Satnavs – mapping the differences

Satnavs have stripped the idea of being lost from the language


When the UK’s mainstream media dwell, hesitantly, upon technology (in between its worthier deliberations on the weighty issues of the day – such as which football player has slept with who, or its first hand knowledge of the working of the minds of politicians and princes) it is only to remark on which technology you must have.

You will seldom hear the mainstream stop to ponder on the significance of a device like a mobile phone or the Satnav – or what an unusual thing a international conference call is.

Which is a shame because the field is rich.

Now its easy to know your way around

Take the humble Satnav for instance. Owning such a device a couple of centuries or so ago would have probably see you burned at the stake yet now its ubiquitous.

Everyone has one and the very basic fear of being lost has been eradicated once and for all.

A fear that has been the staple of writers and stories since stories started has become a dark memory.

Now everyone knows the way, in whatever part of the world you are in, you can download a map and start to take issue with the taxi-driver’s route.

Being lost is no longer an option or an excuse. All you can do now is say how late you are going to be.

And I am an expert on everything I have just written about – being late, being lost and Satnavs.

My acquaintance with them goes back to the first tentative steps that the technology took. A product developed by Michelin for use on the Palm Tungsten and another even earlier system developed by a company whose name I have forgotten for use on another earlier Palm variant.

Technology that is saving the environment

Both systems had a pleasing air of the laboratory about them, with an external GPS and poorly made plastic car mount, but both worked brilliantly. I can remember using my Michelin system to guide me to an interview with the hacker Gary McKinnon in Barnet which it did with pinpoint precision.

This I decided was the future. Surviving endless jibes from my family about being a nerd and a techno-geek for testing the systems on routes that I already knew I could see little to choose between them.

Both allowed me to indulge in a habit I have engaged in ever since – leaving the beaten track and on a whim turning down a road I liked the look of and driving along it until the Satnav brought me back to the straight and narrow.

A rambling capability that has allowed much traffic to escape the tyranny of bottle-necks and jams, the marketers of Satnavs make much of their ability to get you to where you want to go but very little of the environmental efficiency that the Satnav is responsible for.

By not being lost fuel has not been burned, time has been saved more can be done.

The Satnav has to be a noble device yet I have never heard of Greenpeace being asked to endorse them.

Which leads me to a thorny issue how do you contrast different devices when by now the underlying technology tends to be the same?

There are some things that all of the Satnavs I have used get wrong, the point where the B1077 joins the A1120 in Suffolk stumped the Michelin system, the TomTom I have used for a few years now and the Garmin I have been trying for the last month or so. They tell you to go straight on instead of turn.

The crossroads just outside Bedfield in Suffolk, where Dog Lane meets Bedfield Road sometimes comes up as straight over when in fact you should wait but in the main they are tiny complaints. On the whole Satnav works and is proven.

That I-Phones have some work to do is proven. Fi’s Reviews Editor is an Apple bore right to the core so when he turned down the option to use a Satnav download system for the I-Phone it was worth asking a few questions and the reply was: the I-Phone’s antennae is not reliable enough.

If that’s the case its a little damning for the average person’s most precious object.

The case of two guides

Which brings me back to the Garmin.

I had only my ageing HTC Advantage running TomTom’s navigator 6 to compare it too and the test exposed limitations in both.

The Garmin was lovely.

It runs on a little Asus Nuvifone 10, which is a slavish I-Phone copy except for the antennae – the Garmin’s relationship with the satellites is excellent something that cannot be said for my ageing HTC which always take a little time to fix on its guiding star. It can also hold a charge for much longer than the device it aspires to be.

The Asus on the other hand battens onto a satellite virtually instantly so top brownie points there.

It’s a pretty little phone whose design is only marred by the little silver clip that declares it to be a Nuvifone – why it could not have stated that on the border of the display as is done for Asus itself and Garmin is puzzling.

There is a similar inconsistency with the mount which is beautifully engineered and swivels to any position you want the power lead however is messy and droops in the unappealing and untidy way that sends frequent sailors into a rage.

That said the Garmin is very exact in its estimates for journey time. The TomTom software was a little more conservative. Adding about six minutes on average to the time and then starting to come down to the Garmin’s view as I got closer.

Where the TomTom wins is in its display and the ease of use.

In fairness to the Garmin it is much smaller than the Advantage, though an I-Phone Touch I used some years ago still managed to get more on a smaller screen. This means that such children’s favourites as compass, remaining distance, and overall distance don’t make it onto the screen.

Far more telling from my point of view was entering where you want to go. For some reason the Garmin insists that you add town, street number and street and can get quite hung up on it procedures which is not the case for my old TomTom so no points there.

Favourites system not favourite

Such clunkiness was a consistent problem with the Garmin system. Entering favourites for instance is not straightforward. They are first registered as points ie point 1, point 2 etc and you then have to go in an edit them after they have been set – the TomTom simply lets you add a favourite and give it a name there and then.

Summation? Well oddly, I liked the Garmin Asus combination and I might even buy four of them for Christmas if I can do a deal with phone shop. Why? because I like the idea of a Satnav on a working device with an I-Phone style interface that will give the children the option of never ever being lost again, whether they’re being driven or walking.

They might not think the display tells them all they want to know but knowing where you are going and when you are going to get there should really be enough.

It’s technology that would have foxed the wicked stepmother in Hansel or Gretel, though arguably not for long, any wicked stepmother worth her salt would have spiked the batteries.

Satnavs – testing the old and the new

Fi takes three Satnav systems and puts them through their paces on a route from Debenham in Suffolk to Churchgate Street in Old Harlow in Essex – two places both mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086

2004 ViaMichelin software running on Palm Tungsten V with external Kirrio GPS connecting viaBluetooth. An old now obsolete system with a few roads missing. It puts the distance very creditably at 73.9 miles and estimates the journey time at 1.38 mins.

TomTom Navigator 6 software running on HTC Advantage. Again with a few maps missing though not as many as the ViaMichelin, the TomTom estimates the mileage at 69.4 miles and is reckoning on it taking 1.34 mins.

The latest Garmin software with up to the minute road and camera information puts the time at a very pacy 1.23 mins and for the life of me I could not find out where on earth the distance calculator was.