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Navigation Systems Go Portable

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the growth of new electronic gadgets for cars and trucks was hard to miss. Flashy cars, pretty girls, and subwoofers the size of a 1955 Buick were in nearly every aisle. One of the most interesting new product segments to emerge is that of add-on portable navigation.

VehicleVoice decided to investigate these hand-held, 12-volt, talking direction boxes and what we found was very interesting. As our panelist membership probably already knows, in-car navigation is becoming a common option for all kinds of vehicles. Often, these manufacturer-installed devices are price-heavy as well. In some cases, a navigation add-on can cost upwards of $2,000. In other cases, “NAV” is only available in larger “packages” of options, further pushing the price upwards – even to the $7,000 price point (Infinity Technology Package). What surprised us the most was that many of the hand-held nav manufacturers claimed that many of their customers are foregoing their built-in nav systems for new ones that are portable.

For the past few years, there have been a number of navigation companies who specialize in GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) systems, such as Garmin and Magellan. At this year’s CES, a number of manufacturers have jumped on the hand-held GPS bandwagon, including Alpine, Audiovox, Blaupunkt, Clarion, JVC and even Sony.

These manufacturers are working diligently to add value to their GPS nav systems. Alpine was showing one of the first in-car A/V head units (we used to call this a stereo!) to dock with a personal navigation device (PND). Audiovox was displaying a replacement rear-view mirror that also doubled as a navigation system. Sony introduced their first portable device in more than a decade. We thought it would be interesting to highlight some of the products that include navigation and a little bit more...

Alpine demonstrated its new Blackbird PMD-B100 PND with built-in batteries and a touch screen as well as real-time traffic capabilities. The unit utilizes the ClearChannel traffic data system to offer traffic updates about once a minute via RDS communication. The unit has a built-in three point five inch screen, maps of the US and Canada, and can play MP3 files from either an SD or MMC card. I really liked that you could dock the Blackbird to an Alpine IVA-W200 in-dash AV head unit (stereo). For $699.00 retail, this is a lovely to look at and powerful little nav system.

Blaupunkt, long known as a leading car audio supplier and OEM for VW and others, introduced its first portable nav units, the Houston and the Houston MP3. Both units use six-hour Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries and include a sharp three point five inch screen. Maps are stored on 1GB SD cards – and the MP3 version supports MP3, WMA and JPEG media. At $599.00 and $699.00 respectively, these units offer an interesting value – they are lovely to look at and can easily be moved from vehicle to vehicle in just a matter of seconds. NOTE: As of this writing, the company had no information on the new models listed in their website.

Clarion has introduced a portable nav system that also doubles as a personal media player (PMP). Note that PMP is a term you’ll start to hear used all over the place – from Best Buy to your local Ford dealership. The NICE P200 includes a four-inch touch screen and a built-in 20GB hard drive, FM transmitter, and can play music in various formats (MP3, WMA, WAV). Not only that, but it’s a video player as well, offering DivX, ASF, WMV, Xvid and AVI capabilities. If you have a Windows-based PC, you can “sync” the NICE P200 to it, and keep your contacts, schedules, and address book in your nav system as well. We asked if you could use addresses from your address book with the nav system and were told, “yes” – but a demo wasn’t possible. Grain of salt with that promise, I think! However – the unit is really nice to look at!

Dual, already a known player in the portable nav market, introduced a new model, the XNAV3550. It includes a three-point-five inch touch screen and allows both MP3 audio and AVI audio/video playback, in addition to traditional navigation capabilities. It uses a 1GB SD card (like you’d use for photos or music on your PC or digital camera). This model is very affordable, with a retail price of $599.00.

Jensen, a long-time player in the after-market audio industry (and division of AudioVox), introduced a very interesting in-dash car “computer” that includes bluetooth and navigation. The NAVDINPC 1.0 utilizes a single DIN slot in your car (the place where the radio goes – Euro models typically use a single DIN and US models have, until recently used two DIN slots). The “computer” uses a 1Ghz Nehamiah processor with 512MB of RAM. It runs Windows XP Home Edition and is bundled with navigation software. There are three USB ports including one on the front panel. The computer also features Ethernet, printer and serial ports. It has a retail price of $1,699.00 – but that doesn’t include a monitor. Of course, we’re interested to learn who would really want to use something as robust as this in their car. That’s one of the key values in being a VehicleVoice panel member – we get to ask you about cool new devices like this!

JVC introduced a PMP (see, I told you we’d use this term a lot) called the KV-Px9. It tells you how to get to your destination, but also plays music and movies, and with more than 13GB of devoted multimedia storage, you can have a lot of fun on your way to that client meeting or holiday hotspot. It also includes 8 GB of storage dedicated to navigation data. Of particular note, the JVC unit runs on a Lithium Ion battery with a three-hour lifespan when navigating, or 10 hours of playback time for multimedia. It supports a wealth of formats, including MP3, WAV, WMA, JPEG, MPEG-4, WMV, ASF, and AVI files. It can also store computer files, such as those of the MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint variety. Again, we couldn’t find anyone to show us a PowerPoint presentation in the car, but if possible, it could create yet another reason for real estate agents to keep their clients in the car awhile longer.

What we weren’t able to determine from these manufacturers was the skill and capability of the nav units themselves. As a subjective example, I have had several manufacturer-originated navigation systems in personal vehicles during the past five years and none has provided what I’d call a “satisfying” experience. The combination of slight miscues, “Bitchin’ Betty” voice, and other factors make the units I’ve had useful, but tiring.

Regardless of the company or the product, it’s clear that add-ons such as vehicle navigation are becoming a defacto request by consumers for all vehicles, new and used. Adding value, such as music and video seems to be part of the marketing equation. But ultimately, the ability to move the unit from vehicle to vehicle, while also getting fast, easy to understand, and accurate directions is the core value in any navigation system. Oh, and did I mention price? These units are all half to a fraction of the cost of built-in, manufacturer supplied units. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the coming months and years.

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