Image: Garmin nuvi 765 T
Garmin
Garmin's nuvi 765 T, one of the company's newest units, includes a "lane assist" feature to help guide the driver to the correct lane for an approaching turn or exit.
By
msnbc.com
updated 9/17/2008 9:18:05 AM ET 2008-09-17T13:18:05

Road warriors love their GPS devices. Sales of the units have doubled each year since 2006, when more affordable portable navigation devices reached an economic tipping point. Now GPS units, which used to start at about $500, are between $200 and $300 for entry-level models.

The market is an intensely competitive one, even more so now with an increasing number of GPS-capable cell phones and consumers who are tightening their spending. GPS manufacturers are working to distinguish their units by offering software features for tasks like changing lanes and smarter routing to avoid traffic.

“The nice ‘gee-whiz’ hardware features are all great, but if you don’t tie them together with a great customer experience, they end up just being very techie devices, and not really appealing to the mainstream driver,” said Mike Wagner, director of product marketing for Magellan, the third-largest seller of portable navigation devices in the United States, behind Garmin and TomTom.

TomTom prides itself on its “software and user interface that is very intuitive, easy to use,” said Tom Murray, vice president of marketing development for the Netherlands-based company. 

“We like to say with a TomTom, there’s no manual required — even though we put one in the box.”

Garmin spokeswoman Carly Baltes says much the same thing: “Right out of the box, our flagship line of nuvi navigators are ready to go.”

As popular as GPS has become for vehicles, it still has customers to win over, particularly in the United States, where “only about 14 percent of drivers have GPS devices,” said Wagner of Magellan. 

Research firm Canalys said in a recent report that “the demand for personal navigation continues to grow,” and that shipments of portable navigation devices in the United States nearly doubled in the second quarter of this year, compared to the same time last year.

The market is “showing huge growth in terms of units sold, but this is coming at a price,” said Chris Jones, the firm’s principal analyst said in the report.

“Price-cutting has left several vendors struggling to turn a profit, and the economic climate isn’t helping. Meanwhile they have to continue to finance research and development to ensure they have the right feature set to attract future new buyers and those who will soon be considering upgrading from the systems they already have.”

Image: Dash Express
Dash
The Dash Express ($300) combines GPS with Internet access. It requires a monthly service fee, with plans starting at $9.99 a month.
A newcomer to the field, Dash, is making inroads with its $300 GPS Internet-connected unit, the Dash Express. It carries a $12.99 monthly charge for Internet service. Dash also offers other Internet plans, with the least expensive being $9.99 a month for customers who pre-pay $239.76 for two years’ service.

The three GPS “bigs” are tracking Dash’s success.

“Although we’re watching that as a technology for the future, we don’t think right now it’s meant for the mainstream; it’s really quite a niche,” said Wagner of Magellan.

In Europe, where TomTom dominates the GPS market, its newly released TomTom GO 940 lets drivers use Google for local searches for “real-time information” about traffic and weather, Murray said.

“Connectivity is something people have been anticipating in the industry,” he said. “It’s a natural extension of where we go with our products.” It’s not known when that service will be available in the United States.

GPS screens generally come in 3.5-, 4.3- and pricier 5-inch sizes. There are alsoand 7-inch displays sizes are available that also do double duty as a screen for DVDs and games . screens.

“We’ve tested 7-inch screens, but at that point, it actually takes up too much of your windshield space, and we don’t think it’s as safe as it should be,” said Wagner of Magellan. Plus, he adds, “You don’t want a big old TV sitting on your dashboard.”

Among some of the features manufacturers are touting in their GPS devices:

Garmin

Lane assist.  Some nuvi models, including the nuvi 755T ($499), are the first to use “lane assist,” which helps guide a driver to the correct lane for an approaching turn or exit. Models with lane assist also include 3-D views of some buildings.

The nuvi 765T ($599) adds Bluetooth, enabling hands-free calling. The lower-priced nüvi 265T, 265WT and 275T also have Bluetooth. Prices start at $299.

Where Am I? This program, available in some nuvi models, lets emergency responders know where you are, and it tells you where the nearest services, from hospitals to vehicle-repair shops, are located.

Free, real-time traffic updates. On new units, Garmin is doing away with subscriptions for traffic updates, and is providing “lifetime service” for free. However, advertising on the screen is now part of the service, which some drivers may find annoying.

“In the past, traffic data has been offered with a three-month trial subscription, and then a fee to continue,” said Baltes of Garmin. “This is the first time Garmin has offered traffic in this regard.”

Subscription fees have varied, depending on the type of service, Baltes said.

“Some of our products offered MSN Direct information, which costs either a one-time payment of $129.95, or an annual payment of $49.95. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

“Some Garmin products provide traffic through the Traffic Message Channel,” an FM-based service, which costs $60 a year, she said.

NuMaps Guarantee. Starting next month, within 60 days of first using a new nuvi or zumo device, a customer can check Garmin’s Web site for a free map update.

TomTom

Image: TomTom's Map Share
TomTom
TomTom's Map Share feature lets drivers make changes to the map database, share it with other TomTom users and download changes to the GPS unit others have recommended.

Map Share. This program is free and available on all the company’s devices, and lets drivers make changes to the map database and share it with other TomTom users.

“The idea is if you happen to encounter something on the roadway that is no longer up-to-date – for example, a one-way street that has changed direction — you can very simply tap the screen and note what is no longer up-to-date,” Murray said.

Changes are uploaded and downloaded via computer.

“To date, we’ve had about 4 million corrections that have been provided on a worldwide basis by TomTom users to our mapping database,” he said.

IQ Routes. On TomTom’s GO 730 ($450) and GO 930 ($500) devices, IQ Routes provides “very smart directions about what roads you should take to get where you’re going,” especially in traffic, Murray said.

“It doesn’t only look at the posted speed limit when it calculates what is the best combination of roads for you to go from A to B,” he said. IQ Routes looks at the speed of traffic on a road at a particular time of day, such as rush hour, and tells the driver what the true driving time will be, and also suggests an alternate route if one is available.

Help Me. This free program, similar to Garmin’s Where Am I?, is on all the company’s devices, and can be used when you’re lost and need help, or if you car has broken down. By pressing the “Help Me” button on the GPS screen, “it will tell you, no matter where you are, what the nearest roadside assistance providers are,” as well as the nearest hospitals and pharmacies, said Murray.

Magellan

Image: Magellan Maestro 4350
Magellan
Magellan's Maestro 4350, due out soon (retail, $499), features the company's "OneTouch" touchscreen for personal favorites including routes, searches, banks and services.

OneTouch. This feature, which comes with Magellan’s new Maestro 4350 ($500), displays a nine-icon touchscreen that drivers can use to “program in their favorite addresses or points of interest,” Wagner said. “For example, if you want to stop at a Starbucks, you would go to the Point of Interest search, select Starbucks and say, ‘Save it to OneTouch.’ And then, no matter where you are in the country, you press the Starbucks key and all the Starbucks in your current location are displayed.”

3-D views. Available on the Maestro 4350 and the new Maestro 4370, due out soon. “We’re really at the point now where the navigation device is coming very close to what we call ‘the windshield view,’ ” Wagner said.  “So what you’re seeing on the screen of the navigator is remarkably similar to what you’re seeing out your front windshield.”

Lane guidance and carpool lane assist. “Lane guidance is not only ‘turn right on Interstate 80,’ it’s ‘Move to the right two lanes and turn right on Interstate 80,’ and it shows you that on the screen,” he said. For those who carpool, “you can set the unit to ‘carpool lanes,’ and it will direct you en route to where you can make maximum use of those lanes.”

AAA TourBook. The Auto Club’s bible to eateries and hotels is featured in Maestro models, including the $280 Maestro 4210.  “If I’m sitting in traffic at 34th and Fifth, I can just say, ‘Find a restaurant,’ and it will not only show me all the restaurants around me, it will tell me the star rating of the restaurant, a description of the cuisine and how much it costs, and the phone number,” said Wagner. “And if you have a unit which also includes Bluetooth, it can also dial the restaurant right from the GPS.”

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