I own three GPS units. All of them are annoying.
The first was Delorme's Earthmate designed for use with PalmPilots. I thought the concept was brilliant; the execution was so flawed as to be fatal. When I first installed the GPS software on my Palm, Delorme also installed a huge map file that locked up the Palm and it took me three days to get it working again. The second fatal flaw was the connector: it did not lock onto the Palm, and so easily broke free; that meant losing all the collected data and restarting the GPS.
The second I acquired as the result of a corporate gift. The primary flaw of the Garmin eTrex is that it does not display maps. So, it can show where you've gone but not tell you where you are. I did buy the cable to hook it up to my notebook computer, but running that in a car is just too cumbersome.
The third I bought yesterday is the Nextar MN2707. (Or maybe P7. The sticker says MN2707, the firmware states P7; both models are displayed at the Nextar Web site. I'll call it the P7, since that's fewer characters to type.)
It has these benefits:
+ Large, 7-inch color LCD touchscreen with nighttime mode (dimmer reversed colors).
+ 40GB drive that acts as an external computer drive (20GB available for you).
+ Two USB2 connectors, mini and regular size.
+ MP3 playback that works at the same time as the navigation system.
+ Locking power plug (ie, it's hard to unplug the power from the unit, which is a good thing).
+ Hardware on/off switch, so it turns on when the car is turned on.
+ Zoom the map using on-screen soft buttons or the control wheel; pan the map by dragging your finger across the screen or pressing the arrow buttons.
+ The interface is easy enough that you can figure out most of it without the instruction booklet.
+ Includes detailed mapping for Canada and simple mapping for USA (on units sold in Canada).
+ Includes power supply, car adapter, USB cables, audio cable, and suction cup attachment.
+ Cheap at CDN$400 (currently on sale at Canadian Tire; regular CDN$500) -- equivalent to about US$350; list price is US$600.
Other tech specs: runs Linux on a Samsung 200 MHz CPU with 64MB SDRAM.
After some mulling, I decided to get it. For these reasons: it's my birthday; it's an external hard drive + MP3 player + okay navigation system + big touch screen.
But it has plenty of drawbacks that might give you pause:
- The P7 is heavy and has no battery, so you cannot use it for walking about. A battery would be nice for keeping the unit alive when the car is off; keeping it on when moving between house and car; and using it as a portable MP3 player (along with external speakers).
- It takes about a minute to start up. This means you need to keep the car idling for that amount of time if you need to know your current position. It takes another minute or so to lock into a 3D signal. In contrast, the Garmin eTrex starts in under 10 seconds, and is locked into a 3D signal in another 20 seconds.
- Once started, a woman's voice keeps repeating "Acquiring GPS Signal" even though lots of satellites are already being tracked.
- It forgets the volume setting. I set it to mute, tap Save Setting, but the next time the P7 is turned on, the volume is up again.
- You have to pay US$50 for the CD with detailed USA maps. Maps of other countries not available.
- It does 3D satellite tracking, but does not report the altitude.
- it comes with the printed manual for another product, although the feature set seems similar.
- The 7-inch screen is a touch screen with soft buttons (buttons displayed on the screen). Problem is that the soft buttons disappear after a while; touching the screen brings them back, but also pans the map out of position.
The map displays only streets and their names. Major roads are shown by another color. NOTHING ELSE. The map fails to display landmarks that would be useful while driving, such as:
- No rivers, shorelines, or railroad tracks.
- No tunnels, bridges, or over/under-passes.
- No major points of interest, such as hospitals and airports.
- No borders; no names of cities or states/provinces.
The unit claims to have two million points of interest, such as gas stations and hotels. However, they are listed in alphabetical order, instead of distance order -- I'd want to know where the nearest gas station is, not that there is an Arco station on Aberdeen Avenue.
Testing the Routing Software
I ran a test that mapping software usually fails. I ask it to map the route from my current residence to the town of my birth (in northern Canada). All mapping software usually makes the mistake of telling me to take the ferry along the coast, because distance-wise that is the shortest.
But cost-wise, it is the most expensive route, and time-wise takes the longest. Mapping software fails on this test because they usually assign a time of 0 hours and 0 minutes for the ferry trip, even though the trip takes about 12 hours and requires additional time for getting on and off the ferry (allow an extra 2 hours for that).
The Nextar P7 fails this test. Worse yet, it does not allow me to adjust the route to force it to use just roads.
Another failing is that the P7 does not allow me to peruse the proposed route. When I try to pan along the route, the P7 forces the screen to jump back to the current position.
The second test is from my residence to the international airport. There is no good route in real-life, so I am interested in technology that can tell me the shortest route, time-wise. I know it takes 1hr 15min (or so). In the P7, you would take these steps:
1. Press Find button.
2. Tap "Search POI [point of interest] by Name".
3. Tap "Transporation" or "All POI".
4. Use the on-screen keyboard to type the city. As you enter characters, the P7 anticipates which city it might be, a good feature that reduces the amount of typing.
5. Tap OK
6. Type in "AIRPORT." After mulling its database, the P7 says none exists.
I tried the airport code, such as YVR, and that worked.
You can then tap Drive To (calculates route), Zoom To (displays location on screen) or Save To (save to a named list of destinations). The result depends on the option selected:
Shortest [route by distance] - 46.9 miles and 2hr 5 min.
Mostly Highways - 52.0 miles and 2hrs 19 min.
Least Amount of Turns - 47.0 miles and 2 hr 6 min.
Since I cannot peruse the route (without the screen always jumping back to where I am now), I don't know which route the P7 plans to take me along. The workaround is to zoom out far enough to see the entire route on the screen, but then the P7 doesn't display sufficient detail for me to figure out the exact route out of the myriad of possibilities.
I suspect it does not adjust for highway speeds, because it seems to use 36km/hr (22 mph) for all roads, including 70mph (120kph) freeways. That means that its time estimates are useless.
Related to lack of altitude reporting (3D data), the unit provides only some of the data that can be gleaned from GPS data, just this:
- current time.
- North direction (top of screen).
- The GPS Status screen shows latitude, longitude, satellite positions, and signal strengths.
It does not report:
- margin of error
- maximum speed
- average speed
- trip odometer
- duration of trip
- sunset and sunrise
- bearing and heading angles.
Of these, I'd really like to know the error, usually around 15-50 feet for most GPS units.
The MP3 player uses simple folder management, which is the system I prefer. You segregate songs in folders, and then play the entire folder or a single song file. The unit makes reference to "playlists" but that's just its term for folders.
The unit has a built-in speaker and audio out plug. The speaker is tinny, okay for spoken instructions, but no good for music, so you'll want to plug it into a FM broadcast module to play over your car's audio system. You can also hook it up to headphones or to your home music system to playback MP3 music.
There are no other music controls, other than volume. No tone controls, no random play, skip to next track. One workaround is to tap the touch screen and select the next song to play from the list displayed (it shows 7 tracks at a time).
When connected to your computer with a USB cable, the P7 cannot act as a GPS device nor playback music; it becomes an external drive that can be accessed through Windows Explorer and all Windows software programs. I am guessing it would work with Linux and Mac, but haven't tested that.
Of the 40GB hard drive, 20GB is available for your own files. The other 20GB would be used for the Linux operating system and map files. Because the P7 acts as an external hard drive, you can store any files on there for backup purposes.
With such a large screen, it would be a natural for showing slideshows and movies, but no such luck.
After a few days, I returned the unit for these reasons: the size and weight, the low level of GIS data, and the difficulty of controlling/previewing the route.