Satellite navigation technology: which works best?

The Garmin Head-Up Display is user-friendly, projecting navigation instructions on the windscreen, while the Marbella uNav (above) gives clear audio and visual instructions. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The Garmin Head-Up Display is user-friendly, projecting navigation instructions on the windscreen, while the Marbella uNav (above) gives clear audio and visual instructions. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The Garmin Head-Up Display (above) is user-friendly, projecting navigation instructions on the windscreen, while the Marbella uNav gives clear audio and visual instructions. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The Garmin Head-Up Display (above) is user-friendly, projecting navigation instructions on the windscreen, while the Marbella uNav gives clear audio and visual instructions. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
A useful feature of Google Maps is the Streetview function which shows you a photo of the location when you arrive at your destination. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
A useful feature of Google Maps is the Streetview function which shows you a photo of the location when you arrive at your destination. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The navigation system of the BMW X5 50i recognises handwriting – so drivers can spell out their destinations – and also takes voice instructions. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The navigation system of the BMW X5 50i recognises handwriting – so drivers can spell out their destinations – and also takes voice instructions. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
This Eurostyle navigation system incorporates a front-facing video recorder as well as a reverse-parking camera. -- PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER TAN
This Eurostyle navigation system incorporates a front-facing video recorder as well as a reverse-parking camera. -- PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER TAN
A factory-fitted navigation set on the dashboard (above left) of an Audi A3 sedan and a Garmin sat-nav device mounted on the windscreen (above) showing a “junction view”, which displays a photo-composite of a major junction. -- PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER
A factory-fitted navigation set on the dashboard (above left) of an Audi A3 sedan and a Garmin sat-nav device mounted on the windscreen (above) showing a “junction view”, which displays a photo-composite of a major junction. -- PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER TAN

Satellite navigation systems today are not only smarter and have more features, but they also save you money

Equipping your car with a satellite navigation system not only saves you from getting lost, but it also saves you money.

According to a study funded by satellite-navigation map provider Navteq, motorists equipped with a sat-nav device saw fuel efficiency improve by 12 per cent.

The study, conducted in 2009 in the German cities of Dusseldorf and Munich, showed that such drivers averaged 7.3 litres for every 100km, compared with 8.3 litres for those who did not have the systems.

Not only that, navigation sets reduced distances clocked by an average of 2,500km a year a driver.

In Singapore, that would translate to significant savings. Car owners here each clock an average of 20,000km a year and spend about $4,400 a year on fuel.

That works out to a national total of $2.7 billion a year. A 12 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency would translate to savings of $324 million a year - or more than $500 a driver.

Besides ensuring that drivers do not get lost, a sat-nav can help them find the shortest and fastest routes.

Often, the time saved and frustration averted would be worth the outlay for a sat-nav set.

Singapore may be a small country, but it still has more than 3,400km of roads.

Each year, changes are made to alignment, junctions and exits/entrances. Underpasses and viaducts are added now and again, and sometimes, old road names are dropped and new ones emerge.

It is not surprising then that the sat-nav has become as necessary as the reverse camera.

In 2001, BMW became the first car company to offer sat-nav, in its flagship 7-series.

Today, even mass-market cars such as Chevrolet, Toyota and Volkswagen are equipped with navigation.

Sat-nav technology has, meanwhile, matured over the years.

Systems today are more stable, smarter and packed with more features than ever. Voice command, handwriting recognition, Bluetooth connectivity and videorecording capability are just some of the features new navigation systems come with.

At the same time, the market is inundated with a dizzying array of products in three main categories: mobile phone-based navigation, off-the-shelf dedicated sets and those that are integrated with the car's entertainment system.

Life! puts a few of the latest examples to the test to help you navigate the various options.

christan@sph.com.sg

tohyc@sph.com.sg


TAP INTEGRATED SYSTEMS

Cost: Between $1,000 and $20,000

Pros: Neat, visually pleasing and ergonomic, with best sound rendition.

Cons: Need to rely on agent to update map, some updates are not free.

It is hard to imagine new cars without some form of navigation equipment these days. They are as common as reverse cameras. But not all navigation tools are equal.

Some are installed locally by the car dealers, who rely on suppliers such as Tomo-CSE, one of the oldest and biggest players here. It supplies integrated navigation systems to a list of European, Japanese and Korean cars.

While its Eurostyle systems (either Chinese or Taiwanese) are not as refined as factory-fitted devices that come with cars such as Audi, BMW and Lexus, they are just as functional.

In fact, the one we tested could locate all the obscure addresses we keyed in. And it was the only non-factory-fitted one that figured out the traffic Bermuda Triangle called Woodsville Interchange.

And because these locally fitted sets are integrated with the vehicle's hi-fi, audio instructions are as clear as those from factory sets.

There is even a model that comes in the form of a rear-view mirror. It incorporates a frontfacing video recorder as well as a reverse-parking camera. But it is not very popular because of its position (which requires the most head movement) and its complexity (half of it remains a conventional rear-view mirror).

Map updates are done by swopping an SD card in the unit. And this can be done only at the dealership. The first update is usually free, but subsequent ones cost about $150 each.

Factory-fitted sets are often held up as the gold standard. An example is the one found in the Lexus GS450h. The car has a mammoth 12-inch monitor which shows a navigation map and what is playing on the radio.

The driver uses a joystick-like knob to punch in the destinations on a keypad. The interface is done with typical Japanese efficiency and logic, and is almost idiot-proof.

Besides voice commands, the turn-by-turn directions are projected on the windscreen in a bright-white head-up display.

Other than the Lexus, Life! also tested the navigation system of the BMW X5 50i, the top-of-the-range variant in the X5 stable.

It stands out on two fronts: how destinations are picked and its head-up display. The driver can write out the destinations on the iDrive knob, or simply speak up.

We were a little worried that the BMW would not be able to understand English spoken with a Singapore accent, but it performed flawlessly.

It identified locations such as Beaulieu Road, Jalan Mempurong, Bedok South Avenue 2 and even the quaint English roads of Serangoon Gardens accurately, without us having to speak with a twang.

The Beemer's head-up display is a colourful affair, using an array of white, orange and green to guide drivers.

Both the Lexus and BMW correctly guided us to obscure locations such as Jalan Mempurong and Beaulieu (pronounced "bowl-lew" in native French and "bew-lee" by most English speakers) House. They were not stumped by the confusing Woodsville Interchange, either.

But Tripartite Way - a two-year-old road off Bendeemer Road where the new Manpower Ministry office is located - drew a blank.

Audi's MMI navigation plus fared the worst when it came to challenging locations. And its electronic map reader does not pronounce "road". Instead, it says "R-D".

Ironically, it can learn the way you speak. In learning mode, the system gets you to pronounce a series of words and numbers appearing on the screen. When done, the car will understand your instructions flawlessly.

You can, of course, key in or write instructions via the MMI knob.

It is a pretty slick-looking set. You get 3-D maps displayed on a retractable 7-inch monitor and you can pair your mobile phone with the system, so addresses of friends and contacts can be called up instantly.

The map can be used to access online traffic information, Google Earth images and 360- degree views offered by Google Maps Street View.

But the visual guidance does not have junction view. And heads-up display is not available in the A3 Sedan tested.

The problem with factory-fitted sets is high cost, thanks to Singapore's multi-tiered car taxation. For instance, an original navigation system in a Land Rover is a whopping $18,000.

Dealer-fitted systems are cheaper, at about $3,000 to $5,000.

But the cheapest integrated sets would be those you find in aftermarket accessory shops. Brands such as Kenwood, Pioneer and Sony are popular choices, with most models available at around $1,000 (although map updates can be cumbersome at times).

Despite their relatively low cost and high functionality, installers tell Life! that business has been dipping - largely because of smartphones.


USE YOUR SMARTPHONE

Cost: The price of a smartphone and recurring data charges

Pros: Extremely compact and mobile, and does not require unwieldy cables

Cons: Drains the phone battery

This mode is getting popular, especially among younger motorists. It is also fairly straightforward.

To set it up, all you need is a mobile phone holder to stick the phone to the windscreen. Such holders cost less than $20 from neighbourhood mobile phone accessory shops.

Apple iPhones have their own maps (but Google Maps can be downloaded as an app); Android phones use Google Maps. Both are free and easy to use.

The maps are constantly updated at no charge.

Google maps also show live traffic data, so you can avoid traffic jams.

One useful feature of Google Maps is the Street View function.

When you reach a destination, a street view photo of the location pops up, allowing you to confirm whether you have found the right place.

Both iPhone and Google Maps found obscure locations such as Jalan Mempurong, which stumped some Global Positioning System (GPS) devices.

When using the iPhone to get to Beaulieu House in Sembawang Park, its map even showed the way to walk to the destination after you have parked your car.

Still, there are some drawbacks. The degree of details cannot match what you find in some dedicated GPS devices. For example, there are no junction views when you approach crossroads, roundabouts or expressway exits, so you need to use your gut feel to some extent.

There was a comical moment, when using Google Maps to find a factory building in the Paya Ubi Industrial Park. The map directed us to stop right in the middle of the Pan-Island Expressway, not knowing that the entrance is at Ubi Avenue 1, on the opposite side of the factory.

The biggest question mark, however, is data charges. The GPS function uses mobile data, which could mean a hefty phone bill if you use the navigation function regularly.

To avoid this, users can download paid offline navigation tools such as Garmin StreetPilot or Sygic. They cost about $40 and it is a one-time payment for the app and map to be downloaded to the phone. Updates are free.

But it also means not having live traffic data. This is not a big drawback anyway, because the navigation function is not yet able to interact with traffic data to automatically avoid jams or incidents.

All it allows is for you to pick the least congested route at the start.

Besides data changes, the size of the smartphone matters too.

The screen sizes of popular models are just too small for navigation, which means you have to squint quite a bit.

An ideal size is a 4-inch screen, such as that of the Samsung Galaxy S4. Anything larger obstructs the driver's view of the road, which is dangerous.

Overall, using the smartphone for navigation is simple, cheap and practical, but it is not suitable for heavy users. Not yet, anyway.

Honda is offering an option for drivers to "pair" their iPhones with the car's touchscreen headset. The wired connection allows everything usable on the phone to be replicated on the infotainment set's big screen - including navigation and Siri, the iPhone's virtual assistant.

The set-up is similar to Apple's CarPlay, which will be available in some cars later this year.


GET AN ACCESSORY

Cost: Between $250 and $350

Pros: Generally easy to use, maps can be updated online, some updates are free

Cons: Dangling wires, as you have to hook the device to the cigarette lighter socket for power

One of the most unusual navigation accessories is the Garmin Head-Up Display. It projects navigation instructions on the windscreen, directly in the driver's line of sight. This makes it very user-friendly.

Up till now, head-up display units are factory-fitted, costly and found mainly in high-end cars.

But navigation expert Garmin found a way to bring the feature to the mass market at a fraction of the cost.

It has a new device about the size of an iPhone 4 that costs $209, which projects driving instructions on a transparent screen.

But there is a catch. It works only with the iPhone's Garmin StreetPilot application ($39) in Singapore for now. It is the iPhone application that guides the driver, the device merely projects the instructions on the windscreen.

Besides driving instructions, it also shows the time and the car's speed, flashing a red alert if it exceeds the limit.

It takes less than five minutes to set up the mini-projector and pair it with the iPhone. It does not have a built-in battery, which means that the unwieldy cigarette lighter socket cable cannot be avoided.

Overall, it is a useful accessory and is fairly affordable.

But there is one niggling worry. Will the device melt or malfunction if left on the dashboard under the hot sun in Singapore?

Like most other off-the-shelf Global Positioning Systems, it is best to stow it away when you have parked the car. Not just to prevent probable long-term heat damage, but theft as well.

A device such as the Marbella uNav 7-inch HD GPS-cum-video recorder-cum-FM transmitter is conspicuous on the windscreen. And tempting. The set gives very clear instructions, both audio and visual. But the screen is prone to glare, especially in the afternoon sun.

The maps in the Marbella were among the most comprehensive and updated of the GPS devices tested, but the set was confounded by the Woodsville Interchange - probably the most complex junction in Singapore - as well as exits of the upgraded Central Expressway.

The unit tends to be naggy, telling you to "drive carefully" every two minutes or so, especially when it senses that you are exceeding the speed limit. But you can disable this nanny function.

Maps can be updated online free of charge and there are four updates a year. Its navigation and forwardfacing camera can work simultaneously.

An advantage of such a big set is that you do not have to squint. A disadvantage is that it can be a bit cumbersome in smaller cars.

A more compact option would be something such as the Garmin Nuvi 2567. It has a 5-inch screen, voice activation, Bluetooth connectivity and a lifetime of free map updates.

But it does not "know" a couple of the obscure addresses tested (such as Jalan Mempurong and Tripartite Way) and sometimes does not direct you to an underpass when an underpass is the shortest way to travel.

Unlike the Marbella, its screen is less prone to glare. But like the Marbella, its built-in batteries allow it to be used "cordless" for a period of time.

And because it is compact, you can use the Garmin as a guide if you are walking in an unfamiliar neighbourhood.

Both the Garmin and Marbella have the "junction view" function, which displays a photo- composite of a major junction as you approach it, with an arrow pointing to the right way. This foolproof tool is extremely useful.

Unfortunately, there is none for the Woodsville Interchange.