Walt Mossberg

Nüvi GPS Receiver Is Too Rough a Guide For the High Price Tag

For years, the portable receivers that use Global Positioning System satellite signals for navigation have been niche products. They have been favored by hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts, by traveling salespeople and other long-range drivers, and by GPS hobbyists.

The makers of the gadgets have been trying to move them into the mainstream. GPS navigation has shown up in cellphones, personal digital assistants and fitness gear. But these new incarnations have failed to make GPS navigation a big hit with average people.

Now, one of the top makers of GPS receivers, Kansas-based Garmin Ltd., has taken a bold step toward that mainstream. It has created a small, sleek portable GPS receiver meant to be carried everywhere. This new gadget has been recast as a “personal travel assistant,” to shed its geeky roots. And it includes not only satellite navigation and mapping, but also a built-in music player, photo viewer, U.S. travel guide, audio-book reader, language translator, currency converter and more.

I’ve been testing this new gadget, called the Nüvi 350, in and out of my car, and I find myself torn about it. On the plus side, it’s really well designed and has a good, simple user interface. It does what it promises for the most part, and requires no setup or technical knowledge.

But at $900, the Nüvi costs as much as a decent laptop, and more than double that of such established portable prodigies as Palm’s Treo smart phone or Apple’s top-of-the-line iPod.

And the Nüvi’s core function, GPS navigation, is still too crude and clumsy to command such a high price from a mainstream, casual user. This is a problem with every GPS receiver I’ve tested, not just the Nüvi. Too often, all of them suggest routes that a savvy local driver would immediately recognize as too long or too slow or too likely to place you into heavy traffic. That level of inaccuracy might be fine in a $150 device, but $900 is a lot to pay for roundabout directions.

Nuvi 350

The Nüvi is a rectangular, silver-colored plastic device that’s less than four inches wide, less than three inches high and less than an inch deep. It weighs about five ounces. Its front surface is dominated by a large, 3.5-inch color screen that’s bright and vivid. Other than a power button on the top, there are no buttons, switches or scrolling devices on the Nüvi. Everything is controlled by touching options on the screen.

The only features on the outside are a flip-up GPS antenna on the rear — a squarish panel of silver-colored plastic — and three openings on the side that accept an SD memory card, headphones and the cables that charge the Nüvi or connect it to a computer.

The Nüvi starts up quickly and, more importantly, acquires the signal from the satellites in seconds, a vast improvement over the last Garmin model I tested some years ago. The main menu has just three entries: Where to?, View Map, and Travel Kit. The first is where you enter a destination, and the last opens a submenu that includes all of the Nüvi’s nonmapping functions.

Using the included suction-cup mount, I placed the Nüvi inside the windshield of my car, just to the left of the steering wheel. For a few days I breezed around the Washington, D.C., area, letting the Nüvi direct me to and from my house, my office and other locations. Its maps, which can be in 3D if you like, were easy to follow. The female voice that told me which turns to take sounded almost human.

Like every other navigation system I’ve tested, Nüvi gave me routes that were technically accurate, but usually suboptimal, often seriously so. My favorite example was when it tried to put me on the notorious Washington Beltway, and then a second freeway, at rush hour to get me to a point I could have reached in five minutes via a local street that was maybe 200 yards past the freeway entrance.

I was able to change these instructions by selecting an option instructing Nüvi to avoid freeways, but then it would have ignored them even when they were the best option. The Nüvi includes a clock. So, why doesn’t it, at the very least, have the brains to keep you off urban freeways during rush hour?

The Nüvi suggested different routes for the same trip on different days, and once lost its way when I emerged from a tunnel. It also had a habit of suddenly, and without notice, zooming its map view out so far that it showed the whole city, instead of my route. These examples may seem like nitpicking, but they’re fair when a product like this costs almost $1,000.

The non-navigation features worked fine, but were very basic. The music player handled songs OK, either from the Nüvi’s internal memory or an SD card, but lacked the ability to make or use playlists. The photo viewer slide shows had no manual controls or transitions.

Worst of all for such a costly device, the built-in travel guide has only sample data. To get the whole thing, you pay another $75.

As slick as the Nüvi is, I consider it too expensive for the value it delivers, at least for mainstream, casual users.

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