By Paul Williams

Once regarded as a novelty, mobile navigation systems are becoming more prevalent in luxury cars, high-end minivans and SUVs. Consumers appreciate their great utility, but the price for factory systems is still high.

Magellan Roadmate 300 navigation system
Click image to enlarge

An alternative approach is a portable navigation system like the Magellan Roadmate 300, now available through Canadian Tire stores and other retailers for $799.

The Roadmate 300 has several features in common with permanent systems installed by auto manufacturers (voice guidance, colour monitor, touch-screen technology, day/night display, and split screen with highlighted turns), but has the added advantage of being portable. If you have more than one car, or buy a new car, you can move your navigation system from vehicle to vehicle as required.

The Roadmate 300 stores up to 110 megabytes of mapping information in its memory, which is enough to cover a large geographic area containing many major cities. Unlike the more expensive Roadmate 700, with its built-in 10GB hard disk, it’s not enough to cover the entire road system of North America. The Roadmate 300 gets around this limitation by enabling large geographic areas to be downloaded as required from supplied CD-ROM discs.

In practice, this works very well. The mapping software is straightforward to use (you see a big map of North America, and you select areas to download; it’s pretty much a one-click operation). The on-board memory is more than sufficient, for instance, to include detailed street maps and points of interest for everything starting just east of Montreal, though Ottawa, Toronto, and down to and including Detroit, Michigan. The download operation uses a USB port.

A useful option is to purchase a Secure Digital (SD) card from Magellan that contains all of the Canadian mapping information. It costs $79.95, and installs into a slot at the base of the unit, eliminating the need for downloading Canadian maps altogether, and freeing up the on-board 110MB for US destinations.

Installing the Roadmate 300 in your vehicle is easy. The device, which measures 150 x 75 mm and weighs only 250 grams, attaches to the inside of your windshield by means of a bendable mount on a suction-cup base, and plugs into your 12V power point.

It can take two minutes to “locate” itself when you first turn it on, but after that, it tracks your journey precisely. The display zooms in or out by pressing a button, and you can quickly program a destination by selecting the city, street and street number. The software auto-completes city and street names to speed the process, and the eight-centimetre diagonal display is easy to read.

Magellan Roadmate 300 navigation system
Click image to enlarge

You can calculate routes by selecting points of interest (a particular hotel, for instance), or street addresses, and get turn-by-turn instructions to your destination. Those points of interest also include gas stations, ATMs and other useful destinations. A Parisian French language version is available.

Should you deviate from your route, the Roadmaster 300 recalculates automatically to get you back on track.

The machine can store three user profiles, with personalized preferences and routes for each person.

My only complaint with this unit is that the stubby antenna is too easily separated from the body, and without the antenna, it won’t work. My neighbour, who purchased a Roadmate 300 after seeing my demonstrator, now leaves hers in the car at all times. When bringing it indoors each night, she found that the antenna would occasionally come off (it’s designed this way to easily attach an optional external antenna, says a Magellan representative). Should you lose it, another one can be purchased from Magellan for US$29.99.

Although some people may not see the utility of devices like the Roadmate 300, they are very handy for finding routes to unfamiliar destinations, or even getting you across town in novel ways.

Visiting someone in an unfamiliar city? It’ll get you right there. On a sales call to a new location? Ditto. Perhaps more importantly for those of us who are directionally-challenged, you can set your home address as a saved destination, and the Roadmate 300 get you home from wherever you are.

Just watch out for that antenna.

Look for the Roadmate 300 at Canadian Tire stores and

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