A Closer Look

GPS Makers Use Gimmicks to Stand Out

By Wayne Rash
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, May 14, 2006

Remember when GPS navigation systems were intended to be an in-car tool to keep you from getting lost?

Today, a growing number of the companies behind these devices are offering add-ons such as built-in MP3 players and digital photo viewers.

Deep down, the new products from Lowrance Electronics Inc., Garmin Ltd., TomTom International BV, Thales Navigation Inc. and others are still designed to keep track of your location and help you get to where you want to be. That's why most of them use a geographical database from Navteq Corp., which also supplies maps to many car manufacturers that offer built-in navigation. So why bother with all the other functions?

"We wanted to appeal to a younger buyer already familiar with iPods and JPEG files," said Bob Calloway, vice president of marketing for Tulsa-based Lowrance.

Calloway said the extra functions on his company's new iWay 350C, which sells for just under $400, help differentiate it from the field, especially for younger users. "Competition is pretty fierce in that price point," he said.

The result is a stand-alone navigation unit that effectively competes with those that come installed in some cars. Because the Lowrance unit includes an FM modulator, for example, it will play its music through your car stereo, muting the music when it issues spoken driving instructions. Using a standard SD card slot, it allows you to play MP3s or see digital photos stored on memory cards.

TomTom raises the bar with its GO 910, which includes not only an MP3 player and photo viewer but also wireless Bluetooth technology, allowing you to use it as a hands-free device for Bluetooth-enabled cellphones. The GO 910 can tap into the phone's data connection to retrieve and deliver real-time traffic updates.

The GO 910 has a 20-gigabyte hard drive, which allows it to store a lot of music tracks and digital photos, but there's no memory card slot, which means you'll need to connect the unit to your computer to load those files to the hard drive.

But the extra features also highlight the trade-offs, such as the unit's small speaker for music playback. The GO 910 doesn't include an FM modulator for playback through a car stereo. If size of the unit is important, consider the Garmin Nuvi 360, which has just about everything the GO 910 has -- except the bulky hard drive, bringing it down to the size of a small handheld computer. Nuvi also includes a currency converter and a global travel database that includes information on points of interest around the world. Maps outside of North America are sold separately. And, even though it comes equipped with an SD card slot for playing music or viewing photos, there's no FM modulator.

The added features don't take away from the navigation performance on these devices, but they do add to their cost. The Lowrance unit sells for just under $500, while the feature-rich TomTom and Garmin units cost closer to $800.

What will affect the navigation side of these devices is change. Changes to the Springfield interchange, for example, aren't reflected in the database yet -- and an upgrade will add $50 or $100 to the cost.

Finally, it's worth noting that the extra features are nice to have, but it's the simple things that leave a lasting impression. I would have liked a bit more time spent on the suction cups that hold these units to a car's windshield. Only one of those tested, the Lowrance iWay 350, reliably stayed attached.

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