Magellan SmartGPS review: further proof your phone is the only navigator you need

When speaking with executives from the Google Maps team earlier this year at I/O, I was reminded that Maps wasn't even a product in 2004. In less than a decade, one of Google's bright ideas has completely and unabashedly transformed the entire routing industry. (Avid readers will no doubt recall this graph, depicting real moves in the stock market moments after Google Maps Navigation was first introduced.) That development, coupled with the explosion in smartphone adoption across emerged markets, has left players like Magellan in quite the predicament. It wasn't that long ago that dedicated PNDs (personal navigation devices) were the gift to get for the holiday season. And indeed, many units from Garmin in particular delighted me plenty over the years.

But the reality today is that PND makers have found themselves redundant. A few have resorted to innovating on the software side and nailing down partnerships with automakers and fleet-management firms in order to keep revenue rolling in, while Magellan has opted to create a new piece of hardware. That hardware, of course, is the SmartGPS. Rather than being a standalone PND suitable for mounting on one's dash or window, the device works best when used in concert with an accompanying iPhone or Android app (sorry, Windows Phone and BlackBerry users). In essence, the company is hoping that by creating a product that extends the functionality of your smartphone, you'll be inclined to hand over $250. After a week of road tripping through the US southwest, however, I'm inclined to believe differently.

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Magellan SmartGPS review

Hardware and user interface

Magellan SmartGPS review further proof that your smartphone is the only navigator you need

The SmartGPS is actually kind of difficult to wrap one's noodle around. You can use it as a dedicated PND, without any assistance from a smartphone app, but its functionality increases significantly when it has access to an internet connection -- either coming from a MiFi in your vehicle, or via a shared connection over Bluetooth with your phone. The hardware itself is comically large. There's a 5-inch display (with a lowly 800 x 480 resolution), which is wrapped inside of a 3.5- x 6.4-inch housing. What you're left with is something that looks like a slightly shrunken Nexus 7. And when you mount it on your windshield, it's hulking. There's an inexplicable amount of bezel here, and I seriously cannot impress enough just how huge this thing looks when mounted. You can position it so that it isn't in your direct driving field of view, but if you're crisscrossing national parks for a week, it's going to obstruct a lot of awesome scenes.

I finally feel that we as a navigating society are beyond the "stick this massive screen on my windshield" era.

The unit ships with a windshield mount / cradle as well as a cigarette adapter for power. While it worked well enough in practice, it just feels kludgy in today's world of sleek smartphones. For the first time, I finally feel that we as a navigating society are beyond the "stick this massive screen on my windshield" era. There are simply far better (and cheaper) alternatives, which I'll address in a bit.

The display itself is nothing to write home about. The resolution looks pixelated given that a modern consumer's benchmark is a mobile display with Retina-esque quality, and the graphical elements are straight out of the early noughties. While programs like Foursquare and Google Maps have kept pace with UI innovation, the SmartGPS seems to be using a graphical engine from a decade ago. It's simply not pleasing to look at.

Usability

Magellan SmartGPS review further proof that your smartphone is the only navigator you need

Supposedly, the SmartGPS' standout feature is its ability to interact with other services. In theory, users would sign up for a MiCloud account, where they could sync their preferences as well as upcoming trips and routes while researching things on a conventional computer. Then, once the SmartGPS finds itself an internet connection, everything is pushed right over -- your favorites, your recently found destinations, etc. Moreover, localized Yelp and Foursquare recommendations can be easily accessed as you travel from town to town, alongside up-to-date fuel prices and traffic warnings.

The problem here is how confounding it all is to use.

The problem here is how confounding it all is to use. The setup process is entirely too complex, and if you're considering this as a gift for your mother or grandmother, don't. As that SNL skit once said about Verizon, "It's an old person's nightmare." For everything to come together, you need to install an app on your phone, register for a MiCloud account, register on Magellan's own site, pair your phone with the SmartGPS over Bluetooth, plug in your home's WiFi information and ideally, install and log in to Foursquare and Yelp. Even after all of that, it took my review unit a good while before Foursquare and Yelp information began to trickle in.

Once you're past all of that, you're left staring at a bizarrely complicated home screen. An easy-to-miss scroll wheel atop the display lets you move the map out of the way, where you're blitzed with tiles that continually refresh to show local recommendations and pricing. In theory, it's awesome to have all of this information at your fingertips. In practice, you'll probably kill yourself and a handful of others if you try to use it while motoring. I'm an experienced driver -- I've operated a motor vehicle in all 50 of the United States, and I've driven U-Haul trailers in places that I'm ashamed to admit. But there's no way I'd feel confident ingesting the amount of data that spews from the SmartGPS while cruising down a freeway. Texting and driving is bad enough, but panning across screens and flipping through Yelp reviews is another thing entirely.

You could argue that this information becomes more useful if used while parked, but if I'm parked, I'm going to pick up my iPhone and use an interface that makes sense.

Routing and navigation

Magellan SmartGPS review further proof that your smartphone is the only navigator you need

Despite the UI qualms, I still used the SmartGPS to navigate to a number of national parks, hotels and eateries. As a navigator, it works decently. You'll still need to reach out and mash the "zoom out" button to get a better view of where you're headed (no voice commands here), but I will confess that the included speed limit warning is a godsend. It's easy to overlook drops in the limit as you enter new towns, and hearing that "beep" kept me on the right side of the law.

You could argue that this information becomes more useful if used while parked, but if I'm parked, I'm going to pick up my iPhone and use an interface that makes sense.

One of the more impressive attributes is the ability to find a destination using the accompanying app, and then share that with your SmartGPS. This allows whoever is riding shotgun to dial up an address on your phone and instantly shoot it to the SmartGPS. That function did indeed work well, but the search and discovery methods just feel entirely antiquated. The POI database is as robust as you'll find, but it's just not robust (nor personal) enough. Allow me to explain.

Magellan SmartGPS review further proof that your smartphone is the only navigator you need

SmartGPS allows users to search Foursquare and Yelp destinations, as well as those pre-loaded onto the device. But if you punch in half of a hotel's name that's some 380 miles away, you'll probably come up empty. Compare that with the Google Maps app on my iPhone -- while in southern California, I begin to type "hampton inn montrose co." I get to "ham" before Google senses that I'm probably looking to navigate to a hotel I starred last week while using my laptop to scope things out ahead of time. There it is, the second option in the drop-down menu. Boom -- done. Sure, you could save that hotel to your MiCloud list and have the SmartGPS do something similar, but that's introducing a service into my life that I don't already use. And, judging by Google Maps usage figures, I'm guessing a fair amount of those reading this would feel similarly.

The challenge

Magellan SmartGPS review further proof that your smartphone is the only navigator you need

I feel for Magellan, I really do. It's trying to hawk a $250 GPS extension to a smartphone app, when the reality is that the phone itself is an infinitely superior navigator. My setup involves an iPhone 4S, an $11 Arkon universal vent mount and a $12 cigarette adapter for USB charging. The Google Maps app is free, and if you're in Magellan's target market, you probably already own a smartphone. Considering that as a sunk cost, you can have a far more powerful, far more personal navigation experience for less than $25 in accessories -- accessories, mind you, that travel more easily than the SmartGPS, and won't obstruct your view of whatever glorious monument is ahead.

While it's capable of displaying a lot of information at once, attempting to parse that while motoring just feels unsafe.

Moreover, using your phone as a navigator just provides a more seamless experience. Even baseline vehicles these days support Bluetooth audio, which allows your phone to lower the music volume when announcing navigational cues, and it means that you're already set up for hands-free calling should someone ring you. The only real argument for a dedicated PND these days is offline navigation, or finding a POI in a place where there's no cellular service. Increasingly, that's becoming a nonissue, but even if you're concerned about such a thing -- how can you beat a $50 Garmin app that enables you to download offline maps of the entire United States?

Wrap-up

Magellan SmartGPS review further proof that your smartphone is the only navigator you need

The $250 SmartGPS wasn't built with bad intentions, but it's simply not worth the asking price. The massive size of it obstructs the driver's view, and though it's capable of displaying a lot of information at once, attempting to parse that while motoring just feels unsafe. Beyond all of that, the graphical elements are dated, and the interplay between the device itself and the accompanying app is quirky at best.

To best take advantage of this, you'll need a smartphone. And if you already own a smartphone, you already own the best personal navigation device on the market. Pair that with the Arkon vent mount and a simple USB charger mentioned above, and there's really no need to look elsewhere.

Magellan

Magellan SmartGPS

Pros

  • Foursquare and Yelp integration

Cons

  • Entirely too large
  • Complex user interface
  • Unnecessary
Summary

The $250 SmartGPS wasn't built with bad intentions, but it's simply not worth the asking price.