Magellan RoadMate 700
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

One of the more popular options in today’s higher-priced vehicles is the onboard navigation system. These clever devices use satellite global positioning technology to pinpoint your location and calculate step-by-step directions to any address in North America. They also locate useful points of interest from their comprehensive databases that are stored in memory.

But navigation systems can add up to $3,400 to the cost of a new vehicle, and when you trade in your car, say goodbye to the expensive equipment with all your saved addresses and points of interest.

An alternative is the $1,699 (prices may vary) Magellan RoadMate 700. This little machine has much of the functionality of factory navigation systems, but is portable. You can easily move it from car-to-car, or take it in the house to plan routes for your next trip. Like factory systems, there are no subscription fees or other costs beyond buying the unit, since it simply receives free GPS signals.

The RoadMate 700 is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but contains a powerful processor and a 10-Gigabyte hard disc that contains detailed mapping for the entire U.S. and Canada (although some Canadian towns may lack the street-by-street detail of major cities). In addition, there are over two million points of interest in forty categories that you can locate, including historical monuments, restaurants, ATM machines and gas stations.

The device is simple to use. It attaches via an effective suction cup to the inside of your windshield, and plugs into your 12V power point with a supplied adapter. Turn it on, and use the touch-screen to select from a list of users (User 1, User 2, User 3) and a map appears on the large, legible screen with the location of your vehicle in the form of a bright triangle.

To program your route to a street address, for instance, press the box on the screen that says, “Street Address,” and a keyboard appears to input the desired city, street and number. Select “shortest route” or “shortest time” and the RoadMate 700 will calculate directions for you. The system uses QuickSpell programming to rapidly narrow down city and street names.

Once on your way, voice guidance (you can select male or female) provides instructions, and warns you twice before you reach your turns. A chime sounds at each turn, and a cheery “You have arrived at your destination,” greets you when you arrive.

If you stop en route, you have the option to resume guidance when you re-start your vehicle, and the destination can be saved in memory for future use.

My test unit was used for a trip from Ottawa to Alton, Ontario (50-km NW of Toronto), and even though I was told that information for small towns may be missing, the RoadMate 700 had no problem finding 55 John Street, the Millcroft Inn and Spa, in tiny Alton.

Perhaps the only functional weakness of the RoadMate 700 is that unlike factory systems, it’s not connected to the car’s audio system. This means you may not hear an instruction over the music from your CD player or radio, whereas with a factory system, the music volume will lower when an audible instruction is given.

But this is not a major shortcoming, as the directions are repeated and they are highlighted onscreen with arrows and text instructions. On the road, you get just about everything the factory systems offer, including 3D views at turns and intersections, the ability to zoom in and out at the press of a button, a choice of colours for the maps, automatic screen brightness depending on ambient light, and the ability to see the entire route in list form.

Should you miss a turn, the RoadMate 700 will recalculate your route and get you back on track automatically. Your next turn is always displayed at the bottom of the screen, so you know what’s coming up, and when.

This is an American device, however, and “Canadianizing” it has largely been a matter of making exact translations from US instructions. Converting from miles to kilometres, for instance, produces instructions for upcoming turns that come up in 3.1, 1.6 and 0.8 kilometres, which are odd increments indeed.

And not that we all want to sound Scottish, but the American “rowt,” instead of “route” seems particularly harsh to my ears (and you hear it a lot from the RoadMate 700). Similarly, the soon-to-be-released French language version will use Parisian French (largely targeted at the European market) rather than Quebec French.

These cultural quibbles aside, the RoadMate 700 is a remarkable piece of technology. Sales people will love its ability to get them to obscure addresses and keep track of mileage for each trip. Vacationers will enjoy being able to find points of interest, hotels and gas stations without difficulty. And those with a poor sense of direction may finally arrive on time.

A software upgrade for the RoadMate is planned for September, 2004, providing more detail to the Canadian maps and the French language option. For larger cities (and most smaller ones), I found no deficiency with the current version, but even so, the upgrade will be downloadable online.

Unlike hand-held GPS receivers that basically can tell you where you are, the RoadMate 700 is the real navigation deal. Route calculation, voice guidance, touch-screen commands, bright colour LCD screen, it’s a worthy substitute for factory navigation systems.

Just don’t go fussing with it when you’re driving. Do your programming when you’ve stopped, and follow the voice instructions. Let a passenger make adjustments en route.

Check online for a local retailer at Radio Shack stores also carry Magellan products.

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