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

Since many users will already be Bluetooth connected for hands-free calling, there likely won't be much setup required to get this bit of connectivity working properly.

The app itself allows users to manage favorites, browse and search for destinations, and send those destinations either to the cloud for later retrieval or directly to the SmartGPS device for immediate navigation. If the SmartGPS is out of range or powered off, the app will queue the destination and automatically push the address when the Bluetooth is restored later.

Send to SmartGPS
Any destination on the connected phone can be beamed directly to the SmartGPS over Bluetooth for immediate navigation. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

So, you could start searching for a restaurant on the phone while still at your desk and automatically beam the address to the SmartGPS when you reach the car to take advantage of the PND's larger screen, more accurate GPS receiver, and louder speaker while driving. If you end up having to park a few blocks away from the restaurant, you can toss the destination back over to the phone for a final leg of pedestrian navigation.

Destinations that come from other apps, such as an address that is text-messaged from a friend or a meeting place in a calendar appointment, can also be funneled into the SmartGPS app and then queued for navigation when the phone is connected to the SmartGPS hardware.

Smart squares
The SmartGPS app for iPhone uses the same smart squares as the hardware and can be used for destination discovery. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The SmartGPS app also features the same smart squares as the SmartGPS hardware, with shortcuts to Yelp and Foursquare destinations, traffic incidents, and current location data. The app can also be used as a standalone navigator if you chose to unlock spoken turn-by-turn directions with an in-app purchase. This makes the SmartGPS ecosystem a bit more attractive to multicar, multidriver households.

At the time of publication, Magellan had not released the Android version of the app but did provide a Magellan Link app in Google Play that allows the SmartGPS hardware to make use of the smartphone's data connection for downloading and syncing to the cloud only. I'm told that an Android version of the complete SmartGPS app would be made available shortly after the hardware launches in summer 2013.

Online portal
Both the SmartGPS app and the SmartGPS hardware sync to Magellan's MiCloud online portal.

After logging into the Web site, users can search a map and database for destinations, organize their favorite destinations, and save interesting spots to a Wish List that can be quickly accessed on the SmartGPS device and app.

Using the Web app's graphic interface, users can quickly create multidestination trips by dragging and dropping favorites and, at the touch of a button, optimize a trip for the minimum driving distance. This is a cool feature for families: one could just drop all of the errands that need to be run in a day into a list and let the software figure out what order you should run them in.

Magellan Web portal
The Magellan Web portal allows users to discover and manage their favorite destinations by dragging and dropping on a larger screen. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I found that sometimes the SmartGPS device can be a bit slow downloading changes to favorites and wishlist destinations made from the MiCloud interface, and because sychronization happens automatically, there's no real way to tell from the device whether the download has been completed until you check the My Places menu. Automatic syncing is keep things simple for the user, but depending on the time between making an online change and leaving your driveway, you could miss downloading the trip you just set up. A manual "sync" button somewhere in the interface would be nice. Of course, using the SmartGPS app to augment the Wi-Fi connection somewhat resolves this issue by continuing the download in the background once you're on the road.

From the online portal, users can also view pending updates to the software and maps on their SmartGPS device. With the touch of a button, the new software can be downloaded and synced to the device via its Micro-USB connection.

Getting there
That's a lot of talk about how the SmartGPS and MiCloud will help you to find and manage your favorite places, but how is it at getting you there? I wasn't surprised to find that it performed well.

Path-finding was quick, and chosen routes were logical and in-line with my local knowledge of the San Francisco Bay area. The device gives the driver the choice of three different routes at the beginning of every trip: fastest, shortest, and least use of highways. Traffic reports were remarkably accurate when the device was connected to an iPhone running the SmartGPS app, and ETA data was usually on point within a few minutes -- if it said there would be a 30-minute delay due to a traffic jam, I could count on it.

On a few occasions, when I ignored the traffic warnings and purposely charged into a jam, the SmartGPS would display a small icon on its screen that, when tapped, would present an alternate route around the jam. This icon is ridiculously tiny, poorly labeled, and easily lost in the cluttered interface that the SmartGPS puts in front of its users. Instead, I'd like to see some sort of "would you like to find an alternate route?" prompt pop up or take over one of the live squares when a faster path is available.

When navigating at surface street level, the SmartGPS' turn-by-turn directions used natural language instructions that occasionally used landmarks instead of street names. On one occasion, I was told to "make a sharp left at the Honda dealership" and on another I was told to "keep straight past the hotel on the right." These landmarks are much easier to spot from a distance than tiny (or nonexistent) street signs and afforded me, the driver, extra time to react.

On the highway, the instructions are more traditional, but are also augmented by visual lane guidance and virtual representations of highway signs, both of which are very helpful for picking lanes and avoiding last-minute swerves for exits.

I'm not sure if Magellan is taking advantage of the data connection from Wi-Fi or the paired smartphone to help the SmartGPS with initial GPS location, but the SmartGPS found itself in the world with startling immediacy at the beginning of every trip. Even if I powered the device off, moved miles away to a completely different part of town before, and powered back up, the device always knew where it was within about a city block and quickly zeroed in to within a few feet. The SmartGPS refused to be confused. This is a very good thing for drivers who want to hop in the car and go.

In sum
The SmartGPS will retail for $249 when it hits shelves later this summer. That wouldn't be a bad price for a standard GPS navigator of this size and quality, but the addition of the smartphone apps and cloud sync that can be had for free further increase the value here. I liked having live fuel prices, traffic updates, and nearby destinations at my fingertips. Plus, the ability to find destinations on my phone or plan trips with multiple stops on a laptop and then have that trip waiting when I climb into the car proved to be extremely convenient. However, some drivers may find the torrent of information provided by the smart squares to be a bit distracting. It's easy to hide all of that auxiliary data when on the road, but that the SmartGPS shows the squares by default will be a turn-off for some.

Magellan SmartGPS and app
The SmartGPS is good on its own, but better when connected to the Web. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Frankly, I think that the connectivity to the phone and Web do more good than potential harm and extends the usefulness of this portable navigation device.

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