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Finding your way around GPS maze

  • Story Highlights
  • Newbie to GPS units takes them on the road for a spin
  • For the price of the Mio DigiWalker C520 you get a lot of high end features
  • Garmin Nuvi200 seemed slow; almost missed turns because of lag time
  • First consider price and then see which unit gives you the features you want
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By Christopher Neiger
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(AOL Autos) -- I've never owned a GPS unit or (prior to this test) even used one, so I thought it might be a good idea to test a bunch of them right out of the box. The kind folks over at Garmin, Magellan and Mio agreed to let this newbie review some of their great products.

Many GPS units have turn-by-turn voice directions, and several speak street names and exit numbers.

No trip was too long, too short or, in some cases, too boring. I used the GPS units on a 1,200-mile trip up and down the East Coast; several trips in and around southern cities like Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina; on back-roads; one trip to the zoo and one unfortunate Saturday of hopping around to eight furniture stores.

I didn't read up about the products beforehand, didn't download their information off the Internet, it was just simple point-a-to-point-b navigation.

What I found was that the GPS units had many comparable aspects, such as 3D navigation, brightly lit displays, good graphics and most used icon-driven menus for an easy menu experience. All of the units had turn-by-turn voice directions, and several of them had the "text-to-speech" feature, which speaks street names and exit numbers.

Performance on the Road

Magellan Maestro 4250
MSRP: $499.99
Notable Features: Voice command, text-to-speech, AAA Roadside Assistance (for members), Bluetooth, live traffic alerts, six million points of interest, SD drive
Model classification: High-end
Mounting Type: Windshield and dashboard
Screen Size: 4.3"

After allowing this unit to navigate me all the way from South Carolina to Delaware, I now understand why they gave it the name Maestro. This unit conducted itself smoothly and elegantly, giving you a feeling that its designers (also the creators of Hertz's NeverLost) wanted a functional GPS that looked and felt polished.

The Magellan interface utilizes lists (as opposed to icons) more frequently than the other models I tested, but that didn't hinder its ease of use. The only problem I had with the Maestro was the screen. After leaving the unit in my car overnight with temperatures around 20 degrees, I turned the GPS on in the morning, pressed the "I agree to not drive and watch the screen" button and cracked the display, rendering it useless. Sorry Magellan.

The Maestro comes well equipped and is a competent and quick navigator. At one point in my trip, the unit warned of traffic ahead and told me the average speed and offered alternative routes to take me around it, without my even asking.

Magellan RoadMate 1200
MSRP: $229.00
Notable Features: 1.3 million points of interest, trip computer, trip planner, SmartDetour® feature, SD drive
Model Classification: Low-end
Mounting type: Windshield and dashboard
Screen size: 3.5"

The RoadMate 1200 was the least expensive of all the GPS units I tested, but certainly not the least capable. The screen doesn't seem small, because it isn't cluttered with too many options or distractions. The sleek fit-in-your-pocket design keeps the unit from feeling too clunky and allows you to easily take it with you when not in the car.

Although the RoadMate 1200 doesn't come with a text-to-speech feature like many of the other units tested, the display is easily readable and exit and street names clearly displayed on the screen. The navigation graphics may lack some sophistication compared to other units, but the simplicity of the Magellan is welcomed when you're trying to keep an eye on the road and can only glance over at the device.

As with the Magellan Maestro, the main menu uses icons for easy use then switches over to text-based lists once you choose your desired option. If you're looking for a small and inexpensive GPS unit, the RoadMate 1200 is a good choice.

Garmin Nuvi 200
MSRP: $267.84
Notable Features: Picture viewer, currency converter, measurement converter, SD drive, configurable vehicle icons
Model Classification: Low-end
Mounting Type: Windshield and dashboard
Screen size: 3.5"

The Nuvi 200 is a GPS unit and not much more. If you need assistance getting to your destination without the extra frills, then this is a good unit. It won't tell you the names of the streets you're on, but the menu is easy to understand and allows you to quickly find the settings you're looking for. I used the Nuvi 200 to get myself around town, going to places I've never been, in parts of town I didn't even know existed.

Despite its aptness around town, overall the unit seemed fairly slow. I almost missed a few turns because it notify me quickly enough. To curb the slower processing time, I typed in a new destination and waited before driving to make sure the unit would know what it was doing before I starting making turns.

Around town the processing time wasn't a big concern, but if you're lost and don't feel like waiting around for your unit to catch up and tell you where to go, this Garmin might not be the right one for you.

Garmin Nuvi 760
MSRP: $749.99
Notable Features: Text-to-speech, Bluetooth, MP3 player, headphone jack, audio book player (subscription required), picture viewer, SD drive, route avoidances
Model Classification: High-end
Mounting Type: Windshield and dashboard
Screen size: 4.3"

The Garmin Nuvi 760 comes with a lot of great features and if you take out all of the fringe benefits this unit comes bundled with, you'll still end up with a reliable GPS unit that'll have no problem getting you to your destination.

The Nuvi 760 was put to the test for a 2.5 hour trip involving some of the back-roads of North Carolina. It tackled a few road detours in which the GPS unit's directions were trusted over the detour signs, as well as finding roads that only the locals at corner gas stations would know about. Like the other Garmin, the navigation screen layout is simple yet effective and is easy to understand.

Unlike the other less expensive Garmin, this unit processed all directions, wrong turns and navigation changes very quickly. It's quick response time, long list of features, and ease-of-use make this unit a very capable GPS navigator.

Mio DigiWalker C230
MSRP: $249.95
Notable Features: Text-to-speech, SD memory card slot, almost one million pre-loaded points of interest
Model Classification: Low-end
Mounting Type: Windshield and dashboard
Screen size: 3.5"

The Mio DigiWalker C230 is small and boxy, but considering it was one of the cheaper models I tested, I was impressed to find that it came with the text-to-speech feature. It may not seem important, but when there are several roads close to each other and you're not sure which "right turn ahead" you're supposed to take, hearing the exact name or exit is a nice feature to have.

The C230 was quick to process directions, especially when making a wrong turn, but I found the overall usability to be lacking. There were too many options to choose from on the "cockpit view" (where your map and main directions are displayed) and some of the settings seemed difficult to find.

The unit, however, is more than worth the price given how well it directs you to your destination, but you might want to spend some extra time learning the semi-cumbersome menu before you get going on your trip.

Mio DigiWalker C520
MSRP: $399.95
Notable Features: Text-to-speech, Bluetooth, real-time traffic updates (with subscription), video and picture viewer, MP3 player, headphone jack, SD drive
Model Classification: High-end
Mounting type: Windshield and dashboard
Screen size: 4.3"

I couldn't help but be impressed with the sleek design Mio gave the DigiWalker C520. While some of the other models I tested had a widescreen display and a few were on the thinner side, Mio has cut out all the extra fat on this model, yet still left the great features.

Just like the other Mio, this model processed directions quickly and had no problem adapting to wrong turns and recalculating routes. The screen allows a large navigation view, while providing turn icons and distances, all viewable at the same time.

One aspect of the C520 that I enjoyed over the other units tested was the quality of graphics. The 3-D cockpit view graphics were smoother and kept up with the car's movements faster than the other models. This doesn't help much in overall usability, but does show the quality Mio put into designing the unit.

However, just like the other Mio tested, finding your way around the menu screen can be a little frustrating at first. It may be better suited for the tech-savvy.

What You Get for the Money

After reviewing all the units, I found that each of them had certain features about it that I thought were beneficial. If I had to recommend just one out of all the units I tested though, it would have to be the Mio DigiWalker C520. For the price, you get a lot of high end features, quick navigation processing, a sleek design and exceptional graphics that easily balance out the extra time spent learning your way around the unit.

If you're in the market for a GPS unit, first consider how much you want to spend and then see which unit gives you the features you want. With all the choices out there, you'll be able to find one that's suitable for your needs. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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