Portable navigation systems going in more directions

Updated: Jul 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
Sure, portable navigation systems, the kind that can be taken from car to car and plugged into a lighter socket, are a godsend for driving directions, but they are becoming handy in other ways as well and not just for drivers.

With more than a dozen brands of portable global positioning system devices now sold in the United States for $300 to $1,500, manufacturers are competing by adding features like audio, video, photography and language guides rather than becoming tangled up in price wars. Most of these enhancements are for entertainment, supplementing AM/FM radios and CD players and capitalising on the portables' existing features. For example, portables have sound systems so users can hear directions, have storage for extensive map data and have some means of downloading map updates via home computers. So, it was not much of a leap to make devices that could also play downloaded audio.

Nearly every manufacturer offers models that can play music in the MP3 format, and some can also play Windows Media Audio music files, WAV files (the computer equivalent of the standard CD format) and the oddly named Ogg Vorbis format. A number of models from Garmin International and at least one from TomTom can play audio books, too. Some TomTom models can link to and control iPods. And there are models that receive satellite radio programs XM Radio on Audiovox and Garmin models; Sirius on Clarion's NICE system at a subscription cost of $12.95 a month.

To obtain better sound than the portables' small speakers and amplifiers can deliver, many models have FM modulators that transmit audio to a car's sound system. That not only makes music sound more natural but also makes directions easier to hear and understand.

Some systems deliver content to watch as well. Mio Technology and JVC have models that play videos from SD memory cards, while Sanyo and Polaroid do it from DVDs. The Sanyo even has a 7-inch screen and stereo speakers. And while navigation systems usually will not let users watch video while the car is moving, many (from Garmin, JVC, Lowrance, Magellan, Mio and Polaroid) will display still photographs when the screens are not needed for navigation.

The iCN 750 from Navman lets users show photos and shoot them and use them as a navigation aid. Press a button and it shoots a digital picture of the road ahead (it can detach quickly from its suction-cup bracket to shoot other views or even outside the car). There is no zoom, and the camera's 1.3-megapixel resolution is more like a camera phone's than a digital camera's. But the point is not image detail: it is the GPS geocode data the Navman adds to each photo as a record of where it was shot. Store the image on the Navman's hard drive, and it shows a user on a map where it was shot or can navigate back there, which is especially useful for spots that have no street address.

Portable navigation systems are set near a driver's face, where users can better hear directions and see details on its small screen. That is also an ideal position for the microphone of a hands-free telephone setup, which has led Garmin, Magellan, TomTom and others to equip some models for hands-free phoning with Bluetooth-equipped cell phones.