GPS Units Weighed Down by Buggy Features

The Magellan Maestro 4050 is bulky.
The Magellan Maestro 4050 is bulky. (Magellan)
By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, August 2, 2007

We've all been spoiled rotten by the Global Positioning System.

But now it's not enough just to have a device that -- anytime, almost anywhere -- tunes into the signals of military satellites, uses them to calculate our location to within 20 feet and directs us to our destination, one turn at a time. No, a GPS receiver now has to do more than steer us right.

The newest portable systems feature many of the functions you'd expect from an MP3 player, a handheld organizer or a Web-enabled smartphone. They can also provide real-time traffic data, music playback, photo viewing and Bluetooth hands-free calling -- both in a car and, after you remove it from its suction-cup windshield mount, on foot.

It may now be routine to stuff all those sci-fi features into a sandwich-size box. But to judge from three recent models -- Garmin's $900 Nuvi 680, LG's $450 LN740 and Magellan's $700 Maestro 4050 -- it's a lot harder to make something so useful that you'd want to ditch an organizer or MP3 player.

All three GPS devices fulfilled their basic mission, locating themselves in seconds (as long as I was outdoors or near a window) to provide accurate, if not optimal, directions. (The LG briefly claimed that it couldn't steer me home from a spot on North Capitol Street.)

But most of their advanced features were hobbled by glitches or gotchas that made them difficult or impossible to use.

Take real-time traffic info delivered from various radio services, which is supposed to be these devices' biggest advantage over built-in GPS units in cars. None made this as easy as "take it out of the box and start driving."

The LG suffered from complicated design. Instead of having its car-charger cable double as an FM antenna, it requires you to fish a tiny wire out of the box, plug it into a half-hidden outlet on the unit and suction-cup the antenna to the windshield.

The Garmin requires you to activate a free one-year subscription to Microsoft's MSN Direct information service -- a task that wound up requiring two calls to tech support.

The bulky Magellan unit also required a subscription activation, but it didn't work. The Web page cited on a tiny piece of paper in the box only yielded a "we're sorry" explanation that Magellan's online store was being upgraded and would be back on Aug. 15. A representative on Magellan's tech-support line said he couldn't turn on the trial subscription, either.

Of the two devices able to access traffic data, the Garmin made it much easier to digest. It provided a simple map of local highways that listed congestion in yellow and red. The LG offered a text listing of trouble spots -- a trickier thing to scan at 50 mph -- and wasn't preset to avoid them automatically.

Both receivers suffered from out-of-date and missing data. For example, neither warned that the South Capitol Street bridge is closed, and both showed traffic on local highways that appeared to be clear in online traffic cameras. The upshot? You might still want other sources -- the radio, highway message signs, a passenger with a smartphone running Google Maps -- to make sure you get where you're going.

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