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CONSUMER WATCH

Getting around town for less

In a comparison test, a cheap GPS navigation unit worked as well as -- and in some ways better than -- a pricier model.

November 30, 2008|David Colker | Colker is a Times staff writer.

GPS gives guys something they've always wanted -- freedom from asking directions.

This malady seems to plague many males regardless of race, age or sexual orientation, but global positioning system navigation units, which have gotten increasingly sophisticated over the years, haven't been a cheap cure, usually costing hundreds of dollars.

This is not a normal year, however. In the midst of the economic meltdown, bargain hunters are having a field day when it comes to consumer electronics, including GPS units for automobiles.

On Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving known for door-buster sales -- there were GPS navigation systems going for the previously unheard-of price of $99 apiece. In some instances they were outdated units that manufacturers were dumping.

But some current models are going for not much more during the holiday shopping season.

Just how good is a cheapie GPS unit? To find out, I took several trips around town guided by the Goodyear GY135 GPS, which can be found for about $135.

This is the same Goodyear famed for tires and blimps, but the company hasn't suddenly gone into the consumer electronics business. The name was licensed by NCC NY, a Brooklyn-based firm that develops and merchandises a variety of electronic products.

One of the Goodyear GPS units that NCC brought out has a case design influenced by tires, complete with tread. It's the kind of thing that would look good adjacent to fuzzy dice and a tree-shaped air freshener.

The GY135 is, thankfully, more modest in design and not bad looking.

And it does just fine navigating from point A to point B -- in fact, better in a few ways than some more expensive units.

But don't expect any frills, such as a recharger that plugs into a wall socket. Instead, the GY135 comes with a charger that fits into the power sockets of cars and a USB cord that allows for a recharge via a computer.

There's also no Bluetooth cellphone hookup, traffic-detection option or voice-command capability that's included on many of the more expensive units.

More bothersome, the GY135 is not as well equipped to find businesses by name. When I asked it to find the nearest Vons market, the GY135 came up with a route to a store four miles away. At the time, however, I was parked only few blocks from a Vons it overlooked.

The main drawback, though, is the small size of the screen, which has a diagonal measurement of about 3.5 inches. It makes the more-standard 4.3-inch screens on GPS units look like HDTV.

But in pure navigation, it did better, on some trips, than a full-featured Magellan Maestro 4250 mounted next to it on my windshield calculating the same routes. The Maestro goes for about $200.

On a trip from the San Gabriel Valley to City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, the GY135 took me on a route that locals know is the most direct, transitioning on city streets from the 210 Freeway to the 110 Freeway.

The Maestro stayed on highways, heading east to get to the 2 Freeway and then downtown, a route that's normally not as quick.

The GY135 also recalculated faster when I veered off planned routes.

In operation, it was like a nimble little sports car compared with a more lumbering sedan.

That analogy holds in comfort too. I had to squint at times to see street names and other details on the GY135 screen, while the Maestro consistently produced highly readable information.

The bottom line is that if you are buying a gift for a gadget freak, a full-featured GPS navigation unit might be the way to go. If you have the money, that is.

But for a first-time GPS user, a budget model such as the GY135 -- and there are several brands available -- might be just as appreciated.

And then you will be able to stop yelling at the man in your life to pull over at the gas station and just ask.

--

david.colker@latimes.com

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