Windows Phone Thoughts: You Can Navigate: Navman iCN 630 v1.0

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Friday, July 18, 2003

You Can Navigate: Navman iCN 630 v1.0

Posted by Jared Miniman in "HARDWARE" @ 09:00 AM

GPS systems come and go, but products from Navman seem to hold their weight despite heavy competition in this space. In this review, we take a look at something that can be considered a Pocket PC companion; it is not a GPS unit that plugs into your Pocket PC, but rather, yet another gadget that I recommend as an important member of your technology toolkit! The Navman iCN (In-car unit) 630 is the easiest way to keep your driving on track without depending on a Pocket PCís processor or display that this author has ever encountered.

GPS systems come and go, but products from Navman seem to hold their weight despite heavy competition in this space. In this review, we take a look at something that can be considered a Pocket PC companion; it is not a GPS unit that plugs into your P/PC, but rather, yet another gadget that I recommend as an important member of your technology toolkit! The Navman iCN (In-car unit) 630 is the easiest way to keep your driving on track without depending on a Pocket PCís processor or display that this author has ever encountered.

Although I received a pre-production unit, the contents of the final box will include:
  • iCN 630 GPS Receiver
  • iCN 630 navigation software
  • Vehicle windshield and dashboard mounting bracket
  • 12/24V Vehicle power cable
  • Mains power pack for indoor use
  • USB cable for map and application downloading from a PC
  • Protective carry case and screen cleaner
  • Quickstart guide
Before delving into the features of this very capable GPS unit, allow us to relish over the under-the-hood features of the iCN. First, the device is powered by an Intel PXA250 XScale chip (the same as found in an iPAQ 3900 and most current crop of Pocket PC devices!), 64 MB of system memory RAM and 64 MB of user flashable ROM for map and data storage. So, unlike with a standard Pocket PC GPS solution, if your iCN goes unused for several months, when you return to using the unit, no data or settings will have been lost. This is crucial for the busy traveler. The display is a 260,000 color, 320 x 240 advanced TFT automotive-rated color screen. A capable two-inch speaker is built into the iCN for clear spoken instructions.

A Look at the Hardware
One of the first biases I had to kick out the door when approaching this review is that what I am inspecting ainít no stinkiní Pocket PC: it is a utilitarian navigation system, and not something that could ever become a fashion accessory. It is designed to survive the harsh environment that is your car dashboard, rather than win an award for looks.

Figure 1: Front shot of the iCN

The majority of the front side is taken up by the large TFT screen, and to its right is the control keypad. Below is a breakdown of each keyís function:

Figure 2: Description of keypad controls

Unlike with a Pocket PC GPS solution, where it is often necessary to interact with the screen using a stylus on a regular basis, the iCN does not have a touch-sensitive screen, so all interaction must be done with the control keypad. In most cases this makes a lot of sense, especially for quick message confirmations and easy zooming, but navigating through complex input menus becomes tedious and time consuming. Overall, I think Navman made a good design decision by nixing the touch screen, because it allowed them to make the screen much more automotive-friendly.

Figure 3: Back side of the iCN

At the rear of the device is a large speaker that is capable of accurately reproducing a robotic man or womanís voice. Unless I had music blasting through my carís system, I had no problem hearing the voice. It also helps immensely that large, on-screen directions are provided in most of the screen views to aide the voice instructions.

The iCN 630 cleverly supports standard SD/MMC cards (sorry, itís not an SDIO slot!) meaning you can install upwards to a gigabyte of maps. In the user manual, you are informed that a max card size of 256 MB is supported, but I usually donít trust figures like that! Do be warned: every map set requires process time when you warm boot the machine, so the more maps you have, the longer it will be before you can start driving. Also on the backside of the iCN is a foldaway patch-style GPS antenna (which operates at 1575.42 MHz, L1 band). According to Navman, GPS position accuracy is better than five meters (16 feet), 95% of operation time. My extensive use of the product would, in fact, confirms that claim.

Figure 4: iCN mounted in car

Mounting the iCN in your car couldnít be easier: included are both a windshield and dashboard mounting kit. Because my Pontiac Grand Am dashboard is quite curvy, I had to resort to installing the windshield bracket, which is the style of mounting I prefer in most cases because it keeps my dashboard from being marked up. Notice how impressively bright the screen is despite decent sunlight coming in through the windshield. I never had an issue of being unable to adequately read the screen, even while on tree-less roads in mid-day.

Device setup
Though I will spare you from going through pages of screen shots, the iCN initialization process is similar to that of any Pocket PC GPS solution: you bring up a map explorer called iCN Desktop, indicate which regions youíre interested in, and then install to RAM or a storage card (though some GPS systems tie up your only storage card slot, a big hassle). Nine major languages are supported by iCN Desktop. But before you go through these steps, you can attempt to update the iCNís firmware or install ďiCN Application" if your device is brand new, as mine was. It will install this application into ROM, so it will never be erased (same applies to user settings) should you not use the device for a few years.

After iCN Application setup, you are led through a process of product activation (sounds like a Microsoft install!), which is required before you can use your iCN. Make sure you have an available Internet connection. Maps are downloaded over a USB 1.1-compliant cable, so while it wasnít super fast, itís what youíd expect with a Pocket PC GPS system. Go grab a cup of coffee!

iCN Desktop can also be used to remove maps installed on your iCN or storage card. There is a nice settings backup feature that can be used should you be sending the device in for repair and will likely come back re-flashed.

Software Features
If, when using the iCN, you feel like youíre using a User Interface (UI) taken right from a Pocket PC Navman product, youíre probably close to the truth. Because the processor in your Pocket PC is compatible with the instruction set in the iCNís processor, not a huge deal of code porting was necessary, but because the iCN canít leverage the cool Pocket PC development toolkit, extra work was needed to ensure a great user experience. And I think Navman pulled this off quite well. Buttons are large, screens are easily moved about, and youíre never more than a few clicks away from the function youíre looking for.

In real-world use, I found the rubber-button control pad to be reasonably painless to use. At various times, I noticed the buttons getting stuck, but it might have been a result of me using too much pressure. Hey, when youíre lost you get a bit impatient! Being able to zoom in to and zoom out of maps with a single button click is handy, as are dedicated ďOK" and ďESC" buttons. I did find turning off the device to be a real pain, but more on that later.

From the main menu, you can view shortcuts, view a map of where you currently are positioned, setup a trip, obtain GPS status information, configure iCN settings, or cancel trip.

Figure 5: Main Menu

Before you travel, you must first select a destination and allow the iCN 630 to plan your route. There are three main ways that you can program your destination:

1. Use Shortcuts that you have previously programmed for destinations used on a regular basis.

2. Set a new destination by:
  • Entering a specific street address
  • Selecting the intersection of two streets
  • Choosing a Point of Interest such as a hotel, school or hospital
  • Using a Favorite destination that you have already stored in the unit
  • Picking an address you have recently traveled to
Upon selecting the United States as the country, you are walked through the following three screens to capture the address.

Figure 6: Address Selector

Notice the on-screen keyboard. Love it or hate it, this is how youíll be entering all text characters into the iCN. I found the method to be slow and frustrating, but without a touch screen, itís about the best you can do without serious voice recognition capabilities.

Figure 7: Donít forget the street number!

A POI is any named site, feature, landmark or public venue. There can be thousands of Points of Interest in larger cities, so they are sorted into categories. Points of Interest categories may be hotels, churches, schools, parks, etc.

Figure 8: Creating a POI

The iCN allows you to store up to 100 Favorite destinations, to save you from reentering the location again. Use Shortcuts for your eight most regular locations, and store other commonly used locations as Favorites. Also, destinations and departure points that you have recently used are stored so that you can quickly recall them.

3. Take a position straight from the map and program this as your destination.

You may find it easier to program your destination directly from the map. Generally you will use this option if you know the area in which your destination is, or if you have selected SHOW from a previous entry screen. The iCN will allow you to scroll around a map and pick a point on the map. The unit will automatically load the address details for you, and your destination trip is computed.

Navigating Away!
There are four different ways that you can view instructions along your way. You can move through the four navigation screens by pressing the page-ahead button.

  • The Map Browser screen displays your route on a map which is always oriented North.

    Figure 9: Map Browser

  • The Navigation Map screen displays your route on map which is always
    oriented in the direction in which you are traveling. Without a doubt I use this screen the most because not only can I see where Iím going, but Iím made aware of my next turn so I can be on the look-out for signs. This screen is particularly useful for ďdifficult" turns where you have to slightly bear to the right or left.

    Figure 10: Navigation Map

  • The Next Instruction screen is a simple graphical display showing the
    direction and distance to your next turn.

    Figure 11: Next Instruction

  • The next four Instructions screen display a list of your next four turns, with the street name, direction of turn and distance to go. I couldnít figure out how to get a list of all turns for a trip, which is useful to reference before departing.

Figure 12: Next four Instructions

At points you might be wondering which GPS satellites you are accessing, and how strong their individual signals are. By selecting GPS Status from the Main Menu, you get the following screen.

Figure 13: GPS Status

There are several other GPS status screens which are pretty cool, but I rarely used them, so Iíll let you explore those on your own.

Configuring your iCN
What would a serious GPS system be without room for customization? The unit has a number of Settings that you can alter. You can:

  • Change the colors and brightness of the display to suit the driving conditions or your own preferences. Daytime and nighttime map color profiles are available to choose from.
  • Use the Route and Guidance screen to instruct the unit to find the shortest distance or fastest time, to avoid certain road conditions (avoid toll or urban roads) or to change voice settings. In voice settings, I was able to choose between a male and female voice profile (US English), but I am sure more will be supported for international users. You can globally disable voice instructions. Also here, you can disable Back-on-Trackô, which in theory will put you back on track to reach your destination.
  • Select the POIs that are relevant to you. Choose from accommodations, amenities, automotive facilities, entertainment, etc.
  • Change the format of certain settings in the GPS Status screens such as map position format and local time offset.
  • Use the User screen to clear your Favorites, Shortcuts or recent destinations from the unitís memory. Unfortunately, you cannot clear individual favorites, which to me, is a big hassle since some of my favorites will change from year to year, though some (like my parentsí house in Pennsylvania) won't ever.
  • The Maps setting allows you to manage maps loaded on both the internal memory and storage card. Maps will only be loaded when the unit is turned on if the check boxes are ticked. If youíre not using a map set for an extended period of time, check them off here because map processing at startup can take some time!
Overall thoughts on usage
This latest generation of GPS products is quite impressive! About a year ago I did a large review series at pocketnow on Pocket PC GPS products that I would deem ďSecond Generation". Now that weíre at the third generation, weíre seeing much better map detail, accuracy in routing, and usable voice commands. However, GPS still has a ways to go, in my mind, before I can recommend it to those who are most susceptible to getting lost. First, if youíre thinking about using one of these devices (Navmanís or anyone elseís) for cross-country travel or even interstate travel, think again! I found the iCNís highway turn instructions to be inaccurate in terms of correctly pinpointing the common way of getting from point to point. For example, in a recent trip from Northern New Jersey to Philadelphia I was constantly being told to take obscure exits, but of course I ignored those warnings. Back-on-Trackô failed pretty miserably here. On a side note, at various times during this two hour trip, all I saw on the iCN was a big question mark, with it not knowing where the heck I was going, despite being on the New Jersey Turnpike, the correct way to travel from North Jersey to Philly! When I rebooted the machine, it wised up and began suggesting exits to take (though they were all unnecessary steps and would have pushed me away from my destination).

Highway travel aside, for local (less than 30 miles) travel, I was very impressed with the iCNís accuracy thanks to their use of Navtech maps, used by high end car manufacturers. It prevented me from getting lost at least two dozen times since I moved to New Jersey last March, and many times more it got me on the correct path when I was lost. It knows local roads like a pro, and in many cases taught me better ďback ways" to save commute time. I also love the voice turn prompts. Guests in my car were impressed too. So in all, the iCN has been instrumental to my learning the new geography in Jersey.

One little flaw: powering off is a miserable experience! You are supposed to press and hold the menu button for a few seconds, but in my trials, if you didnít time your pressing just right, the iCN would remain on. Powering off should be made easier.

The package is well polished and a pleasure to use. You might be asking yourself why I would prefer a dedicated GPS product when I could just as easily toss one of my iPAQs into the car and use something like the Navman GPS 3450. Simple: I wouldnít expect my iPAQ to survive very long in the harsh environment of my car! Whether itís chilled to around 0 Fahrenheit or blazed to beyond 150 degrees on my dashboard (though I donít recommend leaving any electronics on your dash!), the iCN never failed me. In fact, in cold conditions, it pulls a neat trick: it will actually boost the display brightness to increase heat output from the iCN and thus thaw itself.

I noted most of my complaints above, but let me be more direct. Below are follies of the iCN that I think need to be corrected or at least improved upon for future models. Iíve added a few points surrounding the iCNís industrial design.

  • When will GPS ever ďdo" highways?
  • Keypad controls sometimes get ďsticky"
  • Powering off is too difficult
  • Text input is tedious
  • No turn-by-turn for entire trip
  • Expensive!
Where To Buy
The hardware can be purchased directly from Navman for $999.95, and likely from other hardware vendors as time goes on.

All in all, this is one of the best GPS systems I have ever used, and leave it to Navman to impress upon me that there is a real future for GPS products! Once the highway routing algorithms improve and this hardware becomes a bit more affordable, I hope to see mass embracing of automotive GPS systems. There will soon be a day when you have no excuses for being late to appointments!


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