Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue
Confused by the whole "net neutrality" debate? Geoff Duncan lays it all out this week, after which Adam shares his experiences with the Garmin StreetPilot 2720 GPS unit, which proved invaluable on a recent vacation. Apple has continued its burst of updates the releases of Security Update 2006-003, QuickTime 7.1, and Front Row 1.2.2, and updates to four iLife programs, but television fans may be more excited about the availability of several new Fox TV shows at the iTunes Music Store. We also note the release of NetNewsWire 2.1 and announce a DealBITS drawing for Open Door Networks' DoorStop X Security Suite.
Copyright 2006 TidBITS: Reuse governed by Creative Commons license
<http://www.tidbits.com/terms/> Contact: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This issue of TidBITS sponsored in part by:
READERS LIKE YOU! Support TidBITS with a contribution today!
Special thanks this week to Dave Creek, Tom Verhoeff,
Carolyn Leigh, and Ron Perry for their generous support!
Make friends and influence people by sponsoring TidBITS!
Put your company and products in front of tens of thousands of
savvy, committed Macintosh users who actually buy stuff.
For more information and rates, email <email@example.com>.
SMALL DOG ELECTRONICS: Selected Drives on Sale!
LaCie 160 GB 7200 RPM FireWire P3 Porsche - $99
LaCie 250 GB 7200 RPM FireWire mini HD - $139
Visit: <http://www.smalldog.com/tb> -- 800-511-MACS
FETCH SOFTWORKS: Fetch 5 is now available, with SFTP, Bonjour,
StuffIt, Unicode, Dock progress, AppleScript, and a simplified
interface optimized for Mac OS X (including Tiger)!
Download your free trial version! <http://fetchsoftworks.com/>
Web Crossing, Inc: Web Crossing offers integrated collaboration
tools with a broad spectrum of functionality, but did you know
adding discussions, blogs, podcasts, chat, polls, and calendars
is point-click easy? Try a demo! <http://www.webcrossing.com/>
Circus Ponies NoteBook: Never lose anything again. NoteBook
keeps your digital life organized. Take notes, clip content,
share information. Find anything instantly with automatic
index pages. Free 30-day demo! <http://www.circusponies.com/>
Four iLife Apps Receive Updates -- Apple released minor updates to four of the iLife '06 applications today - iWeb, iPhoto, iMovie HD, and iDVD - both via Software Update and as stand-alone downloads. As usual, the updates all include unspecified minor bug fixes and stability improvements. Beyond that, iPhoto 6.0.3 (a 14.1 MB download) reportedly solves problems with sharing iPhoto libraries (though we can't tell how, since iPhoto 6.0.3 still creates thumbnails with read-only permissions that prevent complete sharing of iPhoto libraries in the Shared folder), as well as issues relating to photocasting of smart albums and creating calendars and books. iMovie HD 6.0.2 (7.0 MB) resolves PAL audio problems and can now correctly display iLife Sound Effects in its Media Browser. iDVD 6.0.2 (5.6 MB) "addresses issues with burning some 16:9 projects," according to Apple.
Somewhat bigger news, and a much bigger download, is iWeb 1.1 (95.3 MB), which adds support for two heavily requested features: comments (which can even include attachments up to 5 MB) and search fields for blogs and podcasts that are published to .Mac. It also contains "image management fixes to improve site load performance." [JK]
Security Update 2006-003 Released -- Apple posted the latest security update last week, which patches vulnerabilities in many major Mac OS X components, such as Finder, Mail, Preview, Safari, CoreGraphics, AppKit, Keychain, and Launch Services. Several fixes prevent malformed image files from causing crashes or executing code, while others focus on specific security holes. The update is available via Software Update, or as separate downloads for Mac OS X 10.4.6 Client (in a 12 MB PowerPC or 23.5 MB Intel version) and Server (a 13.1 MB download); or Mac OS X 10.3.9 Client (a 28 MB download) and Server (a 41.6 MB update). [JLC]
QuickTime 7.1, Front Row 1.2.2 Released -- Apple improved two of its media-centric products last week. QuickTime 7.1, a 49.1 MB download, delivers "numerous bug fixes," improves H.264 performance, and adds unspecified support for iLife '06. The media playback application Front Row 1.2.2, a 4 MB download, adds song shuffling in playlists, and fixes bugs related to preventing Audible audiobooks from playing, DVD compatibility issues, and more. Software Update has the updates as well, of course, and beware - as always - that QuickTime 7.1 will overwrite QuickTime Pro 6 licenses. [JLC]
NetNewsWire 2.1 Released -- The final version of RSS news aggregator and reader NetNewsWire 2.1 shipped last week from NewsGator, the company that acquired the product and hired developer Brent Simmons last year (see "NewsGator Acquires NetNewsWire"). NetNewsWire 2.1 dramatically improves synchronization across multiple computers, enabling you to maintain the same set of subscriptions and not view the same news items you've already marked as read on one computer. It also enables viewing news items and modifying subscriptions via the NewsGator Web site, as well as a "sort by attention" option, which pushes subscriptions to the top that the program believes you have more interest in. Performance is also much faster in practically every way.
NetNewsWire costs $30, which includes a one-year subscription to NewsGator Online Premium. The program also synchronizes, with less speed, efficiency, and cleverness, via .Mac or an FTP server, so the NewsGator subscription isn't absolutely necessary for synchronization benefits. The application requires Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later, and is a universal binary. NewsGator continues to develop NetNewsWire Lite (still in beta), which is available at no cost. It does not include a number of interface features, but does handle synchronization. [GF]
Fox TV Shows Hit iTunes -- In the largest single network debut to date, Apple has added another passel of television programming to its iTunes Music Store, this time from Fox Entertainment. The 16 new shows available via iTunes include current series 24, Prison Break, and fX Network's The Shield; Whedon-verse favorites Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; reality shows 30 Days and Unan1mous, and shows from Fox's SPEED and FUEL TV outlets including Pinks and the First Hand sports diary. As always, episodes are available in an advertising-free format for $2 apiece and may be viewed on a computer or on a video-capable iPod; some discounts are available for purchasing (or gifting) entire seasons.
Fox's move to put television episodes on iTunes comes just a few weeks after the network announced a revenue-sharing agreement with its network affiliate stations. Although terms of the agreement haven't been published, the Wall Street Journal reported it enables Fox to make 60 percent of its prime time lineup available via the Internet the morning after the shows air, with stations receiving a 12.5 percent cut of the earnings after costs. [GD]
by Adam C. Engst <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Although the Mac world isn't nearly as scary as the Windows world when it comes to malware and intrusions, it's still a good idea for any Mac directly connected to the Internet to have a firewall in place. But although Apple includes an open source firewall that is capable of protecting you, it doesn't give you many options, nor does it tell you what to make of the near-constant Internet pokes and prods on your Mac that emanate from malicious people and bots. To address these concerns, long-time Mac developer and ISP Open Door Networks (who wrote the first firewall for the Mac many years ago), have come up with the DoorStop X Security Suite. It includes DoorStop X, which provides an easier interface, more flexibility, and better logging than the built-in firewall. Also included are the Who's There? Firewall Advisor, which helps you make additional sense of the logged access attempts, and the second edition of "Internet Security for Your Macintosh," a comprehensive ebook about security on the Macintosh. All three products are integrated, so, for instance, you can use Who's There? not just to understand a particular attack, but also to pull up relevant sections from the book and to protect the attacked service in the firewall.
by Geoff Duncan <email@example.com>
In recent weeks a great deal of ink and pixels have been spent on the topic network neutrality. As set out by pundits and some of the mass media, a major battle is brewing between the big-money telecommunications companies who build the networks which comprise the Internet, and the big-money technology companies whose businesses depend on the Internet. The telecoms want to be able to charge Internet companies for preferred access to users on their networks; conversely, major Internet firms - and many consumer advocacy groups - argue such pay-for-good-access schemes will create an Internet of haves and have-nots, stifle innovation, and ensure only the highest paying online services are accessible.
In the United States, the issue has entered the political arena, with some members of Congress proposing to legislate network neutrality, and corporations and interest groups attempting to swing public opinion (and politicians' votes) their way. Propaganda sites for both sides have gone online.
So what's the brouhaha? Where did this debate come from?
Defining Net Neutrality -- It's odd to say, but as a practical matter the Internet has never been neutral. Access methods and capabilities have always impacted the Internet experience. Just ask anyone downloading Apple's 100-plus megabyte system updates via dialup: they'll tell you the Internet is biased against them! Similarly, you may have a broadband connection, but maybe your new favorite band's MP3 files are being served over an ISDN line and still download at a snail's pace, or perhaps your cable provider can't quite keep up with the streaming QuickTime movie. Or maybe your ISP allows you to send mail only via their mail servers, rather than through your employer's or one you run yourself. And firewalls - which are everywhere these days - are all about taking the "neutral" out of the Internet: they deliberately screen and block different types of Internet traffic. Corporations routinely block peer-to-peer file sharing and services which are known security risks; schools enable access only to approved "whitelisted" sites (or blacklist problematic sites: Del Mar College in Texas recently blocked access to MySpace). Some technologies "shape" Internet traffic by limiting how much of available bandwidth can be used by certain users, locations, or services, and, of course, some governments actively block and censor the Internet. These are all current examples of non-neutral behavior on the Internet today.
Further, Internet service has always been a pay-for-bandwidth privilege. There's nothing neutral about it: no one has a right to use the Internet for free. Although you might be able to skip between Wi-Fi hotspots these days and get decent Internet service without paying a dime, rest assured the folks running those hotspots are paying for that bandwidth. Connecting to the Internet costs money, whether it's via dial-up, cable modem, DSL, wireless, satellite, or another access method. Generally, the more money you're willing to pay, the more bandwidth you get. Today's Internet giants spend mammoth amounts of money to ensure they have bandwidth to meet their users' demands. You think Apple must have big Internet pipes to serve out those massive system updates? Think about Microsoft! Then think about the bandwidth that sites like Amazon.com, Google, MySpace, and YouTube must require. They aren't getting it for free, either.
Since in reality Internet access has never been "neutral," it's tough to define "net neutrality." However, at a basic level, you can think of it as representing the way the Internet operates in the U.S. (and much of the world) today. Leaving aside variables of access, policy, and bandwidth outlined above (and more besides), being connected to any portion of the Internet generally enables users to access darn near anything at best-effort rates. It doesn't matter whether you connect to the biggest online sites and services (like AOL, Yahoo, Google, MySpace, Amazon.com, or iTunes) or the most obscure blog, photo page, or teenage poem extolling Brad Pitt's abs. In the abstract, data from all those sites are treated equally and the Internet delivers information as efficiently as it can given the circumstances, regardless of who operates the physical networks the data may traverse. That's the essence of net neutrality.
Why Telecoms Are Worried -- The telecommunications companies that build major portions of the Internet - companies like Verizon, the reconstituted AT&T, Comcast, and BellSouth - are facing a dilemma. On one hand, demand for Internet and broadband services has never been higher, and it's growing all the time. On the other hand, the Internet-based services which broadband connections make possible erode the telecommunications companies' core businesses.
For example, the forthcoming capability to stream current television shows and first-run movies via the Internet doesn't bode well for services like Comcast's cable television business (or satellite-based TV services). Why subscribe to HBO if you can stream the movies you want over the Internet, whenever you want, for less money? Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) services such as those offered by Vonage and Skype enable computer-to-computer phone calls via the Internet, along with video and conferencing capabilities, and can even call "out" to standard phones. VoIP and technologies entering the same arena (like instant messaging) strike at the heart of telecommunications companies' bread and butter: standard telephone service, often provided via exclusive franchise agreements. Telecoms are already losing (primarily young) customers who are dropping their landlines in favor of mobile phones. In the near future, they stand to lose even more customers to VoIP. (Particularly businesses: VoIP is attractive compared to business rate telephone and conferencing services, especially for international calls.)
And, just to make things more awkward, while demand for broadband services continues to grow, the amount of revenue a given amount of bandwidth generates for telecommunications companies has dropped as much as a hundred-fold in the last decade. Major bandwidth which would have cost millions of dollars a month in the mid-90s now costs tens of thousands of dollars per month. (This phenomena also scales down: my home business bandwidth bill is currently about 20 percent of what it was in 1996, and I have access to about 18 times the bandwidth.) True, the expenses telecoms incur to install that bandwidth have also declined, but not as quickly, and in some cases they're going up: acquiring right-of-way to put fiber in the ground is getting more difficult, and costs to upgrade hardware and construct mammoth networks are increasing, in part due to external factors like rising energy prices. Here's a quick way to summarize the rollout of U.S. broadband networks, even if it's over-generalized: the easy stuff has mostly been done, and from here on out expanding network capacity gets more expensive.
Defining Tiered Access -- The major telecommunications companies who create broadband networks look at their declining revenue growth and increasing costs, and see a not-so-rosy future for broadband networks (not to mention their revenue bases). And then they see the millions and billions of dollars being earned by companies utilizing existing broadband-enabled Internet services, and essentially say, "Hey, we built the networks those companies are riding on! Shouldn't we be getting a bigger slice of that pie?" It's even more galling when those Internet companies aren't paying much (or anything) for bandwidth on a particular network. Let's say Vonage buys all its bandwidth from Verizon (which isn't true, but play along). How do you think BellSouth might feel about Vonage offering VoIP service to BellSouth voice customers over the Internet, and maybe encouraging those customers to roll back or even discontinue their voice telephone service? All without Vonage paying to access BellSouth's broadband network? You can see why BellSouth might be upset, and at the same time, you can see why Vonage wouldn't see anything wrong with the situation; after all, they're already paying big bucks to Verizon.
Although that example is fictitious (most large-scale Internet services have to purchase bandwidth and specialized network access from several providers at many locations), the idea is simple: since all data transmission on the Internet is treated with more-or-less the same priority, Internet companies can use the telecoms' infrastructure to provide competing services and, in some cases, even steal their customers.
So, telecoms are looking for ways to generate and increase revenue from big Internet companies using their broadband networks. Additional revenue streams would mean more money for the telecoms, but also attract the investment capital necessary to build out advanced networking capacity and capabilities. After all, lenders and investors are mainly interested in backing projects which have hope of turning a profit. The question is: what can telecommunications companies offer the big Internet players which would sweeten the deal and entice them to pay - or, at least, pay more than they are now?
One idea is to create programs whereby Internet companies can pay telecoms to have their data treated preferentially. Say you run an Internet company that provides streaming video: what if you could arrange for your data to be delivered faster and more reliably over certain major telecommunications networks? Wouldn't that give you an advantage over your competition, keep your users happier, make you look better, and, thereby, improve your business? Wouldn't that be interesting to you? That idea is the essence of tiered access: for a fee, the telecoms could grant some Internet data a higher priority over other data.
Again, as a practical matter, Internet access already is tiered. In general, Internet access fees paid by companies and individual Internet users are proportional to the amount of bandwidth they receive. ISPs have been offering tiered access for years, encouraging users to upgrade from dialup to broadband services, and from "slow" technologies like ISDN and low-end DSL to "world-class" DSL, wireless, and cable modem solutions. Businesses face the same decisions on a larger scale, buying bandwidth, network access, and access to colocation facilities at varying rates depending on the services they need.
The Crux -- If implemented, tiered access schemes would change one of the Internet's fundamental (if abstract) principles: that all data is treated with the same priority, regardless of type, origin, or destination. Under tiered access, data from preferred sources or services would get special treatment; depending on the provider, that information might traverse dedicated network links, enjoy the lion's share of available bandwidth at bottlenecks, or be routed more quickly than other data. Whatever the means, preferred data would travel on the telecoms' Internet network more quickly and with greater reliability.
Telecommunications companies essentially look at this idea as innovation: they're creating new premium services which are valuable to online businesses, and which can be paid for at premium rates. An AT&T executive recently argued tiered access wouldn't change the way the Internet operates for everyday users; instead, tiered access would create new communications channels in addition to existing Internet infrastructure. Although few technical details of possible implementations are available, it's pretty easy to imagine scenarios where the telecoms' claims would be true. Many different types of businesses and organizations require reliable and secure data transfer mechanisms - think banks and financial institutions, governmental agencies, manufacturers, government contractors, and media companies. In the "old days" these industries often set up their own private networks - an example would be the networks used by now-ubiquitous ATM machines. Nowadays, the tools these industries use are based on Internet technologies, and so those businesses want to use the Internet. Through tiered access, telecoms would essentially offer these organizations the benefit of reliable, private networks with the advantages of the Internet.
But tiered access doesn't have to stop there: telecoms could partner with Internet companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to ensure their data was also handled preferentially, or let customers upgrade their service so any data they request is treated with priority - and this is where the polemics get pretty thick. Telecoms argue that charging Internet companies for preferred access is only fair, since many of those companies are currently getting a "free lunch" on the telecoms' Internet networks. Revenue from tiered access would enable telecoms to build the next generation of Internet networks.
Internet companies, conversely, argue that tiered access would create an Internet where only the richest players can get their data through reliably: unless Internet companies pay telecoms "protection money," they can't count on their data getting through to users effectively.
One objection to tiered access is technical - although, without knowing the specifics of how tiered access systems would operate, it's hard to evaluate. Generally, network engineers prefer "dumb" transparent networks to network architectures which use so-called "intelligent" data management. Historically, networks which try to move as many bits as possible as quickly and transparently as they can have achieved better performance and greater reliability than networks which analyze and apply policies to data transmission and routing. Telecoms have argued that treating the entire Internet as just one "dumb pipe" prohibits them from creating the new types of networks and data services tomorrow's online businesses require. On the other hand, the proliferation of firewalls, access technologies, security tools, and other extensions to basic Internet operations mean that, in practice, today's Internet isn't nearly as "dumb" as it used to be, although many major backbones and interconnection points are still remarkably transparent.
The Politics -- In U.S. politics, "net neutrality" is not a new topic, but it's rapidly moving from conference rooms and offices to the floor of the U.S. Congress. Several draft bills before Congressional committees in 2006 have contained provisions intended to mandate network neutrality (as of this writing, none have made it out of committee). In August 2005, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a set of principles outlining a policy which largely embodied common ideas about network neutrality, after it had imposed a small fine on Madison River Communications in March 2005 for blocking Vonage's VoIP service to its local phone customers. Nonetheless, in legal terms the Internet is an unregulated information service within the United States.
Underlying the pro and con arguments regarding network neutrality legislation is the notion of Internet service as being subject to "common carrier" regulations developed for telephone networks (and, before that, telegraphs and railroads). Under common carrier laws, owners of a system are not allowed to leverage their ownership to undercut third-party services. In the United States, Internet service is not subject to common carrier laws. The networks which comprise the Internet are privately owned and managed, and, despite that policy statement from the FCC, they are largely free of government regulation. For the most part, network operators can do whatever they want - it just happens to have been to their advantage, thus far, to keep their networks comparatively transparent to each other.
Telecommunications companies argue that legislating network neutrality would amount to the first significant regulation of the Internet, and, in the end, would amount to government-imposed price controls for Internet services. Without pricing freedom - a concept near and dear to many sectors of the American economy - telecoms say they won't be able to roll out new advanced network services. They simply won't be able to raise the money: the bulk of revenue potential from anything telecoms can build would be gobbled up by Internet companies, many of whom would be paying little or nothing to access the network.
Internet companies and advocacy groups argue sites like Yahoo, Google, and YouTube might never have come into existence if they'd had to pay telecommunications providers for premium network access. New technologies like instant messaging, digital media, and VoIP (and, indeed, more controversial technologies like peer-to-peer file sharing) may never have been developed if tiered access schemes had been in place.
Moreover, some argue tiered access could limit consumer choice. If (for instance) RealNetworks pays for preferred access but Apple does not, suddenly RealNetworks' online music offerings can look more attractive than iTunes - not on the basis of service offerings or product merits, but simply because RealNetworks' data gets to some users faster and more reliably. Smaller businesses might not be able to get into the fast lane at all, thus preventing their products or services from reaching that critical mass to become "the next big thing."
Advocacy groups extend this concept beyond the business sector: political organizations, non-profits, and "citizen journalists" (e.g. bloggers) might have their voices squelched because they can't afford to buy into the telecoms' fast lanes. Furthermore, telecoms could simply choose not to sell preferred access to some businesses or technologies, or, more chillingly, publishers of particular political viewpoints. Perhaps Verizon thinks VoIP technology is cutting too deeply into its traditional telephone service offerings: well, there's nothing on the books which says they are required to sell preferred access to companies like Vonage or Skype. Telecommunications companies say they would never block or degrade Internet services on their networks, since doing so would be a public relations nightmare and cost them customers. That might be true, but opponents argue that U.S. consumers typically don't have enough choices for broadband service for market forces to play a major role in telecoms' access policies.
Stay Tuned -- The debate over network neutrality will only heat up in the coming months, and you can expect punditry from both sides. In the end, it may be important to remember the debate largely originates with telecommunications companies' desire to get at a larger share of the money being earned by major players in the Internet economy, like Google, Amazon.com, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple, as well as whichever companies turn out to be the leaders streaming video, television, and movies to consumers. Given the economic and political power wielded by telecoms, it's almost certain they will succeed: it's just a question of how, and if the method in which they succeed turns out to be the slippery slope predicted by the naysayers.
by Adam C. Engst <firstname.lastname@example.org>
It's been six months since my last entry in our ongoing survey of GPS devices with voice navigation, and in my most recent article, I wrote generally nice things about the Magellan RoadMate 760. Its closest competition from Garmin, the StreetPilot 2720, arrived for evaluation just before a pair of trips, one from San Francisco to Seattle, and another from our home in Ithaca, NY, to New York City. Overall, the StreetPilot 2720 offers nearly the same feature set as the similarly priced RoadMate 760, but with a finer attention to detail and to usability, and it comes out as the preferred choice between the two. Moreover, with the StreetPilot 2720, I'm a bit hard-pressed to suggest improvements; Garmin has done a fine job and I can imagine only a few places where Garmin could extend the unit's capabilities. Both devices are commonly discounted to about $700, though some lesser-known vendors discount the RoadMate 760 even more.
Though I encourage you to check out the previous articles I've written on the topic, in short, these devices accept a destination address, calculate a route to the destination, provide spoken turn-by-turn directions, and recalculate quickly if a mistake is made (either by the GPS or the driver) or if the driver chooses to deviate from the recommended course for whatever reason. Although I can't recommend that anyone buy one for driving familiar routes in a small town, I consider these GPS devices utterly essential for long trips in unknown territory or for navigating complex areas in big cities.
The two significant features that set the RoadMate 760 apart from its predecessor, the RoadMate 700, are SayWhere, which speaks the name of upcoming roads along with the turning directions, and SmartDetour, which automatically calculates a new route if the car spends too much time crawling in traffic. Predictably, Garmin's StreetPilot 2720 offers extremely similar features, so that's where I'll start.
Chatty Mappers -- The RoadMate 760's voice synthesis of street names was a highly welcome improvement over previous devices that could speak only the turn details ("Turn left in point five miles"). However, the RoadMate 760 used recorded voices for the turn details, resulting in different voices within the same set of instructions, which was constantly jarring. In contrast, the StreetPilot 2720 uses a very high quality synthesized voice for both street names and turn details, so the spoken directions come in a single, naturally spoken sentence. Though I couldn't compare the voice qualities side-by-side, my impression is that the StreetPilot's text-to-speech synthesis was better, and its pronunciation of uncommon names was more accurate, if not perfect. Plus, many roads have multiple names or numbers, and the StreetPilot 2720 spoke only the first one, which felt more fluid than the way the RoadMate 760 would slog through all possible names.
Unfortunately, I hadn't been able to test the RoadMate 760's SmartDetour capabilities in real-world traffic (since there isn't any traffic in Ithaca), but driving in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City with the StreetPilot 2720 provided numerous opportunities to test its detour capabilities. As far as I could see, it didn't automatically suggest detours as the RoadMate 760 supposedly would have, but when we manually asked for a detour, it did a good job of quickly finding an alternate route. Equally unfortunate was my failing to ask for Garmin's GTM 10, an optional FM traffic receiver that can receive real-time information about traffic, road construction, and weather-related problems in selected cities. When connected to the StreetPilot 2720, it can theoretically receive such information and suggest alternative routes. That would have been wonderful when attempting to drive from Queens to Staten Island, a 45 minute trip that can take several hours due to the astonishingly awful traffic on both the Belt Parkway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The interface for selecting these alternative routes could be improved in all of these GPS devices. They usually enable the user to specify how far off course a detour should go, and we were also able to identify specific roads as being problematic. Those are fine options, but we found the entire process somewhat mystifying - when we were stuck in slow traffic, we had no way of knowing how far out of our way was reasonable, and since we weren't familiar with the roads, we had no way of knowing which ones to identify as problematic after the one we were on. Plus, when we asked for a new route, we had to scroll through the turn list manually and try to decide if it was better; the StreetPilot 2720 didn't provide any way of comparing the old and new routes. Once, while poking along in construction-related traffic near Grants Pass, Oregon, we asked for a detour and luckily noticed that the predicted arrival time to Ashland, Oregon had increased by 40 minutes - the detour would have worked, but would have taken us hugely out of our way. A better interface would provide several different route options, sorted by the increase in time/distance, and with the turn list for each easily scannable.
Intangible Experiences -- Much of the effort of creating an effective interface comes in the small touches, and here's where I think Garmin currently has the lead on Magellan. For instance, although the RoadMate 760 automatically switches from its standard flat map view to a 3D view when approaching a turn, the StreetPilot 2720 (and this was true of the StreetPilot c330 I reviewed earlier, too) usually shows a 3D view with perspective, scaled to show both the current location (larger) and the next turn (smaller, since it's further away). This approach proves tremendously intuitive, and the StreetPilot 2720 switches to a flat map view only when the current location and the next turn are many miles apart.
Years ago, I was driving with my friend Sandro in Seattle, and as he gave me directions, he would always tell me what the next turn would be as soon as I'd made the last one, even if it wasn't coming up right away. It was his New Year's resolution, he said, and I remember being quite impressed with how easy it was to follow his directions, since I always had a good sense of what was coming next. Though I can't remember what the RoadMate 760 did precisely in this regard, my impression is that the StreetPilot 2720 did a better job of mimicking Sandro's approach, particularly when the next turn was coming up quickly.
The RoadMate 760 provided a countdown of how long before we'd arrive at our destination, but we had to do the math to figure out what time that would be. The StreetPilot 2720 takes the opposite approach by default, giving the arrival time and letting us figure out how long that was away; it matches better with the way we think.
Finally, although we didn't end up changing the defaults much, the StreetPilot 2720 makes it possible to customize the display and other behaviors in a wide variety of ways. I could easily see someone finding a particular default annoying, so the capability to change them is welcome.
Physical Details -- Although the RoadMate 760 and StreetPilot 2720 are more alike than different, the StreetPilot wins out. The StreetPilot 2720 internalizes the external antenna that the user must raise on the RoadMate 760 (both can accept more sensitive external antennas if necessary), and yet its satellite reception was just as good. It wasn't perfect, though, and in the skyscraper canyons of New York City and the depths of Northern California's sodden redwood forests, its capability to lock on to the satellite signal was poor. It wasn't a problem on the rural Highway 101 in California, but we experienced some stress in Manhattan for a number of blocks before it was able to determine our location and provide the essential directions to Queens (if only it could have told us that getting into the Midtown Tunnel wasn't for the faint of heart).
Though I can't compare the screens of the two devices side-by-side, I can say that the StreetPilot 2720's screen is excellent; despite driving in sun and wearing sunglasses, I never had a situation where I couldn't read it easily. Garmin also includes a snug plastic cover that protects the screen when you are packing the StreetPilot or merely stuffing it in the glove compartment to hide it while parked.
The StreetPilot 2720 was also the first of the GPS devices I've used that came with a beanbag mount rather than a gooseneck attached to a suction cup. I'm a convert - the wonderfully adjustable beanbag mount, which has a non-stick plastic on the bottom, was utterly stable, unlike the shaky gooseneck mounts, and it was easy for Tonya to grab it off the dash to enter a new destination address or otherwise work with the interface without having to lean forward. The only downside was occasionally knocking loose the power connector on the back, which forced the device to reboot. Garmin also includes an infrared remote control to enable the passenger to navigate the interface without leaning forward, but we weren't impressed. Its keys didn't map particularly well to the touch-screen interface of the StreetPilot 2720, and despite putting in new batteries, button presses were often ignored.
Initially I was put off by the StreetPilot 2720's onscreen controls for volume, since it was fairly difficult to adjust the volume up and down to account for the increase and decrease in road noise as the car moved faster and slower. It seemed that a physical knob would have worked better. But then I discovered a preference for automatic volume control linked to speed, after which the only times I had trouble hearing the instructions were when music or a podcast were playing too loudly.
Oddly, the StreetPilot 2720 doesn't contain a speaker. Instead, the speaker is integrated into the power plug. This didn't prove problematic in any of the cars I tested in, but I could imagine a situation where it might be more convenient to have the plug in a position where it couldn't double as a speaker.
Where Next? For the most part, the GPS companies are focusing their product improvements in several main areas: music, hands-free cell phone use, traffic reporting, XM radio, photo presentations, and additional point-of-interest data. Of these, it clearly makes sense to integrate an MP3 player into the same device, since it's awkward to jury-rig an iPod with only a single power outlet in the dash. And yet, Apple has done such a good job with the iPod interface that I fear a music-playing interface in a GPS would be a constant irritant. That's not to say it couldn't be done well, with features such as automatic pausing of playback to speak directions and easy toggling between music and map displays, but I'll have to see one to believe it.
Similarly, features like enabling hands-free cell phone use via the speaker in the GPS, XM radio, and including traffic conditions in routing make a ton of sense, particularly (from the perspective of the manufacturers) for differentiating between models and keeping the price high. On the other hand, being able to show photos on the screen (on the battery powered models, of course) feels utterly extraneous; it may be easy to do, but it's also easy to ignore.
I do look forward to the promised Travel Guide add-on feature in the Garmin StreetPilot c550; it provides recommendations for restaurants and other points-of-interest. We often found ourselves using the point-of-interest database to look for a nearby restaurant, and then trying to evaluate the likelihood that any given restaurant was halfway decent based purely on the name. The best strategy we came up with was to look for a cluster of similar businesses in close proximity, since restaurants and gas stations, for instance, tend to be located near one another, so heading for a cluster proved the best way to find a good meal or cheap(er) gas.
Travel Guide sounds like a good start, but what I'd really like to see is the integration of local knowledge into these devices, mediated through a user-driven Web site. Imagine if it were possible to rate existing points-of-interest and add comments about them, uploading the details to a site and downloading ratings and comments from others. Take it another level and the user community could also correct the few mistakes in the map and point-of-interest databases, thus increasing the value of the system for all users. Although both Garmin and Magellan allow custom point-of-interest databases, neither has shown any indication of opening up the entire database to the user community yet; perhaps TomTom or another company will make the first step to involve users in the evolution of the product.
by TidBITS Staff <email@example.com>
The first link for each thread description points to the traditional TidBITS Talk interface; the second link points to the same discussion on our Web Crossing server, which provides a different look and which may be faster.
The Long & Winding Road -- Readers discuss the recent court victory of Apple Computer versus Apple Corps, including the relative values of the two "brands." (8 messages)
Two Corrections in TidBITS 827 -- Following up on last week's correction regarding screen shot keyboard commands, readers bring up Snapz Pro X and a key combination in Mac OS X to capture screen images to the Clipboard. (3 messages)
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.
Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue