ignoring the bogus instructions and driving past the turn-off caused the others to perform a recalculation and the correct route was begrudgingly offered.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. Choosing a GPS receiver really comes down to fitness for purpose and personal choice. If you want one for your car, then any of the reviewed units does the job quite adequately and is orders of magnitude better than scrabbling through an out-of-date street directory, particularly if you are travelling solo. You can choose a basic no frills GPS-only model such as the Mio Digiwalker C220 or go all out for the widescreen Hitachi with Bluetooth hands-free, music, photo, videos and input for your reversing camera. In between are the Garmin nuvi250W and the Kogan FIO.

If you want to boldly go where no 4WD fool has gone before, the Kogan is the one most likely to keep up with your attempts to get lost. We would really like to see a unit with the screen clarity and ease of use of the TomTom plus the wide-but-not-too-wide format of the Garmin, loaded with the maps from the Kogan.

Not in test: Mio also offers advanced widescreen models that include a camera — both still and video. For non-car travellers the oversized wristwatch Garmin Forerunner 305 should appeal.

For those who like just one gadget, which does almost everything, the Mio Digiwalker A702 GPS/Phone/PDA might be just the ticket. Or you could wait for the iPhone to arrive and hope Apple offers GPS as an add-on. Or buy a new car with built-in satellite navigation

Mio Digiwalker C220

Cons No extra functions
Pros Simple, basic and acquires a fix very quickly
Rating 4
Type GPS receiver
SRP AUD$399
Distributor Mio Australia 1300 646 477
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Hitachi MMP-501B

Cons Too big for small cars
Pros Huge display, reversing camera input, music, photos, videos
Rating 4
Type GPS receiver
SRP AUD$799
Distributor Hitachi Australia 1800 448 224
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Garmin Forerunner 305

Cons Necessarily small display
Pros Wearable for biking, walking, running
Rating 4
Type GPS receiver
SRP AUD$499
Distributor GME Electrophone 02 9879 8888
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Garmin nuvi 250W

SRP AUD$479
Cons None
Pros Wide screen, currency converter, calculator, photo viewer
Rating 4.5
Type GPS receiver
Distributor GME Electrophone 02 9879 8888
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Mio Digiwalker A702

Distributor Mio Australia 1300 646 477
SRP AUD$899
Cons Runs Windows Mobile
Pros Phone, PDA, Camera
Rating 3.5
Type GPS receiver
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Kogan FIO

Cons No speed camera warnings, low-contrast screen
Pros Most accurate maps, included USB SD-card reader, best voice
Rating 4
Type GPS receiver
SRP AUD$349
Distributor Kogan Technologies 1300 304 292
Reviewer: Ian Yates

TomTom One 3rd edition

Cons A bit small for large cars, no clamp on windscreen suction cap
Pros Best and brightest screen, easiest menu
Rating 4
Type GPS receiver
SRP AUD$399
Distributor Tom Tom Australia 1300 135 604
Reviewer: Ian Yates

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