You might be wondering who in 2011 needs a dedicated global-positioning device. With phones offering ever more impressive GPS functionality and manufacturer-installed navigation systems becoming the norm on many new cars, those of us who aren't geocachers are quickly losing incentive to purchase a standalone GPS.
But a market still exists. And it turns out I'm part of it.
Our family owns a three-year-old car with no built-in navigation system. While dash mounts for smartphones can be helpful for hands-free calling and surfing through music, I've found they don't do much to overcome some of a phone's inherent deficiencies as a vehicular navigation device, the biggest of which is that their small, glossy screens make it tough to obtain meaningful information at a glance while moving in traffic.
That's why I was happy to give Magellan's new RoadMate 9055 a test drive.
Its primary draw for many will be screen size. Boasting a seven-inch matte display – which is easy to see both in direct sunlight and at night (a light sensor automatically switches the display to night mode, which turns the screen mostly black) – it provides a generous, three-dimensional, real-time virtual view of the road ahead that I found easy to digest with a speedy flick of my eyes.
Of course, nice looking GPS maps mean little if they don't come with route guidance to match. And while no device I've seen generates ideal driving directions 100 per cent of the time, the RoadMate fares pretty well.
It doesn't simply select the shortest path or the one with the highest speed limits, but instead smartly mingles both based on your driving preferences (you can elect to use or avoid freeways, toll roads, and u-turns, and select from several suggested routes). A couple of brow-furrowing suggestions aside – like diverting up to a highway several kilometers north of my Toronto neighbourhood on one trip into the city – I found most of the routes suggested matched those that I'd have chosen myself.
Also helpful: Automatic lane assistance, which reliably kept me between the proper lines while speeding along Southern Ontario's junction-laden freeways. And I'm convinced that the subscription-free traffic alert system – which provides real-time updates on potential delays via green and red icons in the bottom left corner of the screen (just tap them to call up additional details) – has saved me suffering hours of gridlock. Its arrival time estimates, which take into consideration traffic, are spot-on more often than not.
Obviously, I have little need of navigation assistance in most of my daily travels, but noting its dependability in routes I know well gave me the confidence to trust its guidance in unfamiliar areas. During a brief jaunt south of the border, I had no hesitation relinquishing navigation to the RoadMate, and it efficiently guided me through streets I had never before travelled with video and audio cues delivered well in advance of any turns.
Speaking of spoken directions, while some people can't stand – and sometimes even get angry at – the droning voices of most GPS devices, I find I rather like them. The RoadMate's navigator is a vaguely robotic-sounding woman devoid of emotion. Her directions can become a little grating should you choose to repeatedly ignore her advice or find yourself snaking around several back-to-back corners, but I appreciate how she doesn't growl at me when I miss a turn in a strange neighbourhood (unlike the type-A driver to whom I'm married).
While the RoadMate functions laudably during navigation, setting up trips sometimes proved irksome, and not just because Magellan's device doesn't support voice commands – a useful feature on many newer phones.
Magellan's device comes with robust maps of Canada, the United States, and Puerto Rico, complete with six million frequently updated of points of interest that pop up almost instantly when searching by name or category. However, when searching for a specific address one must first enter a city name. Each and every time. It's a drag. Predictive text entry helps, as does the device's overall quickness and satisfying touch screen sensitivity – it feels nearly as responsive as a smart phone – but it's still an extra step to which the avid Google Maps user in me simply isn't accustomed.
What's more, its search engine only queries addresses within the city you select. This can be a nuisance for those of us living in metropolises composed of several municipalities, like the Greater Toronto Area. When searching addresses in the city's northern districts I had to try one city name after another – Woodbridge, Vaughan, Richmond Hill – in order to find a match.
Granted, the RoadMate's clumsy address search functionality might not be as much of an annoyance if I lived in a smaller city, but my current geography makes it an unfortunate and recurring problem I can't ignore.
Less troublesome was setup. I connected the RoadMate to the tiny side window between my windshield and driver-side door via the included heavy-duty suction cup-based arm, manipulating its three points of articulation so that it sat just to the left of my steering wheel. Aside from some gentle bobbing while going over bumps in the road, it hasn't budged position in over a month. My wife thinks the giant GPS screen hovering over our dash gives our cockpit an appearance akin to that of a taxi. I can't disagree.
It's worth noting that Magellan's GPS facilitates Bluetooth connections with phones for hands-free calling. It takes only a minute or so to pair a phone and sync a contact list, after which all incoming calls will automatically be routed through the RoadMate whenever it's turned on. I quickly became accustomed to not even removing my phone from my pocket when getting in the car.
While the RoadMate can function away from its dock, its lithium-ion battery lasts only about 30 minutes, making it a poor fit for any outdoor adventurers looking for a dual purpose car/hiking GPS. However, it can moonlight as something else: A screen for a wireless back-up camera.
The optional Magellan Wireless Back-Up Camera attaches via the screws above your rear license plate and is wired in to your vehicle's reverse lights (straightforward instructions are included, though those without any electrical experience may want to have a professional install it). When the camera detects that your reverse lights have been activated, it sends a wireless signal to the RoadMate, changing its view to a live feed of the road directly behind your car. Especially handy for those of us (myself included) spooked by media stories reporting how massive blind spots behind many SUVs have lead to drivers backing up over kids.
The Magellan RoadMate 9055 sells for $250 through Magellan's website, or $280 if you opt for the LM edition, which comes with free map updates for the life of the device. The optional back-up camera costs an extra $150.