It’s 11:00 PM, and we’re in moderately heavy traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge on our way into New York City. Our directions, passed down in the family for generations (well, at least it seems that way) say to take the second exit after the bridge. Counting down, it’s exit 9, then exit 8A, then exit 8… clearly we should take exit 8A, except that 8A is for I-87, whereas we’re supposed to be getting on the wonderfully named Sprain Brook Parkway next. Traffic’s moving too quickly, and I’ve already committed to exiting by the time Tonya has realized that we really should have taken exit 8.
Under normal circumstances, this mistake would have been cause for much gnashing of teeth, rending of hair, and unkind words directed, at the least, at the transportation engineers who designed the confusing interchange. But these aren’t normal circumstances, and we’re driving with the aid of a Garmin StreetPilot c330 GPS device that is calmly, without allowing even the barest hint of peevishness in its voice, giving us directions that will take us to the Throgs Neck Bridge via the Hutchinson River Parkway. At 11:00 PM at night. In the dark. On roads we’ve never before seen. And it does so with complete success, directing us to the hotel in Queens where my family has gathered to attend my grandfather’s funeral the next day.
The funeral was unanticipated, though due the medical care being committed upon my grandfather, not entirely surprising. Nonetheless, we had only 24 hours notice, a TidBITS issue to edit, a DealBITS drawing to coordinate, several deadlines related to our Take Control of Tiger collection for Peachpit, and the usual packing and trip preparation. Luckily, I was able to lay my hands on the StreetPilot c330 to test in the real-world mean streets (and freeways and expressways and parkways and turnpikes) of New York City. New York may not be the ultimate test of a GPS, but it certainly ranks up there in terms of complex and stressful driving.
Last week, when I wrote about using the Motorola i58sr GPS-enabled cell phone, I noted that I was disappointed in its reliance on having a clear cell signal to download instructions, the lousy interface for entering destinations, and more. The StreetPilot c330 addressed all those issues and fared poorly in only some comparisons. And well it should, given that its suggested retail price is $964.27.
In the Flesh — Physically, the StreetPilot c330 is well-designed, and far more so than the GPS-enabled cell phone. Rather than the candy bar shape of the cell phone, which forces the screen to be relatively small to make room for the keys, the StreetPilot c330 is nothing but screen. It ends up looking similar to a dehydrated original iMac – slightly lozenge-like. Its 3.5-inch (8.9 cm) backlit screen offers 320 by 240 resolution with 16-bit color; almost all functions are accessible via the touch screen, eliminating the need for a keypad of any sort. It features an integrated lithium battery with a reputed 4-hour battery life; our trips to and from New York City were in the 3.5 hour range, and we had no problems with the battery conking out. The only physical controls are a rotary volume knob and an on/off switch. It fits snugly into a decently designed suction cup mount that attaches firmly to the windshield.
The screen was clear and easy to read, except in bright sun, and wearing sunglasses to combat the bright sun made the screen only harder to read (that was one area where the monochrome screen of the GPS-enabled cell phone succeeded). At dusk, the StreetPilot c330 automatically changed the display colors from a yellow background to a black background to reduce the distraction of a bright light in the driver’s field of vision. The touch screen itself worked flawlessly, and the device proved trivial to use without reading any directions at all.
Having a battery, which isn’t standard across competing devices, proved to be particularly helpful, since that meant we could use the StreetPilot c330 while leaving our iPod in the DLO TransPod plugged into the single outlet in our Honda Civic. We dislike the TransPod and will replace it at some point, but for now, it’s a functional solution to the problem of how to listen to the iPod in the car with a minimum of cabling snaking around the cabin. If we needed to plug two units into the same outlet, there are apparently adapters that provide a pair of outlets from one. Unfortunately, the StreetPilot c330’s plug was integrated into the suction cup mount, so it was impossible to avoid its dangling cable even when we were running from battery power. The StreetPilot c330 also comes with an AC adapter that charges the battery from a normal wall outlet.
All in Its Head — One key reason for testing the StreetPilot c330 for this trip was that it had all its maps pre-loaded, eliminating the need to figure out how to load maps from a PC via USB. I have an old Garmin eTrex Legend handheld GPS, and loading maps into it requires a PC with a serial cable (a USB adapter might work, but since I have an old PC that does nothing but load maps into the GPS, I haven’t looked into making it work on my newer PC). Although I’m confident that I could have done the map loading, I dislike being forced to use a PC, and the software is neither Mac-compatible nor will it work (reportedly) with Virtual PC. More to the point, I didn’t have the time or energy to load maps before this trip. Also loaded automatically was a database of points-of-interest; we had no opportunity to use it since the trip was so focused. One downside of the StreetPilot c330 (and all devices from Garmin, I believe) is that it comes with only a single free update; after that database upgrades cost an extra $150 (prices vary with other parts of the world), which feels excessive after buying a nearly $1,000 device.
Using the StreetPilot c330’s interface is simple and elegant. Upon powering up, it displays two buttons: Where To? and View Map. Clicking Where To? walks you through the process of entering an address: state, city, street number, and street name. At each point, the StreetPilot c330 provides a list from which to choose as soon as it has seen enough characters to narrow the choices. For instance, I had to enter only IT before it guessed "Ithaca" properly, although, oddly, it wouldn’t accept two-letter state abbreviations. Annoyingly, and I gather that this is true of other GPS devices as well, it was persnickety about the city. In New York City, different areas have different city names, so even though we were in Queens, in New York City, we had to know that the hotel was actually in the city of Bayside and my grandparents’ old house (where Tonya and Tristan and my sister and I all visited when we had some free time) was in actually in Fresh Meadows, even though we’d always written Jamaica for the city in their address. When possible, the StreetPilot c330 remembered the current state and city so all I had to do was click the New York button instead of entering New York as the state each time.
Although the StreetPilot c330 has only a single female voice, it was clear and easily understood at all times, though we did have to max out the volume in most freeway and city driving. Occasionally, on smaller streets, I lowered the volume a notch for aural comfort. I didn’t particularly need a choice of voices (I gather that people with the beginnings of hearing loss appreciate a choice), but the main thing I found disappointing about the StreetPilot c330 was that it has only a small vocabulary that covers the words necessary to say how to turn, what direction to turn, and how far away the turn is. The GPS-enabled phone also spoke the name of the road we were turning onto, which was great, since it eliminated the need to look at the screen at all. Since the StreetPilot c330 lacked that feature, I found myself constantly glancing at the screen to see the name of the next turn, and although I’d positioned it well for that use, anything that distracts from looking at the road can be dangerous.
That said, I found looking at the 3-D map display particularly helpful in two situations. First, when we were driving quickly on Route 17 toward New York City at night, there were sometimes major curves in the road that I couldn’t anticipate in the dark. But seeing them represented a few hundred meters ahead on the StreetPilot c330’s screen enabled me to tell what was coming up. Similarly, when exiting from freeways, being able to see what squirrelly off-ramps looked like ahead of time was extremely welcome.
The StreetPilot c330 has a decent set of options, although I gather that other devices may offer more. For instance, the slightly more expensive Garmin StreetPilot 2620 can accept a series of destinations in a route and can theoretically route around temporary problems such as traffic jams or roadwork (not automatically, the user must specify roads to avoid, though we would have been happy to do that while we were caught in terrible traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway on the way home). It also lets the user choose whether it should prefer large, medium, or small roads and includes a remote so a passenger can interact with it without leaning forward all the time. But on the downside, it can’t run from battery and looks more complex to use.
You Get What You Pay For — I can’t say for sure if the StreetPilot c330 will prove to be the GPS navigation device we end up with. Aside from the difficulty of reading the screen in direct sunlight and its inability to read the names of turns out loud, we liked it a lot, and if it were the only option, we’d be happy with it. But at discount prices starting around $750 and with the promise of one or more $150 database upgrades in the distant future, it’s not cheap, and we don’t do that much driving in unfamiliar areas. Of course, we’d probably rationalize some of the cost by lending it to family and friends on occasions when we didn’t need it, but still… And now that we’ve been bitten by the GPS navigation bug, additional research into competing units from Garmin, along with Magellan and TomTom, is clearly in order. For more anecdotal reviews of other GPS devices, be sure to read the TidBITS Talk thread that’s collecting excellent comments from other TidBITS readers.
In thinking about how to reduce the cost, I also researched the Garmin StreetPilot c320, which differs only in that it comes with a 128 MB SD card for holding maps, which must be loaded from a PC. It reportedly accepts SD cards up to 1 GB for holding lots of maps, which would add about $75, but since the StreetPilot c320 costs only slightly less than $700 at discount, there wouldn’t be any particular savings over the pre-loaded c330.
Oh, remember the problem with our family directions? It turns out that exit 8A is relatively recent, and when the directions were written, it didn’t exist. Change happens, but it won’t cost anything to get new directions from my mother.