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GPS Navigators Have Long Way to Go

July 27, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

An automobile navigation system seems like the perfect high-tech gadget in car-dependent Los Angeles. It can identify where you are, give audible directions to destinations as you drive and even plan alternative routes in case of traffic jams.

These units, which use global positioning system, or GPS, satellites to pinpoint locations on their screens, now come as standard equipment on some high-end cars and are available as built-in options on many others.

But what if you are not ready to buy a new auto and want GPS?

Then you can get a free-standing GPS system, made to stick onto the dashboard. The units are more commonly held by windshield mounts, which are easier to install and manipulate, but that type of mount is illegal in California.

These portable systems, powered by rechargeable batteries, are not cheap. They range from about $300 to more than $1,000, depending on the brand and features. But they're admittedly very cool devices.

After using several, I'm still not over the novelty of a small screen in my car showing me exactly where I am and where I'm going. Particularly pleasing was the voice of one unit that intoned, upon reaching a destination, "You have arrived!" as if I had suddenly become an A-list celebrity.

But are these free-standing units worth the money, considering you can get a built-in model the next time you buy a new car?

Possibly, if your work or other daily duties routinely take you to unfamiliar neighborhoods. Otherwise, probably not.

The biggest problem with GPS navigation units is that they often can't take into consideration shortcuts and traffic-avoiding routes that locals might know. In fact, they can sometimes send you on drives that are longer than you can plan by simply looking at maps.

One of the navigation tests I tried was having each unit plan a route from Altadena in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to The Times' office in downtown Los Angeles. It's an approximately 14-mile drive if you use the Pasadena Freeway.

Only one of them, the TomTom Go 910, sent me that way. The two others I tested, the Garmin StreetPilot c550 and the Magellan RoadMate 3000T, sent me westward to the Glendale Freeway.

That added about three miles -- which is three more miles' worth of aggravation in morning traffic.

To be fair, the Garmin and the Magellan did reasonably well on other trips, and the TomTom was not without faults. Chief among them was that it didn't work out of the box. I had to reset it several times before it would function properly. Even then, it didn't fit smugly into its holder, and whenever I tried to adjust the unit, the power cut off.

Perhaps the review unit I got was a lemon, but I had trouble with another product the company sent for review last year. Suffice to say, if you buy a TomTom item, make sure you can return it if it's faulty.

The Garmin had the brightest, easiest-to-read display. Its on-screen maps were not complicated, and that's good. It also had the most responsive touch screen of the GPS navigators tested, allowing numerical addresses and street names to be inputted rapidly. And when I missed a turn, it quickly recalculated the route.

The Magellan had a streamlined input system that, after you type in a few letters, anticipates what's coming next based on cities and street names in its database. And it had the most pleasant-sounding ring tone to signal turns -- not a small matter when following a route with numerous turns.

Still, with all that is good about free-standing GPS navigators, there are several detractions. The power cord used to recharge the units drapes over the car dash and down to the car's electrical outlet in a manner that makes it a daily reminder that this is an add-on -- and not a very subtle one.

If the navigator is not detached from its holder and hidden away when the car is parked, it could tempt thieves.

And finally -- although this is true of built-ins as well -- the vocalized directions interrupt radio listening, which is something that should be done only by a good traveling companion.

Or a child asking, "Are we there yet?"

David Colker can be reached at Previous columns can be found at



Finding direction

Garmin StreetPilot c550

Price: $899.99

Pros: Viewing screen is bright and route maps are uncluttered. Touch-screen function for inputting street addresses and other data is highly responsive.

Cons: Voice is mechanical sounding.

Magellan RoadMate 3000T

Price: $649.99

Pros: Voice directions are easy on the ears. Touch-screen function anticipates city and street names.

Cons: Voice directions, calling out turns at upcoming intersections, do not include street names.

TomTom Go 910

Price: $799.99

Pros: Did a good job of handling complicated routes. Voice is natural sounding.

Cons: Had to be reset several times and did not fit tightly in holder.

Source: Times research

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