Magellan SmartGPS review: Web-connected GPS navigator is a triple threat

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.3
  • Design: 6.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 8.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The Magellan SmartGPS hardware connects to the Web via Wi-Fi and syncs contacts, favorites, and recent destinations with a smartphone app and a MiCloud Web service. Via its Internet connection, Yelp and Foursquare destinations can be downloaded and real-time traffic and fuel price data are provided. Bluetooth hands-free calling rounds out a strong feature set.

The Bad Syncing can be slow at times. The interface crams a lot of information on the screen, and the flipping of the smart squares can be distracting.

The Bottom Line The Magellan SmartGPS bridges a gap between connected navigation apps and car-friendly GPS hardware with its ability to sync with the cloud and connect to the Web via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but its busy interface could use fewer moving parts.

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The Magellan SmartGPS is a portable navigation device, but it's also part of a larger system that, at the time of publication, has parts that give users multiple ways to navigate, search for destination, and manage their favorite places. At the core of this system is the SmartGPS hardware, which can be used as a standalone navigation device. However, the hardware works best when used in tandem with Magellan's smartphone apps for iPhone and Android devices and a cloud syncing service called MiCloud that is accessible via any Web browser.

Design
The SmartGPS hardware looks about like you'd expect a portable navigation device to look. It's a plastic slab with a touch screen on one side that gets suction cupped to your windshield.

The device measures about 6.75 inches from corner to corner, but has a diagonal screen size of only 5 inches. There's a lot of glossy black bezel around that screen, which seems like a lot of wasted space -- particularly on the horizontal -- for those of us used to seeing smartphones, tablets, and even other portable navigation devices push their screens closer and closer to being edgeless. Imagine a device that's about the size of a small tablet with a screen the size of an average Android phone and you'll have an idea of the potential for extra display real estate. To be fair, 5 inches is a respectable screen size for a navigator, but when you consider the amount of information that Magellan tries to cram onto the SmartGPS' screen, this seem like a missed opportunity to go bigger or wider.

SmartGPS size comparison
The 5-inch screen isn't substantially larger than my Samsung Galaxy Nexus', despite the SmartGPS' larger footprint. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The screen is glass and features capacitive sensitivity, enabling swiping, pinching, and tapping gestures. The glossy black bezel is home to a capacitive home button located near the upper-left corner and a pinhole microphone for hands-free calling.

Flip it over and you'll find a speaker on the SmartGPS unit's back side and a power button on top edge.

The bottom edge is home to all of the ports and connections supported by the SmartGPS. There's a microSD card slot for updates and increasing available memory for maps, a 3.5mm analog output for connecting headphones or plugging into your vehicle's auxiliary input, and a micro USB port that connects to the 12-volt-to-USB charging cable that embeds in the suction cup mount for one-handed connection and disconnection. The included suction cup mount is a sturdy one, once mounted properly to a glass windshield. The mount only has one point of articulation -- a ball joint with a locking ring at the base of the cradle -- so there's not a lot of flopping around once you've got the SmartGPS locked in.

smartGPS ports
All of the physical connections can be found on the bottom edge. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Finally, there's an 3.5mm AV input that makes the SmartGPS compatible with Magellan's rear-view camera add-on.

The SmartGPS also hosts invisible connections for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for data synchronization and, for the former, hands-free calling.

Standalone navigation
The SmartGPS mixes up Magellan's familiar interface by adding smart "Squares," which are live-updating tiles that occupy part of the map screen and provide auxiliary data at a glance and quick shortcuts to destinations. On the default home screen, four of these squares are displayed, showing shortcuts to nearby destinations pulled from Yelp and Foursquare, nearby gas stations and live fuel prices, and nearby traffic events. When navigating, the map (which normally only occupies half of the screen) expands from to occupy three-quarters, pushing two of the smart squares off of the right edge of the display.

Along the bottom edge of the home screen are shortcuts for settings, Bluetooth calling and messaging, destination search, an address book of stored destinations, and Magellan's OneTouch menu of quick shortcuts to searches and destinations.

Smart squares
Expanding the smart squares reveals live updating tiles for nearby destinations, fuel prices, weather forecasts, and more. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Along the top of the screen is a status bar that is very reminiscent of a smartphone's interface with icons for wireless connection and sync status, battery level, GPS connection strength, and the current time. There's also sort of virtual scroll wheel that can be swiped to the left to reveal more smart squares -- for total of eight squares -- adding weather, safety alerts, current position, and a shortcut to a browser. Swiping to the left hides the squares and expands the map to full screen.

The browser should probably not be used when driving, but when parked (or outside of the vehicle) and connected to Wi-Fi, users can load Web pages. Addresses and phone numbers that appear during your browsing can be tapped to initiate a trip or a hands-free call. From the looks of the browser interface and settings screen, it appears that the SmartGPS is built on a heavily modified 2.x version of the Android operating system.

SmartGPS browser
The Web browser is probably the least useful feature, but it does hint that the SmartGPS hardware is powered by Android. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Each of the smart squares has a sort of Rolodex-like appearance and cycles through its available data. For example, the fuel square will cycle through the nearest gas stations and their respective fuel prices, or the Yelp square will show the nearest restaurants with their average Yelp rating. Each square can be swiped up and down to quickly scroll through the available data and tapped to display more information or instantly navigate to the destination displayed.

The data for these smart squares is synced from the Web. After connecting the SmartGPS to a nearby Wi-Fi hotspot, the portable navigation device will connect to the Web and download the newest data for fuel prices in the area, highly rated Yelp and Foursquare destinations for your chosen categories, traffic prediction data, safety alerts, speed and red light cameras, and favorites and recent destinations stored to Magellan's cloud service. Once this data is synced, the SmartGPS doesn't need to maintain an Internet connection to access it; you can just hop in your car and drive around.

Destination information
Clicking a Yelp or Foursquare tile reveals more information -- including deals or tips -- and buttons to start navigation. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

When you return to your garage or bring the SmartGPS inside at the end of a trip, it quietly reconnects to the Internet to once again sync data.

SmartGPS app integration
Owners of of iPhones can download the free SmartGPS app from the App Store to link their portable navigation to the Web via the handset's Bluetooth and data connections. While connected, the SmartGPS will have access the absolute most recent fuel prices, road hazards, traffic data, and points of interest. Magellan tells us that it has optimized the SmartGPS' data use so that it doesn't gobble up your entire data plan, only pulling relevant bits of data as necessary.

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Magellan SmartGPS

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