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Magellan RoadMate 3000T/6000T Heads Downhill

As those of you who have read my previous reviews of car navigation GPS devices know, I’m a fan of the technology in general. I would happily recommend one to anyone who plans to do a lot of driving in an unfamiliar area. They’re probably also of significant utility to those who are directionally challenged and often find themselves taking wrong turns even in relatively familiar territory. (There are, of course, people who take this too far, and I love the fact that this story of an “overly obedient” driver who drove into a portable toilet while following his GPS’s directions was on a British Web site relating an article from an Australian newspaper about a German driver.)

Along with my appreciation for the utility of GPS navigation technology has come the assumption that technology – and this technology in particular – continually improves with time. We’ve seen features such as spoken street names, automatic routing around slow traffic, and more appear as these devices have matured.

All of these facts make it almost painful to say that in short, I didn’t like the $600 Magellan RoadMate 3000T or its big brother, the $700 RoadMate 6000T, nearly as much as any of the previous GPS devices I’ve tested, including Magellan’s earlier (and now less expensive) RoadMate 700 or 760 (see “On the Road with the Magellan RoadMate 700,” 2005-08-08 and “Magellan RoadMate 760 GPS Speaks Out,” 2005-11-21). For the money, I recommend that you look for a discounted 700 or 760 instead of a new 3000T or 6000T.

Legitimate Advances — I shouldn’t imply that there’s nothing good about these units, because that would be unfair, particularly to the 6000T. Their most notable claim to fame is encapsulated in that T in the model names; it stands for “TrafficKit” and enables the devices to consider traffic conditions when calculating routes. The 6000T requires only an additional antenna that snakes around the car dashboard; the 3000T needs an additional $150 dongle into which the antenna plugs. Both also require that you subscribe to the TrafficKit service, which is free for 3 months for the 6000T and 15 months for the 3000T (once you’ve bought the dongle), after which it costs $60 per year. Although the TrafficKit works only in certain major metropolitan areas in the United States, they’re likely the ones that have the worst traffic.

(The reason I’m reviewing both the 3000T and the 6000T is that the review unit of the 3000T I was sent lacked sufficiently current software to use the TrafficKit, and rather than send me new software that would have required installation on a Windows PC, Magellan sent me a new 6000T instead. And no, like other GPS devices from Magellan and Garmin, these units don’t communicate at all with the Mac, though this would have been the first time Mac-compatibility would have been handy in my testing.)

Both units feature an integrated rechargeable battery, which I approve of heartily because it means you can easily use them inside (for entering addresses) or when the car is turned off, two usage patterns that are common in my experience. Alas, an AC adapter is only an optional accessory, though an included car charger is good enough for most situations.

Although my 3000T came with a prosaic suction cup mount on a bendable arm, the 6000T’s articulated windshield suction cup mount worked even better, and both the power plug and and the TrafficKit’s antenna plugged into the mount, making it easy to remove and stow the GPS itself when leaving the car in a parking lot.

In a welcome bit of catch-up with Garmin, both units now feature a 3D perspective view of the area around you, which I find far more intuitive and easier to scan than Magellan’s traditional flat map view (which remains available as well).

In non-GPS features, both units could accept a Secure Digital card (unfortunately, all I have for my cameras is Compact Flash cards) containing MP3s and photos. Being unable to test these features didn’t particularly bother me though, since I consider them nearly irrelevant to the primary function of the GPS. If I want to listen to MP3s or view photos on a little screen, I’ll use my iPod.

Despite the attractive-sounding nature of all these features, my favorite one is Magellan’s new SmartDetour interface, at least in the 6000T. When we found ourselves in slow traffic, the 6000T flashed an icon onscreen that, when pressed, brought up a screen in which we could choose the distance of the detour. Nothing new there, but when told to find an alternative route, the 6000T not only did so, but presented us with a screen that told us how much longer (in time and distance) the new route would be and asked for confirmation. That’s a near-ideal interface, since otherwise you’re left guessing how much extra driving you’re committing to with a new route. No other GPS I’ve tested so far has provided such information.

Litany of Limitations — As much as Magellan got a few things right, more so with the 6000T than the 3000T, they missed on far too many details for me to recommend these devices. Magellan clearly recognized some of these even in the time or model gap between the 3000T and the 6000T. So the 3000T lacks the SayWhere technology that speaks street names along with directions rather than just telling you when and in which direction to turn. Why would any GPS go backwards in this fashion? (I suspect the already overtaxed CPU couldn’t handle the speech synthesis, but that’s mere speculation.)

Although I appreciate the inclusion of a rechargeable battery for the freedom it provides, turning these units on the first time takes 10 seconds and waking them from sleep with the power button takes at least 3 seconds, a rather long time to sit with a button held down as you’re trying to head out in the car. Turning them off is even worse. I’d press the power button and wait until the sleep screen appeared, warning me not to touch any other button for five seconds. Sounds easy, but it was nearly impossible to avoid pressing another button, considering the myriad buttons surrounding the edges of these units. Does that seem farfetched? Along with the power button on the top face, there are two buttons on the top edge for zooming, one or two on the left face for muting and Bluetooth cell phone connectivity (6000T only), Enter and Cancel buttons and a navigation control on the bottom face, and three buttons on the right face for location, searching, and setup. (It is possible to set both units to sleep automatically after 10 minutes, though I didn’t usually want to waste 10 minutes of battery life that I might need later, given that it lasted only up to four hours.)

The buttons are another place where the 3000T is even worse than the 6000T, since the 3000T’s buttons have only inscrutable icons, or in the case of the Enter and Cancel buttons, little green and red LEDs. As you can imagine, it’s nearly impossible to learn an interface where the controls are identified only with icons that have no relationship to much of anything. For the 6000T, Magellan thankfully added text below the icons of the buttons on the face, which makes them somewhat more explicable. However, if you were faced with buttons labeled Enter, Cancel, Locate, View, and Menu, which would you use to select a new address, change a route, or find nearby points of interest? Since I don’t have the 6000T in front of me as I’m writing, I couldn’t begin to tell you the answer, and when I was using it, I was only slightly more clued in. The fact of the matter is that the physical buttons do little but confuse the interface and make using the power button tricky. Although previous Magellan RoadMate devices had physical buttons that were ancillary to basic usage, they were at least situated on a right-side control area where they were easily used or avoided.

On top of the lousy physical interface, I found the performance and accuracy of the 6000T lacking. I tested the 3000T in Boston, and although I wasn’t wildly impressed with its performance or accuracy, I didn’t make many wrong turns or feel that it was letting me down. The 6000T, tested in New York City and Long Island, however, was truly disappointing. I became all too familiar with the flipping hourglass that’s equivalent to Mac OS X’s spinning beach ball, and although it was hard to quantify, I felt as though I wasn’t being given instructions at quite the right time. Whether or not it was related to performance, I made many more mistakes while driving under the direction of the 6000T than I did when using the 3000T or any other GPS device so far.

Accuracy was a problem as well. I’ve quibbled with directions given to me by other devices in the past, but the 6000T took the prize for most clueless. It gave me completely wrong directions for re-entering I-80 after stopping at a rest stop in the Delaware Water Gap; it failed to give me any directions at all at a major Y on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (a nerve-wracking road if ever there was one); on quite a few occasions it gave me the useless “Proceed to route” command when I needed specific directions to find what it considered to be the route; and most amazingly, when asked to take us home to Ithaca from New York City using the shortest time routing, chose a route that would have taken us 11 miles and 13 minutes longer than the way we always go (as soon as we exited and it recalculated, both time and distance dropped significantly).

I also found the TrafficKit troublesome, for two reasons. First, because I do not know the roads in New York City well, the information it gave was for the most part useless, since I couldn’t tell whether we had any realistic alternative route if traffic ahead of us was terrible. I could see the TrafficKit being useful to someone who already knew the roads, but I’ve also found that as familiarity with roads goes up, so does irritation with the GPS direction-giving. Perhaps I’d learn to interact with it in a different way, listening to its directions (there is a handy Mute button) only when I needed them, such as when a traffic problem forced me to take a detour.

Second, New York City is a rat’s nest of traffic problems. As such, the 6000T was constantly being alerted to them by the TrafficKit, and thus constantly recalculating its route to see if there was a better option. That was a problem because I was always worried that perhaps it was recalculating because I had made a mistake, particularly if I was making a lot of turns. It was also disconcerting because the 6000T switches to a separate screen when recalculating, which sometimes had me screaming at it to give me the map back so I could see what to do next. Magellan could resolve some of these problems by recalculating route changes due to traffic problems in the background, alerting the user only if they result in a new route, and clarifying that the route change is due to traffic, not because the user drove off course.

What’s Next? I’ll admit, I was a bit shaken to find the RoadMate 6000T so stressful. It looks as though Magellan may have acknowledged some of these concerns already, in the new RoadMate 2000 and 2200T (although I remain boggled that the 2000 lacks the SayWhere technology, too). Both seem to have done away with all the buttons that get in the way of the 3000T/6000T design, and rely entirely on the touch screen, which is more the way Garmin does things. They’re also battery powered, smaller, and the 2200T is designed to be usable for hiking and geocaching, with an optional upgrade of some sort. We’ll see.

In the meantime, Garmin has released the streamlined StreetPilot c550, along with the Nuvi 360 and the larger StreetPilot 2820. From a quick glance, these units seem mostly to be competing largely on the same features – Bluetooth phone compatibility, MP3 support, FM traffic reception, and so on. And then there’s the TomTom GO 910, which, despite having its own MP3 support, also provides an interface to an iPod. Plus, there are a variety of other manufacturers that may be worth a look – if you run across a GPS device that offers some innovative features, let me know and I’ll see if I can add it to the review list.

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