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Mixed test results from the latest Garmin, Magellan, TomTom navigators

Consumer Reports News: September 11, 2012 01:08 PM

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With new products, it is easy to be lulled into believing that each updated model will be better than the one before. That's not what we're seeing in our portable GPS navigation tests.

Our latest test group features eight models, spanning from entry-level to full-featured, and the results are mixed. In fact, only half the units scored well enough to be recommended.

We are impressed with the Garmin Nuvi 3550LM and Nuvi 3590LMT. These two devices are in the Prestige Series, meaning they boast the latest and most sophisticated version of the Garmin software. These two units are 5-inch interpretations of the previously tested 3490LMT and 3450LMT. And likewise, they standout for their thin design, crisp graphics, and sensitive touch-screen display. Over lesser Garmins, these models include 3D landmarks and terrain view, along with the latest iteration of reality view and historic traffic information to add routing intelligence. However, we continue to find this software interface, in its effort to ape smart-phone designs, has a bit of a learning curve.

An appealing, mid-level navigator, the Magellan RoadMate 5235T LM offers lifetime traffic and map updates, reality view, and landmark guidance with a 5-inch screen. The landmark guidance is the token new feature. An interesting concept, it taps the points of interest (POI) database to give more conversational directions. For instance, rather than say, "Turn right in 500 feet," it can add a landmark reference, such as, "Turn right in 500 feet at the Shell gas station."

In our experience testing around the New York City metropolitan area, we found the results with landmark guidance were a bit mixed. This clever feature proved to be helpful at times, but it could confuse us by highlighting a landmark that wasn't obvious, and other times it wasn't specific enough. We even experienced instructions based on outdated POI information. Many streets are littered with banks, gas stations, and restaurants. This feature should encourage owners to perform periodic map updates, as the quality of routing would depend even more than usual on the currency of the database.

On the budget end, the 4.3-inch Magellan RoadMate 2210 offers the basics, plus reality view and landmark guidance, at an attractive price. The trade-off is that it does not include free traffic information, a feature we have become accustomed to being standard with Magellan devices.

From TomTom, we just evaluated the Start 45 and Start 55, with and without bundled "TM" traffic and maps. The 45 models have a 4.3-inch screen, while the 55 models use a 5-inch display. These are decidedly entry-level models, essentially replacing the mediocre Ease devices. The Starts do pronounce street names, provide lane guidance, and include IQ routes (for history-based routing), but they are otherwise short on frills.

We feel the user interface has improved over the Ease, but it still feels dumbed down compared to other TomToms, with an odd software flow. Of greater annoyance is the EasyPort mount. The concept is great: A simple, folding ring-style mount that is compact and travel friendly. However, the devices routinely pop off when adjusting the mount or even rotate while driving. In our tests, mount design is subject to its own rating, and the score is a factor in our overall test score. After all, a great device that won't stay mounted doesn't make for a great navigation solution. And the Starts definitely lost points in this area.

The lessons learned in this group: You can't make assumptions based on brand and products don't always progress in predictable ways. Before buying, check out the model pages for information and ratings on these and dozens more GPS navigators. Plus, our interactive ratings can be sorted and filtered by the factors that matter most to you, enabling you to quickly create a tailored shopping list.

Jeff Bartlett


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