Review: Four GPS Devices That Will Drive You Sane

If cost has kept you from trying GPS, take heed: The latest navigation systems offer more features and (mostly) lower prices.

October 16, 2006

23 Min Read
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It's official: The GPS floodgates are open. Not a week goes by without the announcement of at least one new navigation system, which is good news for drivers who need help getting from point A to point B (with a possible stopover at point C). If you're on a budget, you can now choose from many models priced under $500. If money is no object, you can enjoy advanced features like real-time traffic updates and a hands-free speakerphone. Whatever your navigation needs, there's a GPS system that's sure to fit the bill.

Four GPS Devices

•  Introduction•  Averatec Voya 350

•  Garmin Nuvi 360•  Mio C710•  TomTom One•  Conclusion

•  Image Gallery

The four models I reviewed -- the Averatec Voya 350, Garmin Nuvi 360, Mio C710, and TomTom One -- reflect the latest trends in navigation systems. They're all compact enough to fit in a pocket. They're all equipped with 3.5-inch touch screens, meaning you no longer have to fiddle with complex, button-driven interfaces; entering an address is as simple as tapping out letters and numbers on an onscreen keyboard. And they all employ the new SiRFstar III chipset, which enables faster satellite acquisition and better tracking when you're in sky-obscured areas (like under dense tree cover or surrounded by high-rise buildings). In my tests, most of the GPS units were able to establish a satellite fix within a minute of powering up (older models usually took 3-5 minutes), and all four maintained their lock even after I'd pulled the car into the garage.

So if the latest models all have similar designs and navigation capabilities, how do you choose one over another? There's price, of course; the products in this roundup range from $350 to $965. At the low end, don't expect much beyond basic navigation. By spending extra, you open the door to additional features. For instance, some of the pricier models provide text-to-speech capabilities, meaning the turn-by-turn voice prompts announce not only the distance to upcoming turns, but also the actual street names.

More Than GPS
An increasing number of GPS devices also double as media players, allowing you to listen to MP3s, view photo slideshows, and watch movies. The Garmin Nuvi even supports audio books downloaded (via your PC) from Audible.com. In most cases, you'll need a memory card to store music, photos, and the like (all four models in the roundup have SD slots), though it may be possible to access leftover RAM if the device uses internal storage. There remains the question of how best to listen to audio stored on a GPS; most models have headphone jacks, but it's illegal (and unsafe) to wear headphones while driving. And a tiny built-in speaker can't take the place of your car's sound system. If you're really keen on using your GPS for music, consider plugging in an FM transmitter -- the same kind iPod owners use to pipe music through their car stereos.

If you spend a lot of time on the road, consider a GPS that can download real-time traffic updates and suggest alternate routes to help you bypass congested areas. Usually this is accomplished via an FM antenna and a subscription to a traffic-reporting service. And if you spend a lot of time on the phone, look for models that offer a speakerphone option. These link to your cell phone via Bluetooth for hands-free conversations. Sure, it has nothing to do with navigation, but it sure is a handy feature.

Averatec Voya 350
With a direct price of $379.99 (not including a $30 mail-in rebate if you order before the end of the year), the Averatec Voya 350 undercuts all the other navigation systems in this roundup -- in some cases by a significant margin. While I fully expected that this bargain price would mean a boatload of compromises, the Voya provides all the essentials: a SiRFstarIII GPS receiver, a generous POI (points of interest) database, and a simple touch screen interface. You don't get bells and whistles like an MP3 player or photo viewer, but how many drivers really use those features, anyway?


At 4.5 x 2.9 x 0.8 inches, the Voya could easily be mistaken for a PDA -- until you spy its protruding "stub" antenna, which makes the GPS a little less pocketable than the other models in this group (which have either integrated or fold-down antennas). At least weight isn't a problem: The unit barely tips the scales at 5.6 ounces. That's in part because it eschews a built-in hard drive in favor of a 1GB SD card, which comes preloaded with map data for the U.S. (all 50 states) and Canada.

A bank of physical controls resides to the right of the Voya's 3.5-inch touch screen. These include power, home, and zoom buttons and a five-way navigation pad. It's disappointing that Averatec chose zoom buttons instead of volume controls when you can also zoom by tapping the transparent plus/minus buttons that appear over the map. To adjust speaker volume (or mute the audio), you have to retreat from the map to the home screen, tap Settings, and then tap Volume. That's way too many steps. Another gripe: The hard buttons are so small and grouped so close together, they're difficult to press.

Four GPS Devices

•  Introduction

•  Averatec Voya 350•  Garmin Nuvi 360•  Mio C710•  TomTom One•  Conclusion

•  Image Gallery

Thankfully, most everything you can do with the buttons, you can also do via the Voya's touch screen interface. I found this very easy to use, starting with the novice-friendly main menu, which has just three options: Destination, Go Home, and Settings. Possible destinations include an address, intersection, city, or one of the 1.6-million points of interest included with the map data. I liked the option to find an address by starting with either the city or street name, which can be helpful when you encounter a troublesome address.

It's lucky the Voya is so easy to use, as Averatec provides only a quick-start guide that covers basic operation. Thankfully, there's a more complete manual available on the Averatec Web site, but you wouldn't know that unless you went looking for it; the quick-start guide doesn't mention it.

On The Road
Averatec supplies a five-inch windshield mount, a car charger, and an AC adapter for charging the Voya's battery before a trip. Even so, don't hit the road without the car charger. Although Averatec promises up to four hours of operation, in my tests the Voya petered out after about 90 minutes. Plus, it lacks an onscreen battery gauge, so you won't know if power is running low until an onscreen warning appears.I took the Voya with me on highways and the streets of suburbia and found it a reliable navigator. I had no trouble viewing the screen, even in direct sunlight. The map data proved admirably current, including a street that was added to my subdivision only a year ago. Alas, it doesn't pronounce street names, only highways (e.g. "Take I-96 East"). I liked the little chime the Voya produced when it was time to actually make a turn. (This is particularly helpful when the streets are close together and you're not sure if it's this road or the next one.) Equally helpful was the "countdown gauge" that showed me in real-time the next turn's proximity. I do wish, however, that the Voya's announcements were in mileage rather than feet. Telling me an upcoming turn is 2,000 feet away isn't particularly useful.

Another minor complaint with the Voya's operation is speed. It was a bit slow to establish a satellite lock, and there's a delay of several seconds before you can start entering an address -- especially when you select "Street First" as the input option. The unit also crashed a couple of times; the resulting dialog box revealed its Windows CE underpinnings.

Fortunately, those glitches aren't deal-breakers, not by a long shot. The Voya 350 is a solid GPS with a killer price, making it a no-brainer for anyone seeking reliable navigation without a bunch of fussy, overpriced extras.

Garmin Nuvi 360
Sticker shock awaits the GPS shopper who eyeballs the Garmin Nuvi 360. At first blush, this tiny navigation system appears woefully overpriced, especially considering that the almost identical-looking TomTom One sells for half as much. However, the Nuvi's diminutive size belies its impressive performance, advanced features and superb satellite reception -- and you can buy it online for hundreds less than the $964.27 list price. That's good, because although the Nuvi 360 rocks as both a GPS and a hands-free speakerphone, that price is a bit hard to justify.


Measuring 3.9 x 2.9 x 0.9 inches, the 5.1-ounce Nuvi isn't much larger than its 3.5-inch screen, and therefore can slip easily into a pocket. The device has no physical controls save for a power button on the top edge; all other interaction is performed via its touch screen. That works fine for the most part, but I miss having dedicated volume-control buttons. Thankfully, there's a shortcut to the onscreen controls: A quick press of the power button.Stocked with about 2GB of memory, the Nuvi comes preloaded with street maps of North America (or Europe if you live "across the pond"). The RAM drive has about 500MB of free space you can use for MP3s, digital photos, or additional maps, or even just to transport files between PCs (the Nuvi appears as a regular storage device when connected to a USB port). There's also an SD memory-card slot in case you need additional storage space.

Bright And Clear

The Nuvi's 3.5-inch screen is one of the brightest in the group. Even on sunny days I had no trouble reading the display while driving, though in direct sun it does get a bit dim. Garmin supplies a suction-cup mounting arm that holds the Nuvi firmly in place; I didn't detect even a hint of wobble, even on bumpy roads. However, the arm is quite short, measuring just a few inches, so if you have a deep dashboard, you may find the Nuvi a bit farther away than you'd prefer.

Four GPS Devices

•  Introduction•  Averatec Voya 350•  Garmin Nuvi 360

•  Mio C710•  TomTom One•  Conclusion

•  Image Gallery

Garmin's blissfully simple interface presents you with three main buttons: Where to?, View Map, and Travel Kit. Tap the first one and you're taken to an icon-based sub-menu listing various navigation options: address, food, lodging, and so on. However, there are four pages' worth of these icons, when there could just as easily have been three or even two. I'm all for nice big icons, but I'd rather have fewer pages to flip through. What's more, I'm surprised Garmin didn't include a dedicated "go home" button rather than nestling that option in the My Locations sub-menu. Those are minor complaints, though. Overall, the Nuvi couldn't be much easier to use.

It's also a fun little traveling companion. Its maps look colorful and almost cartoonish (but in a good way), and instead of the typical arrow representing your position, there's a little car. It's a small detail, but it made me smile. Other small details include the Nuvi's support for not just MP3s, but Audible audiobooks as well. It can also display a photo slideshow and a world clock, and it even comes with handy tools like currency/measurement converters and a calculator.

But what really separates the Nuvi from competitors like the TomTom One is its speakerphone function. All you need is a compatible Bluetooth phone and you can use the Nuvi for hands-free conversations. Not only that, but points-of-interest dialing as well: Just tap the phone icon that appears in any POI entry and the Nuvi will dial the number for you.The Case For Bluetooth
I tested these Bluetooth features with my Sony Ericsson T610. Everything worked smoothly, from pairing the two devices to making and receiving hands-free calls. I particularly liked the way the Nuvi was able to display my phone's address book without any intervention on my part -- it just absorbed the numbers automatically. The Call Home button was a nice perk, too, though I had to set that number manually. My only complaint was that I couldn't adjust speaker volume without going through the aforementioned three-step process. Note to Garmin for the Nuvi 370: Volume buttons, please!

Also, would it kill them to bundle the optional GTM10 receiver ($199) so owners can take advantage of the Nuvi's traffic-monitoring feature? This nifty option pulls real-time traffic data from Clear Channel's Total Traffic Network, which the Nuvi uses to route you around congested areas. I wasn't able to test this option, but I think a $965 GPS should include the necessary antenna. At least you get 15 months of TTN service when you buy the GTM10 -- after that it's $50 per year.

In my driving tests, the Nuvi performed like a champ. However, I noticed that it tended to issue final turn instructions a bit late, like when you're right on top of an exit ramp instead of, say, a hundred feet away. But the text-to-speech feature helps navigation considerably, as it tells you the name of the next street to turn on rather than just the distance from it.

No doubt about, the Nuvi 360 is a class act all the way, from its rock-solid navigation skills to its envy-inspiring speakerphone capabilities. It's the GPS I most want to keep, though I still take umbrage with the price. You get your money's worth, but you can get an equally competent navigation system for significantly less.

Mio C710
Garmin's Nuvi 360 notwithstanding, a fancy GPS decked out with advanced features doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. Witness Mio Technology's C710, which matches the Nuvi almost spec for spec (and even exceeds it in a few places) but costs significantly less. You get the preloaded maps, the multimedia features, the massive points-of-interest database, and the Bluetooth speakerphone, all for $649.95 (list) instead of $964.27. You also get an external patch antenna for pulling down real-time traffic updates; Garmin charges extra for theirs.Alas, not everything here is gold. The C710's screen washes out in direct sunlight. Its windshield mount doesn't pivot easily. Its interface is the worst of the bunch. And it supports a limited roster of Bluetooth phones. Plus, I found it sub-par in the all-important area of navigation. While no GPS is perfect, this one fumbled the ball a few too many times for my comfort.


The 6-ounce C710 measures 4.4 x 3.0 x 0.7 inches and sports a 3.5-inch TFT touch screen -- an increasingly common GPS accoutrement. I found the latter difficult to view in direct sunlight, though many navigation systems exhibit the same problem. (For the record, the Nuvi isn't one of them.) I also had an impossible time adjusting the Y-axis of the windshield mount. Thankfully, once it's positioned to your liking, it holds the unit rock-steady.

Four buttons span the right side of the receiver: power, menu, and volume up/down. Kudos to the C710 for being the only GPS in the roundup to include dedicated volume controls, a feature I consider essential. The other models make you wade through menus to adjust volume.

Unfortunately, the C710 has menu problems of its own. The Mio Map interface suffers from an overcrowded keyboard (which makes for a lot of fat-fingering when you're entering address info) and unintuitive design. For example, although the main menu is fairly straightforward, it provides no direct access to the settings menu. To reach it, you must first tap the Map Look & Feel button -- not exactly logical. Meanwhile, navigating the POI database (five million strong, according to Mio) can be difficult, as you often have to choose the right category in order to find the desired listing. Mio should strongly consider adding a name-search feature for POI lookups.

Four GPS Devices

•  Introduction•  Averatec Voya 350

•  Garmin Nuvi 360•  Mio C710•  TomTom One•  Conclusion

•  Image Gallery

Another interface quibble: You must exit Mio Map when you want to access the C710's other features, like the address book (which can sync with Outlook but not your phone); MP3, photo, and video players (you'll need an SD card to hold your files); and device settings (not to be confused with the GPS settings menu contained within Mio Map), all of which reside in what could best be called a "main" main menu.This is also the place to pair the C710 with your Bluetooth-equipped cell phone. Although my Sony-Ericsson T610 wasn't on the short list of compatible phones, I was able to establish a connection and use the C710 as a hands-free speakerphone -- a really nice perk. However, although you can receive a call while in navigation mode, you can't place one without first exiting Mio Map, then delving into the aforementioned settings menu. What a hassle.

Navigation Issues
I could overlook things like this if the C710 delivered consistent, reliable navigation, but in my experience it didn't. I had trouble navigating to certain addresses in my home state of Michigan. For starters, the C710 doesn't remember what state you're in; you have to enter it every time you input an address. Upon tapping the first few letters, I was presented with a choice of "Michigan[N]" and "Michigan[S]." Huh? Where's the dividing line between "North" and "South" Michigan? I could only assume these were references to the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.

Even worse, the map data (which otherwise seemed very current) didn't include my parents' house number, which is strange, given that it's been there for 35 years and no other GPS had a problem with it. On the return trip, the C710 chose a decidedly out-of-the-way route to bring me home. This happens sometimes when a GPS tries for "quickest" route rather than "shortest," which is the C710's default setting, but there's no question the route it chose would have taken longer.

On the plus side, the C710 can access traffic updates broadcast on Clear Channel's Total Traffic Network. I didn't like the FM antenna snaking across my dashboard and up my windshield (suction cups keep it in place), but I did like the free 90-day trial (it costs $75 per year after that) and the way the C710 offered to create a new route around congested areas. All GPS receivers should have this feature.

Needless to say, the Mio C710 is a mixed bag. It's loaded with great features, but its interface feels scattershot and unpolished. It's not difficult to use, but the included manual doesn't even cover Mio Map (you have to venture online to find that one). It comes with millions of points of interest, but even a simple address can cause it to choke. Ultimately, it's my least favorite GPS in the group, if only because it doesn't quite live up to its lofty promises.

TomTom One
Though physically similar to Garmin's Nuvi 360, the TomTom One has more in common with the Averatec Voya 350: It's a no-frills navigation system that delivers solid performance for an affordable price ($499.95). Actually, it does have one frill -- Bluetooth -- but it doesn't leverage it like the Nuvi and Mio C710. Instead of linking to your phone for hands-free conversation, it merely taps the data connection to fetch traffic updates. That gives the One a slight advantage over the Bluetooth-less Voya, though that model costs nearly $150 less.


Slim and pocketable, the 6.5-ounce One measures 3.8 x 3.2 x 1.0 inches. Its clip-on windshield mount employs a ball joint for easy positioning, though its short arm isn't ideal for cars with deep dashboards. Like the Nuvi 360, the One has just one physical control: a power button. The 3.5-inch touch screen serves as gateway to the interface.

Maps of North America come preloaded on the included 1GB SD card -- just slip it in the slot and you're ready to navigate. Well, almost ready: The One takes about 35 seconds to power up, far longer than the other receivers in the group. Fortunately, the GPS makes good use of its SiRFstarIII chipset, grabbing a satellite fix in under a minute.

Four GPS Devices

•  Introduction•  Averatec Voya 350

•  Garmin Nuvi 360•  Mio C710•  TomTom One•  Conclusion

•  Image Gallery

TomTom's colorful, icon-driven interface makes for relatively easy destination selection. Tap anywhere on the map to access the two-page main menu, which provides access to the usual array of choices. My only real problem with the interface is that it takes four taps to reach the volume-control screen. On the plus side, that screen includes a "link volume to car speed" option, which automatically raises and lowers the volume depending on how fast you're going (in accordance with car noise, natch). Neat!

I found the points-of-interest database a little complicated at first, if only because TomTom gives you so many ways to look up entries. There are five main options: near your current location, near your destination, near your home, in a specific city, or along your route. You can also tap Find to search by name, a definite plus. However, the restaurants aren't organized by cuisine, which can be a hassle if you're trying to find, say, the nearest Chinese place. In addition, when you're presented with the master POI category list, only two lines appear onscreen at a time; the rest of the screen is occupied by the keyboard.Interesting Options
As noted previously, the One does have Bluetooth, but no speakerphone capability. What it can do is utilize your phone's wireless data connection (if it has one) to access TomTom PLUS services. These intriguing a-la-carte options include real-time traffic data, updated maps and POIs, and even new voices (including celebs like Burt Reynolds and Mr. T).

In my tests around town, the system performed well, though I missed hearing street names (the One lacks the Nuvi's text-to-speech capabilities). Its maps and POI database seemed current, and it always created logical routes to my chosen destinations. On the downside, a good one-fourth of the screen is consumed by non-map data, like time of arrival and distance to next turn. The other GPS receivers do a better job maximizing the viewable map area -- important when you're working with such a small screen.

Still, there's plenty of bang for the buck here; anyone seeking effective navigation on a budget would do well to consider this receiver.

Conclusion
The latest GPS navigation systems show a lot of maturity. They're easier to use than last year's models, and they're better at establishing and maintaining a satellite lock. Plus, they've added some interesting features (some more useful than others). Best of all, you can now buy a decent GPS for less than $500 -- in some cases a lot less.

Four GPS Devices

•  Introduction

•  Averatec Voya 350•  Garmin Nuvi 360•  Mio C710•  TomTom One•  Conclusion

•  Image Gallery

Indeed, the $350 (after rebate) Averatec Voya 350 is the bargain to beat. It offers solid navigation and simple operation, while at the same time making the $965 Garmin Nuvi 360 seem shockingly overpriced. Of course, that model offers perhaps the best interface of any GPS in the group, plus a superb speakerphone feature and plenty of nifty extras. Shop online and you'll be able to find it for hundreds less than the list price.The TomTom One also offers top-notch navigation on the cheap, and it can link with your Bluetooth cell phone to leverage some cool TomTom PLUS services (like traffic updates and new maps).

The only GPS I have qualms about recommending is the Mio C710. Though it's arguably the most feature-packed model in the group, and reasonably priced to boot, I found its interface cumbersome and its navigation capabilities wanting. As the other models prove, there's no need to settle for a less-than-stellar GPS.

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