(CNET) -- First announced at SEMA 2007, the Nokia 500 Auto Navigation system is finally hitting the streets.
It's the second portable navigation device we've seen from the Finnish cell phone manufacturer (the first being the Nokia 330 Auto Navigation) and it's a big improvement over the 330. The design is a bit more refined; there's a larger 4.3-inch touch screen; and it's packing more features with text-to-speech functionality, integrated Bluetooth, and traffic information capabilities.
In addition, the Nokia 500 switches from Route 66 Navigation 7 software to Nokia Maps (the same found on Nokia smartphones), and while better than the former, it's not as easy to use or streamlined as a TomTom or Garmin PND. In fact, sometimes navigating the device can get downright confusing.
So while the Nokia 500 Auto Navigation is a solid performer, we think you'll have a better experience with the Garmin Nuvi 660 or TomTom GO 930. The Nokia 500 Auto Navigation is available now through online retailers and at Nokia flagship stores for $499.95.
The overall shape of the Nokia 500 Auto Navigation system is reminiscent of the Nokia 330. It's not particularly inspiring but there are a number of enhancements and improvements to the overall design.
First, the Nokia 500 feels less plasticky than its predecessor and has a nice charcoal gray casing with silver trim. The unit is also compact at 4.8 inches wide by 3.4 inches tall by 0.8 inch deep for easy portability between vehicles.
On front, there's a larger 4.3-inch (compared with 3.5 inches) touch screen that displays 65,536 colors at a 480x272-pixel resolution. Maps and images look clear, and the screen is responsive to the touch. With the bigger display, Nokia relocated the shortcut buttons found on the right side of the Nokia 330 to below the screen on the Nokia 500, which we find more aesthetically pleasing.
The controls include volume up/down keys and a Menu button. The power button is located on top as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack and an external antenna jack, which are both protected by an attached cover. Finally, there's an SD expansion slot on the right side.
The Nokia 500 Auto Navigation unit comes packaged with a car charger, a vehicle mount (windshield only), a USB cable, a soft protective pouch, an 2GB SD card, a software DVD, and reference material.
Unfortunately, there's no dashboard disc, which is a problem for drivers in California and Minnesota since it's prohibited in those states to have anything attached to your windshield (though we have our doubts about how many people actually follow that law). The good news is the car charger has an integrated traffic receiver so you can receive up-to-date road conditions.
The Nokia 500 Auto Navigation system is equipped with a SiRF StarIII LP GPS receiver and comes preloaded with Navteq maps of North America and millions of points of interest. The user interface is different from the Nokia 330 as the company switched from Route 66 Navigation 7 software to Smart2Go software, which is now Nokia Maps.
Overall, we like the Nokia Maps software better than Route 66. The menus and icons are clean and clear; that said, it's not as easy to use or streamlined as a Garmin or TomTom device. For example, entering addresses requires extra taps and finding various features and settings is sometimes like a treasure hunt. The tools aren't always organized logically, so you never know where you're going to find things--more on this later.
To start planning a trip, you can enter a specific address, choose a point of interest, or select a location from your Favorites or Recent lists. The Favorites menu also allows you to save your home and work addresses, and strangely, this is where you can plan multidestination trips.
Having this feature in the Favorites submenu doesn't really make much sense to us, but nevertheless, you can plan journeys with multiple stops and name and save the trip for later reference. You can also add waypoints on the fly.
The Nokia 500 can calculate routes by shortest distance or fastest time and has various transportation modes, including bicycle, motorcycle, pedestrian, van, and scooter. If you want to avoid freeways, toll roads, and ferry ways, there are options to cut these out of your trip.
Once a route is calculated, you can review the itinerary and find an alternate route if you wish. With the integrated traffic receiver, you can also check for congestion or incidents along the way and find another way around it. The system features automatic route recalculation if you happen to get off track.
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. There are various map screens that you can choose from, depending on your needs. In tracking mode, you get more technical data such as elevation, geographic coordinates, and satellite connections, while browsing mode will simply display your current position and the name of your current street.
Finally, the Navigation screen will provide the information you need for a planned destination, including the current and upcoming street names, direction and distance to your next turn, and distance to destination. A plus and minus icon are available in all modes for zooming in and out of the map.
To complement the visual aid, the Nokia 500 Auto Navigation unit offers text- and voice-guided turn-by-turn directions, as well as text-to-speech functionality so the system speaks actual street names. There's a built-in FM transmitter so you can have audio piped through your car's stereo.
Note: Be sure that you choose a voice with the TTS label (General Settings > VoiceSkin), otherwise you'll just get generic directions. We're not sure why text-to-speech isn't set as the default--who wouldn't want this feature, right?
The GPS device also doubles as a hands-free speaker system with its integrated Bluetooth. We're pleased to see that the Nokia 500 will download your phone's address book, so you don't have to manually enter numbers. The unit also supports voice dialing from a compatible phone. Plus, if a point-of-interest has a phone number listed, you can dial out directly to that business.
Finally, the Nokia 500 has multimedia features, including a music and video player and an image viewer. The integrated media player supports MP3, WMA, AAC, and eAAC+ music files and MPEG4, 3GP, and WMV video formats.
We tested the Nokia 500 Auto Navigation in San Francisco, and from a cold start, it took the unit about three minutes to get a fix on our location under cloudy skies, while subsequent starts took anywhere from a few seconds to a minute.
The receiver did a good job of tracking our position as we drove throughout the city. It did lose its lock when we drove through the Broadway Tunnel, but it was able to pick up a signal soon after we exited the tunnel.
We used the Nokia 500 on two trips. On the first journey, we plotted a course from the Marina District of San Francisco to Sunnyvale, California. We punched in our start and end points, and the system was pretty quick to calculate directions. Having never been to this destination, we took the Nokia 500 for its word and set out on our trip.
We're happy to report that it got us there efficiently and without any problems. We also tested our standard route from the Marina to CNET's downtown headquarters, and again, no major problems. We missed several turns to test the route recalculation rate, which was fast enough to get us back on course. All that said, we have to say the text-to-speech directions were pretty bad. The voice sounded very robotic and while we understood what it was saying, it mangled quite a few street names.
We paired the Nokia 500 with the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8330 for Verizon Wireless and had no problems connecting or downloading the phone's contact list. We were also able to make and receive calls.
If you're interested in the multimedia experience (you know how I feel about GPS and multimedia), music playback sounded a bit blown out through the system's speakers, though you can plug in a pair of headphones or stream it through your car stereo via FM transmitter.
Watching video was fine in short spurts. The Nokia 500 Auto Navigation has a rated battery life of two hours of continuous use.
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