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Automotive GPS units have leapt miles forward

Allan Tarvid
March 04, 2010 at 10:44 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

This Garmin unit shows you which lane you need to be in to make upcoming turns, and shows your GPS-measured speed next to the current posted speed limit.
This Garmin unit shows you which lane you need to be in to make upcoming turns, and shows your GPS-measured speed next to the current posted speed limit.
Have you ever missed a turn, decided to go around the block and found yourself in a part of town you didnít know existed? Try that with a boat behind you, and everyone in the vehicle may find out how good you are at backing a trailer long distances.

When I was a kid, I once took a wrong turn on a Chicago freeway and found myself in Indiana before I could get off and correct my mistake. Maybe Iím the only one these things happen to, but I donít think so.

I should say ďthe only one these things used to happen toĒ because thanks to the newest generation of automotive GPS units, it will be the third blue moon in a month before they happen to me again.

I tested these devices back when they first came out and was kind of underwhelmed. I thought Iíd been tracking their development pretty closely since then, but I was wrong. Garmin sent me a nuvi 1690 ($499.99 MSRP) to test, and the smirk caused by the words ďintelligent navigatorĒ on the box was quickly wiped off my face.

Simpler menus, better displays and touch screen controls have brought the latest generation of these things a giant step closer to actually being user friendly. Maybe the unit just seemed easy to use because I am finally becoming tech-gadget savvy enough to make mastering such things childís play, but I donít think so.

OK, I expected the unit to boot up quickly and find my position in a few seconds. I also wasnít surprised that it had highly detailed maps and showed my vehicle in the correct lane on the road. I pulled over and parked, followed the directions in the Quick Start menu to pick a spot on the on-screen map about 20 miles away and told the little nuvi to take me there. Then the surprises started.

There is a little speed limit sign in the lower right corner of the screen that shows the posted limit on major roads as you drive down them. I passed an actual roadside sign showing a change in the limit, and my jaw dropped as the tiny sign on the screen flipped instantly to the new number. There have been times when Iíve paid less than full attention to my driving and would have given a dollar to know what the current speed limit was. You can also display your vehicleís GPS-measured speed right next to the little speed limit sign to help prevent a costly ticket. By the way, it showed that my test carís speedometer reads about two miles an hour slow at 70 m.p.h.

Garmin has this neat nulink service available in ďselected coverage areasĒ that is as helpful as opening the passenger door and asking a local citizen to hop in and guide you around. Actually, you donít have to open a door, because the information for wherever you are comes directly into the nuvi wirelessly. The 1690 comes with a free, 2-year subscription, and the service costs $5 a month thereafter.

Nulink uses Google Local Search to provide local points of interest and traffic services that deliver alerts for delays and road construction, and then the nuvi guides you around them.

Need fuel? Find up-to-date prices near you for regular, mid-grade, premium or diesel. It also checks the weather and gives you local movie times in case you donít like the forecast.

Iíd already seen a big colored line marking my route on the display of earlier units and big arrows marking turns. But now, a feature called Lane Assist with junction view even guides you to the correct lane for an approaching turn or exit. I could have used that back in Chicago ó except that I was driving a Ď53 Ford and the GPS system would have sounded like science fiction to Flash Gordon back then. Please, if you are too young to know who Flash Gordon was, donít write in, just Google him!

An ecoRoute feature calculates the most fuel-efficient route and tracks fuel usage. Select the ďless fuelĒ option as a routing preference, and nuvi will determine if a more fuel efficient route exists based on road speed and vehicle acceleration data for a given route. Sometimes cheaper is better than quicker these days.

I hate to keep admitting how easy it is to amaze me, but I was amazed when the salesman set up my cell phone to work with the sound system in my now 2-year-old pickup. It wonít be long until holding a phone against your head will put red flashing lights in your rear view mirror everywhere. Guess what? You can pair a compatible Bluetooth phone with the nuvi for no-phone-against-your-head calling. Dial numbers on the nuvi touch screen to make calls, and to answer a call, just tap the screen and speak. You can even put regular calling numbers on your contact list for one-touch dialing. You can also dial the number of local points of interest with one touch.

These things offer more than just an unbelievable level of travel convenience. An emergency locator feature finds the closest hospitals, police stations and gas stations. Take the nuvi with you when you leave the car in the Super Bowl parking lot, and it will remember where you parked.

Iím tempted to say I have friends and relatives who arenít as smart as this thing, but I

View other articles written Allan Tarvid