In my last article about GPS devices with voice-navigation, I mentioned that Magellan was coming out with the RoadMate 760, an upgrade to the RoadMate 700 I was then reviewing that offered two additional features: SayWhere, a text-to-speech capability that enables the device to read the name of the street on which you were next to turn, and SmartDetour, which automatically reroutes you around traffic jams and other obstructions. I’ve now had a chance to use the RoadMate 760 in some real-world navigation, and I can say with some assurance that SayWhere is a worthwhile technology, though one that feels a bit tacked on at the moment. Though I’ll describe SmartDetour below, it’s so automatic that I couldn’t force it to work in any relevant way.
Speak Up For Yourself — The primary attraction of the voice-navigation capabilities of these GPS devices is that they enable you to keep your eyes where they should be – on the road – while still receiving appropriate directions. The first voice-navigation device we tried, the Motorola i58sr cell phone with Nextel service, excelled at this, which was a good thing, given its tiny grayscale screen. Though they have much better screens, the Garmin c330 and Magellan RoadMate 700 didn’t match up audibly because they limit their spoken instructions to turns and distances: "Turn right in two miles." With the RoadMate 760, Magellan still hasn’t quite caught up to how I remember the Motorola phone working, but they’re at least heading in the right direction.
The SayWhere technology really is text-to-speech, and although it does quite well, it can’t avoid the pronunciation limitations of all the text-to-speech implementations I’ve ever heard. So, one road near our house is called "Genung," with the vocal stress on the second "nung" syllable, as "ge-NUNG." SayWhere renders it with the stress on the first syllable, as in "GE-nung." Just as when visitors mispronounce local names (in both upstate New York and in western Washington, where we’ve lived, there are numerous tongue-flustering place names derived from Native American words), it’s discomfiting whenever SayWhere gets a name wrong, and I found myself biting back a correction. Similarly, it’s overly enthusiastic about reading out all the possible names for a particular road. So, Ellis Hollow Road may also be County Route 110, but no one here ever says that, and I sincerely doubt that more than a handful of even the people who live on the road know that fact. So when the RoadMate 760 announces that I’m to turn on "Ellis Hollow Road, County Route 110," I almost found myself arguing with it. But these are nits, since, other than for testing purposes, I would never use a GPS when driving on familiar roads, and if the roads are not familiar, I’d have no idea whether the pronunciation or name was correct.
Overall, SayWhere does a good job of pronouncing street names, and I was never confused about where to turn. Oddly, although you can choose between high quality pre-recorded male and female voices for all the directions, SayWhere uses a female voice with a somewhat nasal tone that made me think of the speech patterns of some area around New York City, though I couldn’t place the specific accent. I had preferred the female voice with the RoadMate 700, but I switched to the male voice with the 760 to avoid two slightly different female voices – it was a bit like the problem with two shades of the same color clashing horribly. Besides, having very different voices made it seem as if I had a tiny news reporting team inside the RoadMate 760: the male anchor who told me where to go and the female color commentator added the street name after most of his instructions.
Nevertheless, I’d like a future version of the RoadMate to use a single voice for both directions and street names, and to integrate them naturally into a sentence. The current "Turn right in point two miles" in one voice, followed by "Mitchell Street" in another voice isn’t as elegant as "Turn right on Mitchell Street in point two miles" would be.
There is one situation in which SayWhere simply fell down. Whenever I headed off route for any reason, the pre-recorded voice would say, "Calculating route," and would then give me the next direction: "Turn left in point four miles." But whereas in every other situation, the female SayWhere voice would chime in with the name of the street on which I was supposed to turn, SayWhere always remained silent on the name of the next turn after recalculating the route. I suspect it’s less a bug than a design trade-off; perhaps the CPU power necessary to recalculate the route prevents the RoadMate 760 from being able to generate the spoken name of the next street. It’s too bad, since the initial recalculation of a route is a time during which you particularly would like to know the next street name.
SmartDetour — I received the review unit of the RoadMate 760 immediately before a big trip, so I didn’t have time to read its documentation. That was no problem with SayWhere; I simply found the appropriate setting in the options, turned it on, and heard the street names read to me. But with SmartDetour, the default options seemed reasonable, but I couldn’t figure out how to invoke it. A bit of subsequent research in the documentation reveals that SmartDetour kicks in automatically to suggest a new route after a user-defined number of minutes driving at less than 15 miles per hour. It also lets the user set how lengthy the detour can be, which is helpful for ensuring the detour isn’t worse than the delay. I didn’t run into any traffic jams on any of the trips I’ve taken with the RoadMate 760, and it’s extremely unusual in Ithaca to run into slow traffic other than at "rush minute," which I avoid as a matter of principle, so I’ve never seen SmartDetour kick in automatically. Interestingly, the RoadMate 760 Web page claims that you can invoke SmartDetour manually by pressing the Enter key while driving, though this fact isn’t mentioned in the manual or in any of the device’s built-in tutorials. If I were driving in a congested metropolitan area, I suspect I’d appreciate SmartDetour a great deal.
Mac Unfriendly — When reviewing the RoadMate 700, I forgot to mention that, like the Garmin c330, maps can be updated only from a PC; Mac users are simply out of luck. On the one hand, I think that’s a shame, since in this day and age of Java, it’s simply not that hard to write a cross-platform application that can update the maps via a USB connection, and both Magellan and Garmin are needlessly limiting their market and annoying their Mac-using customers. In contrast, the third big GPS player, TomTom, does provide Macintosh software for communicating with their TomTom Go series of devices, although I haven’t seen it yet, since they’ve been incapable of sending me a review unit of the TomTom Go 300.
One area that might particularly bother some Mac users is that the RoadMate 760 can accept uploaded points of interest via the Windows-only POI Manager software. It turns out that there are point-of-interest databases available on the Internet, such as the Pocket GPS World Safety Camera Database (for the United Kingdom) that list locations of speed-detection cameras. I didn’t test this capability, but it seems to be common on all the high-end GPS models from Magellan, Garmin, and TomTom.
All that said, I’m not as bothered by Magellan’s and Garmin’s boorishness as I would be with a device that has more to gain from integration with the Mac. I see these voice-navigation GPS units – particularly the ones I’ve been reviewing that come pre-loaded with maps – as essentially stand-alone devices, and although updating the internal map database will require a PC, it’s also something that should be necessary (or at least desirable) only every 18 months or so. The lower-end GPS models that require the user to load and unload maps on a regular basis would likely be far more annoying for the Mac user, though I’ve seen reports that the software from both Magellan and Garmin can be made to work in Virtual PC and that the SD memory card used in the Magellan RoadMate 500 mounts properly and can have maps copied to it via a USB media reader connected to a Mac.
You Have Arrived (Well, Not Quite Yet) — Is the Magellan RoadMate 760 the ultimate voice-navigation GPS? No, although the addition of the SayWhere technology brings it closer to my ideal device. Pretty much everything I said about the RoadMate 700 before applies to the RoadMate 760, including my gripes about the form factor, duplicated controls, lack of a battery, slow satellite lock, and occasional mis-directions (from which it helped me recover gracefully, at least). It costs between $800 and $900, depending on where you buy.
The real reason the RoadMate 760 doesn’t qualify as my ideal GPS navigator is that both Magellan and Garmin continue to release new models at an astonishing clip. Magellan now sells the slightly smaller RoadMate 800, which can play MP3 files and display photos (as many as you can store in 4.5 GB). It also includes an integrated rechargeable battery (so you can view photos or play music somewhere other than your car), features a 3D map view, and costs about $1,000.
Garmin has a number of new models as well. Along with acting as a voice-navigation GPS device, the tiny Nuvi plays MP3s and audio books from Audible.com, displays JPEG photos, and offers utilities like a world clock, currency converter, measurement converter, and calculator. At $1,000, it appears to be price- and feature-comparable to the Magellan RoadMate 800. The StreetPilot i5 is roughly the same size as the Nuvi, but costs only about $500, thanks to money-saving features like AA batteries, a smaller and lower-quality screen, and no fancy extras like MP3 support. On the high end (about $1,300), the StreetPilot 2730 will soon offer a full set of voice-navigation features, including text-to-speech capabilities for reading street and point-of-interest names, along with XM radio support that enables it to receive XM NavTraffic reports, XM WX Weather reports, and normal XM radio – all of which can be routed to the car’s speakers via an integrated FM transmitter or with a 3.5 mm stereo headphone/line out plug.
Clearly, I have more work to do. I wonder what trips might be coming up soon?