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.