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Review: Garmin Mobile 20 handy for smart phones

Story Highlights

• Gadget turns cell phone into handheld navigation device
• Offers turn-by-turn directions and hands-free operation
• You can receive traffic alerts, weather updates and more
• Device falters in its design and setup; pricey at $299.99
By Bonnie Cha
CNET.com
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(CNET.comexternal link) -- In this day and age, buying a standalone GPS device isn't the only way to get navigation help.

If you have a cell phone or smart phone, you can add software or GPS accessories to turn your mobile into a handheld navigation device. One such solution is the Garmin Mobile 20.

Unlike some of the other car kits we've seen, such as the Palm GPS Navigator Car Kit, the Mobile 20 works with a number of Palm and Windows Mobile devices (Garmin also offers a separate accessory for BlackBerrys) and offers turn-by-turn text- and voice-guided directions and acts as a hands-free speaker system.

The setup and hands-free integration isn't quite as sophisticated as the Palm accessory, but it delivers accurate directions as well as some nice extras, such as traffic alerts and weather updates. The Garmin Mobile 20 is available now, but it's on the pricey side at $299.99.

Design

If there's one area where the Garmin Mobile 20 falters, it's in the design and setup. Unlike the Palm GPS Navigator Car Kit, where all the pieces are neatly integrated into the cradle, the Garmin Mobile 20 requires a bit of assembly and doesn't boast quite the same streamlined design as the Palm kit.

On the one hand, Garmin conveniently built the GPS receiver, speaker, and car charger into the cradle, but then you have to attach six different plastic pieces to the backboard of the cradle that act as the arms for holding your smart phone in place.

It's not particularly hard; you just have to slide the posts along the left, right, and bottom edges. It just requires a bit more setup time, and it doesn't look as pretty as the Palm GPS Navigator Car Kit, but it's certainly not a deal-breaker.

Plus, the Garmin Mobile 20 accommodates a number of Palm and Windows Mobile smart phones, whereas the Palm accessory only handles the Treo 680 and Treo 700p.

In the box, you get the mount with integrated car charger, a package of six standard posts, four extra posts to accommodate larger mobile devices, a vehicle mount (windshield and dashboard), an SD card preloaded with maps and software, and three adapter cables to charge your handset. There is also a volume dial on the right side of the cradle that you can depress to activate hands-free operation.

For our tests, we used the Garmin Mobile 20 with the Palm Treo 700p. The cradle easily accommodated the device, but we had to readjust the upper left post so it wouldn't hit the volume buttons. We also had to shift the bottom post to plug the power adapter cord into the connector on the bottom of the smart phone.

The windshield suction mount securely held the cradle and smart phone during our test drives, and it features a lock mechanism to reinforce the seal between the suction cup and windshield.

Features

Garmin makes things easy by preloading street-level maps of North America and nearly 6 million points of interest on the included SD card, so you just have to insert the card into your smart phone's expansion slot to get on your way.

You'll find the application under Mobile XT on your smart phone, and if you're familiar with any Garmin products, you'll recognize the interface and features, as it's very similar to the company's standalone in-car GPS units (Read reviewsexternal link). Even if you're a newbie, the software isn't particularly hard to navigate or master, as all menu options are clearly identified and self-explanatory. There is also a built-in help section if you run into problems.

You can start planning a trip in a number of ways, including entering a specific address, picking a point of interest (POI), selecting a recently entered location, or choosing a name from your phone's Contacts list. If you don't need guidance, you can just have the Garmin Mobile 20 track your movements by tapping View Map, or if you're completely lost, you can go to Tools > "Where am I?" to get your current location (nearest address and coordinates) and nearest major intersections.

As with the automotive units, the Mobile 20 can generate directions by fastest time, shortest distance, or off road; in car, pedestrian, or bicycle mode, among others; and you can instruct it to avoid certain road types, such as toll roads and highways. The system also features route simulation, automatic route recalculation, a detour function, and traffic alerts via Garmin Online. Just be aware that the latter requires that you have a data plan for your phone to access the information.

The Garmin Mobile 20 offers turn-by-turn, text- and voice-guided directions, but it doesn't support text-to-speech functionality. This means the system won't speak actual street names; instead, it will give you more generic directions such as, "Turn right in 200 feet." Maps are available in 2D and 3D view with day and night colors, and you can change it so north is always at the top of your screen or the direction in which you are driving.

While you're in map view, you also get your next maneuver presented at the top of the screen, and your speed and estimated time of arrival at the bottom. For a total overview of your journey, there's a Trip Computer that calculates your average speed, total miles and trip time, and more.

Some other cool mobile-specific functions of the Garmin Mobile 20 includes a feature called PeerPoints, which lets you send your current location to a contact via text message. It's great for letting people know if you're running late or if you want to meet up with friends at a certain location. If the recipient of the message happens to be a Garmin Mobile user as well, he or she can even save or route to that location from their device.

We tried PeerPoints several times and had no problems sending messages, and our contacts always got the messages--pretty cool. Also, in addition to traffic alerts, you can use Garmin Online (remember, you'll need a data plan to access these services) to find the cheapest gas prices based on your location, hotel rates, weather information, and more.

Finally, you can use the Garmin Mobile 20 as a hands-free speaker system for phone calls. We were able to make and accept calls, but we wish there was better phone integration with the program. For now, to activate the hands-free functionality, you have to press the jog dial on the right side of the cradle. It's located far back on the accessory, so it's hard to access easily. You can get to your Contacts list through the Mobile XT application, but it requires a couple of taps.

We were also able to bring up the Treo's dial pad by pressing the Talk key on the phone, but it took a few seconds for it to appear, so we thought it didn't register and tapped it again, causing the device to freak out a bit--oops. Needless to say, it'd be nice if there was a quick icon within the program that we could tap for this functionality.

Performance

We tested the Garmin Mobile 20 with the Palm Treo 700p in the San Francisco Bay area. From a cold start, it took about three minutes for the system to acquire a satellite fix under cloudy skies. Though subsequent starts didn't take much longer than the initial acquisition time, it was a bit erratic, as sometimes it got a GPS fix right away, while it took several minutes at other times.

The Mobile 20 did an accurate job of tracking our location as we drove around the city running errands, although it did drop the signal as we drove through a tunnel and through the skyscraper-filled financial district.

We also used the Garmin Mobile 20 for a trip from San Francisco to downtown San Jose. The program was able to calculate a route within a couple of minutes, but be aware that if you decide to download traffic information, this will add a bit more time to the overall process. The driving directions were accurate, and route recalculations were timely.

Our one gripe is that voice prompts were a bit on the soft side, even when we jacked up the volume on the cradle and handset. That said, it got the most important job done, which was getting us to our destination.


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