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The Easiest, Smartest GPS Yet


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The web of parkways in Westchester County provides a great way to get around New York's northern suburbs, provided you're familiar with the twisty and sometimes poorly marked roads. They're quite a tangle, but I cruised them without trouble on a recent visit because I had the Garmin (GRMN) nüvi 350 onboard, which was almost as good as being a local.

The name makes the nüvi sound like a coffee table from Ikea. But the $900 device is actually an excellent example of a new breed of navigation product that uses global positioning system satellite signals and a vast database of maps to help you find your way anywhere in the United States (or, with the otherwise identical nüvi 300, anywhere in Europe). About the size of a deck of cards, it attaches to your windshield via a suction-cup mount. Its big, bright screen and clearly spoken driving instructions make it a pleasure to use.

Stand-alone GPS systems you install in your own car have been around for several years, but earlier generations suffered from three problems: The units, which calculate your position using tiny differences in the length of time satellite signals take to reach a receiver in your car, were slow. If you got off an airplane and fired up your receiver in a rental car, it could take a couple of minutes for the system to find your position -- a great inconvenience if you were rushing to get to a meeting.

The older units also lacked the processing power needed to calculate routes quickly. If you missed a turn or deliberately deviated from the instructions for some reason, you got no help while your GPS system recalculated the route. And limited storage meant you had to load maps from a PC when you were traveling to different parts of the country.

THE NUVI IS DIFFERENT. Even starting from a "cold fix," which occurs when you first turn it on in a new location after traveling with it turned off, the device will generally find its position in under a minute. If you turn the nüvi on without having moved far from its previous location, a fix is nearly instantaneous.

Once you've punched in your destination and the nüvi has selected a route, the device automatically adjusts its map display to an appropriate view, covering a wide area while you are zipping along the highway and zooming in as you approach a turn. You can also adjust the view manually by tapping "+" or "-" icons on the display. Turn instructions are displayed both on the screen and spoken by a female voice that seems to be shared with every voice-mail system. It strikes a good balance by giving you plenty of warning of maneuvers without becoming a nag. Within seconds of your missing a scheduled turn, the voice announces that it is calculating a new route and quickly offers new instructions.

When popped off its windshield mount, the nüvi can slip into your pocket. If you add a memory card, it can double as an MP3 player or play audiobooks from Audible.com (ADBL), though it's no better than mediocre at those tasks. Much better is the optional ($75) multilanguage phrase-book, which both displays and speaks translations.

The nüvi is a strong performer in an increasingly competitive field. Less pricey choices from Garmin include the $500 i5, which has a smaller display despite being bulkier overall and lacks the nüvi's nonnavigation features. For $100 less, the i3 has similar features, but you have to download the maps from a PC.

The GO 300 from TomTom and the Mio 269 (both around $550) are somewhat larger than the nüvi but offer similar navigation features. The TomTom also is equipped with Bluetooth wireless and can serve as a hands-free adapter for a variety of cell phones.

When I bought my car a while back, I decided to forgo the $2,000 navigation system because at least 90% of the time I drive in places where I don't need help. And it couldn't give me a hand where I need the assistance -- driving rental cars in places I don't know well. That's where the nüvi and its competitors can really earn their keep.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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