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On the Road with the Magellan RoadMate 700

When I last wrote about GPS navigation, Tonya and I had just returned from the mean streets of New York City safely, thanks to the Garmin StreetPilot c330 GPS’s voice-navigation instructions. But perhaps the Garmin c330 wasn’t the ultimate GPS navigation device. The other big name in GPS is Magellan, so I requested a review unit of the RoadMate 700, the model most comparable to the StreetPilot c330, thanks to its pre-loaded map set. The test? Our trip to Macworld Expo in Boston. Unlike New York City, it’s easy to get to Boston from Ithaca; you just follow interstates to the Massachusetts Turnpike, which runs smack into the city. The problem is what happens once you get there, given that Boston is notorious for having some of the most, er… creative street layouts and markings. Would the RoadMate 700 take us successfully to and from our hotel, with some city street navigation through Cambridge on the way home?


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The Hardware — The RoadMate 700 is a bit larger and heavier than the StreetPilot c330 because the RoadMate 700 duplicates touch screen functions with a keypad, includes a hard drive for storing all the maps, and has a slightly larger display. In real-world usage, however, we didn’t have trouble with the size of either device, though the slimmer profile of the RoadMate 700 (the one dimension where it’s smaller than the StreetPilot c330) made it easier to store in the glove compartment when not in use.

The screen quality was similar, with the RoadMate 700’s screen being clear and easy to read, except in bright sun. Tonya found its touch screen a bit less accurate at tracking her finger presses than the StreetPilot c330’s screen. However, the RoadMate 700 provides extra controls in the form of right-mounted buttons. There are plus and minus buttons for zooming in and out, an eight-way rocker button for scrolling, and Enter and Cancel buttons for responding to prompts and navigating menus. Then there are three buttons labeled Option (for entering the configuration screens), View (for changing between different views), and Locate (for showing where you are on the map and giving more information about your location). Magellan undoubtedly thought that duplicating most of the touch screen functionality with buttons would help users, and it may, but we found it somewhat confusing, since we had to think at each point whether it made more sense to touch the screen or press a button. And since Tonya found herself leaning forward to press them, she often wasn’t entirely sure if she’d pressed the button hard enough, leading to more interface frustration.

The extra weight of the RoadMate 700 probably comes from its internal hard drive and associated power supply, and although the weight of the device isn’t an issue at all, the hard drive does make for a slower startup than a RAM-based device. I’d also be a little concerned about the hard drive if the device was left on the dashboard on a blisteringly hot day, and I can’t imagine that bitterly cold winter temperatures would be good for it either.

The review unit came with the suction-cup window mount, which attached and detached easily from our Honda Civic’s windshield. We did have to position it fairly carefully, though, with the bottom of the arm firmly touching the dashboard, to prevent the RoadMate 700 from shaking enough to become hard to read; even still, it didn’t feel as solid as would have been ideal. Magellan offers other mounting accessories; it’s possible that one of them would work better.

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Most notable in the RoadMate 700’s physical design was the lack of a battery, which meant not only that the RoadMate 700 required an outlet in the car (which we provided via a lashed-up power splitter so we could use our iPod as well), but also that it turned off every time we turned the car off. Although the RoadMate 700 was smart about resuming routing directions after coming back up, the boot process was by no means instantaneous, making for some annoying delays after stopping for gas. The lack of a battery also means you can’t use the RoadMate 700 outside of the car unless you plug it into the wall, making it clumsy to use indoors and impossible to use on foot or on a bike.

There and Back Again — In real world use, the RoadMate was a success; it gave us essentially accurate directions that took us to our hotel in Boston, to Tonya’s sister’s apartment in Cambridge, and home again, complete with a number of unplanned detours forced upon us by creative Boston intersections and construction blockages. Each time we deviated from its planned route, it calculated a new route for us quickly, although it tended to be retentive about the quality of the original route, usually saying, "When possible, make a legal U-turn." Perhaps it’s just me, but U-turns strike me as dangerous, so I would have preferred it to say, "When possible, turn around safely" so I could look for the next reasonable parking lot driveway to pull into and turn around in.

Though the RoadMate 700 was a success, and we would have had far more trouble navigating in Boston without it, it wasn’t an unqualified success. Twice in Harvard Square in Cambridge, the RoadMate 700 tried to send us down one-way streets the wrong way. And yes, I know the Boston joke about how "it’s only one block" down the one-way street; maybe the RoadMate 700’s designers spent their college years at Harvard or MIT and know which one-way signs can be ignored. Once, when we tried to exclude a road from the directions in an attempt to get the RoadMate 700 to give us a new route, it seemed to get stuck, and we had to cancel the routing and try again entirely. Its timing for warning us of approaching turns seemed to be a little less accurate, or perhaps a little less what we expected, than the StreetPilot c330’s directions. Particularly in situations where there were a number of streets very close together, it was hard to follow its instructions properly while driving safely; I took a wrong turn in Harvard Square because there were several "right" turns at a confusing intersection and I had to make a decision before I’d heard the tone that indicated "turn now."

Those tones, by the way, were helpful and accurate; the tone played just as you should be turning. In a clever touch, turning left, turning right, and staying straight generated different tones, though my ears aren’t sufficiently trained to say exactly how they were different. As with the StreetPilot c330, I found myself wishing that instead of the tones, the RoadMate 700 would just speak the name of the next street, since it’s hard to glance down at the display to read it when performing complex maneuvers.

We also preferred the 3-D map display of the StreetPilot c330 over the overhead map view of the RoadMate 700. Although the RoadMate 700 also featured a "TrueView" 3-D view, it appeared only for turns, either taking over the entire screen or splitting the screen in half. A maneuver list view showed just the directions, which was handy for sanity checking the route in advance. The maneuver list also appeared automatically when the RoadMate 700 lost the GPS signal for a certain amount of time, which is smart, though it didn’t save us from making the wrong turn as we came out from a tunnel in Boston because we couldn’t find any street signs that matched the next turn. Luckily, the RoadMate 700 was able to guide us back on track once it picked up the satellite signal again.

Speaking of the satellites, reception was another disappointment with the RoadMate 700. Once it locked on, it was fine, but sometimes it took quite a while to find the satellites in situations that should not have been problematic (clear skies, no trees or tall buildings, or other obvious obstacles). We drove more than 2 miles through Boston on Massachusetts Avenue toward Cambridge, including crossing the Charles River on a wide-open bridge, before the RoadMate 700 picked up the satellite signal. That was a little hair-raising, since although we had a maneuver list, we knew making our way through Cambridge was going to be tricky. The RoadMate 700 has a little flip-up antenna built in, and if that’s insufficient, Magellan sells an external antenna.

On the plus side, we had several opportunities to use the point-of-interest database, which we hadn’t tried with the StreetPilot c330. It was brilliant, since we could ask it to find us a restaurant nearby, scroll through the list to eliminate the fast food joints at which we won’t stop on principle, and then get directions to a local cafe or diner just a bit further off the freeway than we would previously have ventured, all without worrying about how we’d get back on the freeway, since we knew the RoadMate would take us back as well. Plus, as we were leaving Massachusetts on the way home, I made the mistake of not filling up with gas at the last service stop in Massachusetts and thus ending up in the barren zone before getting to Albany. The tank was getting worryingly low, so I asked the RoadMate 700 to find a gas station nearby. It did, taking us up I-90, which had the interesting result of changing the rest of the directions home to go a route we’d never considered before, but which turned out to be equally fast.

Entering an address into the RoadMate 700 is easy, thanks to its QuickSpell technology for limiting the amount of data input necessary. Although I couldn’t test this, it’s reportedly possible to beam an address to the RoadMate 700 from a Palm or PocketPC device. One advantage over the StreetPilot c330 was that whenever we programmed a route into the RoadMate 700, we could choose from shortest time, shortest distance, least use of freeways, and most use of freeways. Although the choice seemed like a good thing, we couldn’t see any particular difference between the different options most of the time, and there wasn’t an easy way to compare what they would do. We had the RoadMate 700 only for a few weeks of review, though, so it’s possible that these options would be significantly more obvious and helpful if you were to use it on a regular basis in a congested metropolitan area.

The Big Picture — Although the RoadMate 700 worked well at its basic task most of the time, it didn’t evoke in us the same level of appreciation as the StreetPilot c330 did. It had more options, including male and female voices and the choice of touch screen or physical controls, but those options didn’t seem to add much other than some complexity. One option that could have been useful to other people was support for three users, each with their own recently entered addresses and preferences. If you were planning on sharing a GPS with others (perhaps to justify the cost of an expensive gadget), this capability could be quite handy.

As with the StreetPilot series, infrequent map upgrades for the RoadMate 700 aren’t free, so you have to factor in paying even more money on top of the $750 to $1,000 price you’ll find at various retailers. All together, that’s a bit much for my tastes, particularly with my worry about the hard drive in extreme environmental conditions, so I’ll be continuing my search for the ultimate GPS navigation device.

It’s possible that device will in fact be coming from Magellan: as I was finishing this review, I learned that the company had released the RoadMate 760, which is essentially the same hardware as the 700, but with some tremendously attractive new features. Most notable is its "SayWhere" text-to-speech technology that speaks the name of the next turn – at last! It also features multi-destination routing, which I’ve not needed, but which would be key for a consultant or anyone running multiple errands in an unfamiliar area. Then there’s automatic brightness and volume control that adjusts screen brightness and speaker volume with time of day and speed; with the 700 we found ourselves adjusting volume levels at various times to deal with changing amounts of road noise. "Smart Detour" to route around traffic jams, construction, and other unpredictable obstacles automatically when traffic stops for more than a few minutes. And lastly, its point-of-interest database increases from nearly 2 million entries for the 700 to nearly 7 million.

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Of course, Garmin hasn’t been sitting still, with the StreetPilot c340 and StreetPilot 2720 both adding text-to-speech and optional notification and routing around congestion in certain metropolitan areas, so even the RoadMate 760 will have plenty of competition. Watch this space!



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