Have Nav Device, Will Travel

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Over the past few years, GPS-based navigation devices have been growing in popularity. Everyone from road warriors to soccer moms have found they help make their day a little easier. As technology keeps improving, and prices continue to drop, there is no reason to believe that this trend will slow down anytime soon.

Long recognized as a leader in the GPS market, Olathe, Kan.-based Garmin International Inc. manufactures various devices and models for use in almost every conceivable situation. The CRN Test Center recently looked at the company's latest laptop solution, Garmin Mobile PC.

Available as three different SKUs, the Garmin Mobile PC software can be purchased alone, packaged with a Bluetooth wireless or with a wired USB GPS receiver. Our evaluation included the latter GPS 20X sensor.
Essentially, the same software found on many of the company's in-vehicle systems, the Mobile PC application installs on Windows 2000 or later computers, with at least 256 MB of RAM. With the help of an external DVD drive, testers installed the program onto an Asus Eee PC 901, where it took up 1.15 GB of hard drive space (minimum requirements are 1.3 GB).

The install is smooth with little user interaction necessary beyond selecting the destination folder. When the sensor's USB connector was plugged into the port, Windows prompted us to go online to search for the driver. If refused, the driver would not load. We're going to presume that had we left the installation disk in the drive, the drivers would have loaded fine.

Upon launching the application, it took merely seconds for the GPS 20X to lock onto a satellite and for the program to bring up our location. Utilizing the same interface as the all-in-one devices many of us are familiar with, Mobile PC opens with two large icons prompting "Where to?" and "View map." There are also smaller buttons for Online Services, Tools, Settings and Help, and a small gauge showing the status of satellite connections.

With most notebook computers using a touchpad for cursor control, a nice touch is the capability to navigate the interface with only the keyboard. Main menu options display the function key shortcut that can be used to select them. Other menu items can be chosen via the arrow and Enter keys.

Routes can be planned out and programmed prior to use, and frequently used addresses and routes can be saved for the future as well. Integration with Microsoft Outlook also allows navigation to contacts in the address book. While driving, the program performed well, quickly planning out a route on the fly. When reviewers intentionally went off course, the application was quick to recalculate the route and set us back on track.

Unless hard-mounted on the dashboard, it is extremely difficult, and dangerous, to look at the screen while in motion. Luckily, Mobile PC includes an option to choose a voice command language from among eight different selections, including an American English choice that also speaks street names. This is the option we used.
Directions were spoken clearly, with enough advance notice to anticipate turns or highway entrance and exit ramps. The computerized voice sounded slightly monotone at times and some instructions were spoken a little forcefully, sounding more like demands, but neither issue distracted from the functionality.
Although no worse than other systems, it is worth noting that the text-to-voice engine has some quirks. En route to our offices, Mobile PC instructed us to exit the expressway at "Lackaville" Road (meaning Lakeville). While humorous during our evaluation, when used in unfamiliar areas this may cause some confusion.

Since the program is meant to be installed on a portable device, routes can be calculated for pedestrians and bicycles, as well as cars and motorcycles. In the preplanning stage, the pedestrian and bicycle routes proved to be accurate but not necessarily the fastest or most direct.

When connected to the Internet, Mobile PC allows the user to find fuel prices and gives directions to the respective closest service station. Other online features include flight status, hotel rates from hotels.com, and current local weather and forecasts. All were relatively accurate during our testing.

Ranging in price from $59.99 to $149.99, Garmin Mobile PC offers a relatively inexpensive alternative for those who regularly carry a notebook PC and would like the peace of mind it brings. Frequent travelers who find themselves in unfamiliar cities may also have it installed on their laptop.

With all the options available in GPS navigation, it seems that most users would do well with a dedicated, in-vehicle device. There are times, however, when Garmin Mobile PC may be advantageous.

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