I’ve had quite a bit of experience with GPS navigation systems over the past 13 years or so since I first tested military units deployed with our troops during the first Gulf War.

There are expensive, built-in vehicle navigation systems, GPS watches, small, handheld GPS systems without turn-by-turn voice prompting or nationwide mapping for outdoor enthusiasts, add-on GPS units for Palm and PocketPC devices, dedicated PocketPC devices with built-in GPS as well as GPS adapters for notebook computers, Finally, there are the newer, portable GPS devices of the type that includes this new Garmin StreetPilot 2620 model I found recently at Best Buy for $1299.

This is the kind of gadget perfect for gift-giving, such as Father’s Day, birthdays and for holidays.  The recipient will feel so much at ease with one of these.  On the road, the mystery is GONE, as you will read later on.  A portable GPS device like this is probably among the best gifts for ANYONE who drives.

Where devices such as the Garmin products, and, in particular, this Garmin unit really shine is in their ease of portability from vehicle to vehicle.  Basic functionality aside for the moment, the 2620 comes with just about the most clever vehicle mount I have seen, what they call a “Portable beanbag mount (friction mount).” The beanbag with its friction base stays put on the dash in my cars and does not slide around.  It easily adjusts with rotational click-stops and can be locked in any position.  It also can be easily separated from the beanbag mount. The entire assembly is low-slung so it does stick up too far so as to interfere with my field of vision when driving, and best of all, it seems a perfect universal solution for virtually any vehicle I can think of.

I had hoped to be able to use the 2620 without instruction, but that was not the case.  It is necessary to read the manual to learn how to make this baby sit up and beg.  It is virtually impossible and, in my opinion, to have a satisfying experience without taking the time to read through the manual.  However, after about an hour with the manual and the product, I was able to get around and make good use of this GPS unit.  Just be patient and the rewards will be there for you.

On the purely functional side, the 2620 is plug-and-play.  Just set it on the dash, plug it in to the vehicle’s power socket and it locates your position anywhere within the entire United States or metropolitan areas of Canada.  The antenna is built-in and invisible unlike on most other units.  All the data (supplied by MapSource® North American City Navigator® maps) is pre-loaded and pre-programmed on the unit’s internal memory, a 2.2GB Compact Flash card of the type used in many digital cameras.  There are NO moving parts, such as would be found in a typical computer hard drive.  There is less power consumption and superb durability.  With this kind of memory device, there is no power required to maintain its data, including memorized data entered by the user.

The vehicle power plug is an assembly that pivots 180º for best non-interference with most power outlets and their surroundings, and contains a bulge in which the speaker is located, reducing the overall weight of the GPS unit itself to less than a pound!

There is a fine, high-resolution touch screen display, visible in any lighting condition and with an automatic sensor to adjust the brightness.  However, the practicality of using such a display in a vehicle environment may not be the most convenient (nor safest) thing do utilize.  In addition, the screen is just a bit too small to use the touch screen with complete accuracy and convenience. So, Garmin has cleverly included a wireless alphanumeric remote control.  Sit back, way back and navigate away!

The remote is wonderful.  It has a joy stick-type controller in addition to the other keys.  I found that joystick particularly useful when scrolling on a map, following, say, a freeway, for a distance.

Enter a location and after just a few moments the unit accesses exacting data from its mapping storage as well as more than five million points of interest including lodging, restaurants, gas stations, and local attractions.  The voice prompts turn-by-turn directions to your destination.  It’s just that simple.

Also included is an A/C power adapter for use indoors.   Why?  You can turn off the satellite nav and still use the device indoors, entering data for an upcoming trip, or to review trip data as well as for viewing info about the local area where the unit was last used.

All things considered, I found the Garmin 2620 to be a fun and accurate gadget to use and a welcome companion on the road for much less than factory built-in units.  Plus, it’s infinitely portable. As I have found with other, similar devices, once you drive with and use one of these, it is easy to become pleasantly dependent upon its capabilities.  I enjoy not getting lost.  The fun of going somewhere by car is back (except for the high price of gas)!  I love to just go and figure out how to get wherever I am going on the fly.  I enjoy dispensing with looking up directions on MapQuest or Yahoo! Maps, printing the directions and trying to read as I drive.  I like being told where to go and what to do by such an accurate and pleasant guide.  It’s great to look up local food stops and find something good to eat wherever I drive and whenever the need arises while on the road.  Since it knows where I am, it knows what’s nearest to me, and it gets me there.  One other “issue” I have with this unit as well as the others I have tested.  While updates to the firmware, that is, the operating system inside, are often available for these units, none has included Macintosh compatibility.  In order to update the unit’s firmware, I had to fire up my Windows PC and do the update using the supplied cable through that laptop.  Wouldn’t it be just as easy to make updates available for Mac as well as for Windows users?

It’s small enough and lightweight enough to pack away for a trip that may start out by air, rail or sea, and which will later include driving within the StreetPilot’s mapped area.

On the relatively short list of negatives, I think Garmin could have done better making this product’s user interface more intuitive and functional for the average consumer without the need for instruction through reading the manual.  It takes practice and perseverance to master this one, and I have yet to master it, but I’m working on it.  I have been spoiled by the simplicity and total intuitive ease of use by competitor Magellan’s RoadMate 700 at about the same price and also available at Best Buy.  With that unit, I was able to simply turn it on and use it to its fullest in every sense, without any manual or instructional trial and error.  The RoadMate 700 from Magellan is considerably heavier, larger and more delicate feeling. The screen is larger and easier to maneuver with finger touches, too.  However, there is no remote control and the air vent mount and optional windshield suction mount cannot compare to the elegant simplicity of the Garmin setup.  And, there is not an included A/C adapter with the Magellan unit.

Have a look at your local Best Buy or online at www.bestbuy.com.

If you must know more about this fine Garmin product . . .

The StreetPilot 2620 offers a number of new and exclusive software upgrades over its predecessor, the StreetPilot 2610, including:

*            Multiple Destinations

Do you want to find the most efficient route for deliveries or sales calls? Users can enter a series of destinations, and the StreetPilot 2620 will automatically sort them to provide an efficient route.

*            Road Segment and Area Avoidance

Would you like to avoid traffic tie-ups or roadwork? Users can specify areas and road segments to avoid when calculating routes.

*            Find Nearest on Route

Are you running on empty? This time-saving feature allows users to limit searches for gas stations, restaurants, etc., to upcoming points near a route.

*            Adjustable Road Class Preference

How about taking the road less traveled? Users can adjust preferences for major, medium, and minor road categories.

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