- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

If, as discussed last week, “planned obsolescence” is a hallmark of many businesses, “new and improved” is perhaps one of the hucksters’ greatest phrases. Last year’s product can’t possibly suffice this year, they say, so let’s add some features and relaunch.

Sadly, while something may be new, it isn’t always improved.

Take the Magellan RoadMate 6000T, a $699.99 GPS system that is the same price as last year’s RoadMate 360. Where the former item was well worth the same price Magellan is asking for this year’s model, this new product suffers greatly from feature overload.

Users can, for example, plug in a SecureDigital (SD) flash memory card and either view photos on the device or listen to music. Of course, you can do both on a video-equipped IPod, and plugging the Apple Computer music device into a car stereo will produce better sound than the Magellan unit does. So, why the features?

Magellan also placed a Bluetooth speaker phone into the unit, which means you can speak through it when answering or making calls, something useful in places such as the District, where the law requires “hands-free” use of cell phones. Sound quality is uneven, however, and while that may be a function of the telephone one is using, it seems unnecessary considering the widespread adoption of handsfree headsets.

What’s more, once I had invoked the phone menu during a given session, the device wouldn’t get away from that, no matter what I tried. I could only boot up the GPS, let it warm up and manually “escape” from the phone menu into navigation. And, after all, navigation is why one buys a GPS.

In navigation, the 6000T is acceptable but not necessarily the best choice for the job. It works well, but its promise of “live traffic reports” and rerouting seemed uneven; the only feature that would be invoked is a slow traffic indicator that urges you, for example, to jump from the express lanes of I-270 south into the local lanes. Fair enough, except when you are stuck in the middle of traffic and there’s no way to get into those lanes. A few lines of software code might solve that contradiction.

I’m also disappointed in Magellan’s lack of options for voices and the on-screen display. Friends who have the TomTom GPS report they can select several voices for the device, including one with a British accent. Magellan gives you the choice of either male or female — and that’s it. A little variety would be more welcome than, say, the photo viewer — which is a great driver distraction, by the way.

Because Magellan is asking $700 for this unit, it deserves the same kind of scrutiny a shopper would give a notebook PC, which is available at $700 or less in some instances. After all, you can always hook up a USB-attached GPS antenna to a notebook PC equipped with Microsoft’s Streets & Trips 2007 software (recently released at a list price of $129, though it’s available for less at online stores and some retailers). The Microsoft software does its job very well, calculates alternate routes, speaks directions and, since it uses a notebook display, offers a much better viewing experience than the Magellan.

If I were driving a lot, I’d consider buying some kind of auto mounting device and using a notebook computer instead of the Magellan RoadMate 6000T. Details on the Microsoft software can be found at www.microsoft.com/streets; I won’t tell you where to find the Magellan product, since I’m not recommending it.

• Read Mark Kellner’s Technology blog on The Washington Times Web site at www.wash ingtontimes.com/blogs.

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