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Alpine Blackbird review:

Alpine Blackbird

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As is the case with many of the newer navigation systems hitting the market these days, the Alpine Blackbird uses a 16-channel GPS receiver rather than the standard 12-channel variety, and it has a built-in music player that supports MP3 and WMA files. You'll have to supply your own memory card if you want to play music files, as there is no way to load data onto the built-in 1-inch hard drive. Instead, the drive is dedicated to map storage and includes detailed Navteq data for the United States and Canada, as well as a database of 6 million points of interest (POI), including restaurants, banks, gas stations, golfing and boating facilities, hospitals, hotels, and much more.

You get the usual array of navigation features, including turn-by-turn text- and voice-guided driving directions, automatic routing from the POI database or the address book, automatic rerouting if you wander off course, and a list of recently visited places. Unfortunately, the Blackbird lacks text-to-speech capabilities as found on the TomTom GO 910, so you won't get actual street names while receiving audible directions. Instead, you'll hear generic directions, such as "Turn right in 100 feet." You can search for places by name or category and sort them by name, city, or distance from your current location. You can also create a route by inputting the exact latitude and longitude of your destination. The use of a bread-crumb trail makes it easy to see where you've been and is especially helpful for off-road adventures.

Beyond navigation, the Alpine Blackbird offers enhanced driving tools and entertainment features. The Blackbird's music player contains the basic play, forward, and rewind buttons, and it displays the artist name, the song title, and the playing time. You can shuffle the playing order and repeat songs with the click of a button. The inclusion of a built-in FM modulator is a big plus for users who want to listen to music and driving directions through their car stereo, and we love Alpine's NaviMix feature, which automatically lowers your music volume when voice-guided directions are being delivered. Although Alpine's real-time traffic service will not be available until July 2006, the Blackbird is ready to go with a built-in traffic tuner. All you have to do is download the software from Alpine's site and subscribe to the service ($60 per year) to receive up-to-the-minute traffic alerts.

The Alpine Blackbird took approximately four minutes to acquire a 3D fix (four satellites locked in) on our maiden voyage; thereafter, the unit initialized and was ready to go in less than a minute. Audible and text-based driving directions were accurate, and the 16-channel receiver did a great job of pinpointing our position. Route calculations were a tad slow, though.

Both the internal speaker and the one embedded in the mounting cradle were good enough for voice-guided directions, but music sounded tinny and lacked bass response. However, the FM modulator worked wonderfully.

The Blackbird's internal battery is rated for two hours of continuous use between charges, and that's pretty much what we got. A longer time frame between charges, such as the four hours we got from the Magellan RoadMate 800, would be nice, especially if you plan to use the unit while on foot.

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