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AMR Week Peek: Magellan RoadMate 700

The Product
I was being asked to spend a week commuting around the New York City and Northern New Jersey area. Being a native of Boston, this prospect did not excite me, and the car I was to be driving (Chevy Malibu) did not include a built-in navigation system. Best Buy to the rescue! They provided me with a Magellan RoadMate 700, the top of the line unit from Thales Navigation's Magellan unit. This is based on the same system as Hertz NeverLost, and has been out for a couple of years already. Debuting at around $1,300, the unit retails for $999 now (Best Buy had a 10% discount on all navigation units the week I was testing it, bringing it to about $900). By comparison, this makes the RoadMate 700 the most expensive of its competitive set, which includes the Garmin Street Pilot C330, as well as the TomTom Go 300 (which even features Bluetooth so the unit can serve as a speaker for your mobile phone). Competing units retail for about $100 less. All units can be found for less online. I've seen the Magellan reviewed for years, and it is generally well regarded. Magellan offers the new 300 unit at about half the price, but owners complain about that unit for several reasons. I was quite excited to test this unit out.

Included in the box are power adapters for the car and home, a USB cable and CD (though this unit comes pre-loaded with all US and Canadian maps, and even has European maps, which you need to buy an access code to unlock), and a suction-cup windshield mounting system. For about $20 retail, you can purchase a custom-fit sleeve for storage of the unit. It also has an antenna you rotate up, which can be user-replaced if broken for under $20.

The System
For people who have used NeverLost, this is about 99% the same (it just lacks the "Return to Hertz Location" menu option). It's straight forward, and provides useful voice guidance. The user interface responds quickly, and the touch screen is very accurate. Overall, I had the unit set up and inputed 10 addresses into the address book in well under 30 minutes...maybe 15 or so.

Unlike built-in systems, portable units need to be in contact with satellites to guide you, so I left my hotel, and gave the unit a try. Driving around in New Jersey, it was quite good. I used it to get from my hotel to the office I was working out of with no flaws, and it definitely chose the best route. Unfortunately, it thought my hotel was at a different exit (30B instead of the correct 30A on 287 in New Jersey), but I knew better than the unit, so I ignored this. Turns out, I should have begun to be worried at this point.

In more complicated locales, like New York City, the unit really started to break apart. I was in Brooklyn, trying to get to 50th and 10th in Midtown Manhattan. Although I entered the exact address, and specified New York (and not Brooklyn) as the city, it kept trying to direct me to a random location in Brooklyn. I still have no clue what it was trying to do, but in New York City, a wrong turn can cost you literally hours in traffic. And it did. And this was after it randomly had me exit I-78 on my way from New Jersey to New York City, drive around a block, and get right back on 78. Then, the Target I was going to was on the left, just before the Holland Tunnel, but the unit made me go right, drive around a block, cross over to what would have been a left turn before the tunnel, and then I got stuck. See, by taking that route, I could not legally get to the Target. So, I parked the car in a near by shopping area parking lot and walked to Target. Let's just say I was frustrated enough at that point, and certainly didn't need any other incorrect directions in the city. Unfortunately, the unit wasn't done with me, as it was then that the whole Brooklyn issue came up.

Points of Interest (POI)
At the heart of any good nav unit is its POI database, and how quickly you can get the information you want. I've used several cars with nav units, and found varying degrees of quality in this feature. The Garmin Street Pilot is known for having the best database built in, but the Magellan's is nothing to balk at. Around my office, I searched for a Japanese restaurant, and it quickly found one just a few minutes away. Unfortunately, when I put in a store or restaurant's name, the POI feature became useless. You can search for general categories in an area (like looking for a restaurant or bank in your area), but if you type in a store name (like Target or Best Buy), the unit simply starts listing everything with that name in its database, and in no particular order (or no discernible order). This is a huge issue. There appeared to be no way to specify that you want something within a certain radius of your current position, or even within a certain town or state. I needed to go to a Target store, and entered Target. The list started with stores in Ohio, then presented some Minnesota locations (including the company's headquarters), and then went back to Ohio locations before offering California stores. Keep in mind that I was in New Jersey. At no point was I given an option to input a city or state restriction, and hitting the Option and View buttons did no good.

I looked in the manual, but that's a practice to be avoided. It's not well written, and I firmly believe that this should not be necessary. The rest of the UI is so intuitive that it seems odd that such a straight-forward feature would be so hard to get access to, if it even exists. Also, I don't think you would want to have to rely on the manual if you're stuck in the middle of nowhere...assuming you even have the manual with you at the time (I didn't).

The Final Review
What can I say? I loved the Magellan until I had to depend on it. It did a good job outside of more complex driving areas, and was very easy to set up. Unfortunately, it is the complex driving situations where one most needs assistance, and the Magellan fell flat on its face.

You can't expect every navigation unit to be flawless, but when a unit is the most expensive amongst its competitors, and has been out for over two years, you would think that it would be refined enough to both get you where you need to go, and give you a usable list of destinations in its POI functionality. For me, the Magellan RoadMate 700 is a cool toy that is not good enough to depend on. And for skeptics, I've used several navigation units that I would depend on without any fear. This just isn't one of them.

Not Recommended

Speedy, intuitive UI

Bad directions and lacking POI