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ClarionMiND review: ClarionMiND

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MSRP: $249.99

The Good The ClarionMind offers an extensive feature set that makes it as much an ultraportable PC as it is a portable navigation device.

The Bad Stability is poor when multitasking. No built-in Web connection, so users are stuck using a Bluetooth connection or finding Wi-Fi where they can. Navigation and traffic updates are separate applications.

The Bottom Line The lack of a dedicated data connection and poor integration between its applications keeps the ClarionMind from fulfilling the potential that its hardware possesses.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

6.0 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 7
  • Performance 4

Review Sections

The ClarionMind will wow you with its flashy graphics and long list of features, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, a Web browser with Flash support, multimedia playback options, GPS navigation, and baked-in YouTube and MySpace access. However, there's just one tiny problem; it doesn't actually work very well.

During our testing of the ClarionMind, we ran into stability issues, features that didn't work consistently, and plain old-fashioned design flaws. We think that the main issue is that the 'Mind fits in an odd no-man's-land between an ultramobile computer (UMPC) and a portable navigation device. As a UMPC, the ClarionMind isn't stable enough to live up to its grand claims; yet as a PND, the device is just too complicated to be used with ease while on the road.

Design
To accommodate its rather larger feature set, the 'Mind deviates slightly from the tried and true PND design. The unit sports a wider than average bezel with two raised humps on its back to facilitate easy hand-holding. The unit's removable, rechargeable battery lives underneath one of these humps. Along the top of the unit is a covered port for an optional external GPS antenna, a microSD card slot, the power/standby button, and a stylus stored in a recessed slot. Moving around to the right side, we find a full-size USB port, a Mini-USB port, a power adapter connection, and a headphone jack. Finally, the bottom edge houses a proprietary connection for an optional car dock.

Dominating the front of the device is a 4.8-inch WVGA (800x480 pixels) color touch screen. Along the right edge of the screen are three illuminated touch keys for Home, Menu, and Audio. Graphics are quite crisp, but the screen's glossy finish creates a good deal of glare when used outside. This is bad news for a device that's meant to spend at least half of its life in a car. Another issue that we found with the glossy screen, as well as the rest of the glossy body, is that it's a fingerprint and smudge magnet. Under the hood, the ClarionMind is powered by an 800MHz Intel Atom processor. Its 512MB of RAM provides adequate performance for the 'Mind's applications, as long as you don't try to run too many of them simultaneously. Its 2GB solid-state hard drive holds the operating system as well as media files. After powering on the unit, the user is taken to a home screen where 16 icons are displayed in a horizontal row, running off either side of the screen. The user rotates through these icons by flicking a finger (or stylus) left and right across the touch screen to slide the list in a very Apple Cover Flow-type manner. Along the top of the screen is a status bar that displays the current application, connection information, a task switcher, battery state, and a clock widget.

The bottom third of the screen is occupied by a ticker that displays weather updates, news, MySpace notifications, and Clarion Sync information.

When placed in the included suction cup mount (or the optional car dock) the ClarionMind's interface changes to a simplified car-friendly layout and the navigation application is automatically launched. In the car interface, a GPS map takes up the left half of the screen, while the other half is occupied by weather, news, and music widgets. Along the bottom are icons for address book, Clarion Sync, and MySpace.

We're not really sure what MySpace has to do with navigation. Fortunately, all of the widgets on both home screens can be customized to display almost any function the 'Mind supports. Touching the map launches the full-on navigation application where a destination can be entered as an address or chosen from the preloaded points of interest. If you're connected via Wi-Fi or a Bluetooth to a phone, you can also search Google Maps for points of interest.

Features
The home screen features icons for the 16 major functions the ClarionMind supports. Navigation, Traffic, and Weather are, out of the box, separate applications that do not communicate with one another. The Traffic application only works with a connection to the Internet and pulls traffic data from Navteq's traffic database, while the Weather application pulls data from Weather.com. This data is not used in the actual Navigation application that requires an optional car dock with a separate traffic antenna to receive live traffic data.

News, E-Mail, and Browser also require a Web connection to operate. The News application pulls headlines from CNN News and BBC News RSS feeds with links to full stories that open in the browser. The Browser is a true Firefox-based browser that renders pages essentially how you'd see them on your desktop. Flash and JavaScript are supported. Scrolling is accomplished by touching and dragging across the screen and text is entered with an onscreen keypad that pops up when needed. The E-Mail application is a run-of-the-mill POP3 e-mail client that is relatively easy to set up and operate, if not a bit sluggish.

MySpace and YouTube are represented as standalone applications. The YouTube application supports search and full -creen playback of YouTube videos. Because the Browser application supports Flash, YouTube videos can also be viewed inline in the browser without switching applications. The MySpace app lets users to check messages and status updates from their MySpace friends.

RealPlayer handles multimedia playback from the unit's 2GB of internal flash memory, the microSD card slot (up to 2GB capacity), or the USB connections. Supported audio formats include MP3 (and other MPEG codecs), RealAudio formats, AAC, WMA, OGG, and WAV. For video, the unit handles WMV, 3GP mobile video, and DivX. The more ubiquitous MPEG-4 video is not supported. The most common photo formats (JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP) are support by the image viewer component.

Music Sync is an app that lets users sync up to 2GB of their music library to a server where the media can be accessed online or downloaded to the ClarionMind's internal memory for playback. Notepad, calculator, and contacts manager applications join the control panel and connection manager round out the available applets.

Performance
Starting again with the navigation mode, the ClarionMind quickly acquires satellite from a cold start (often in less than a minute). However, the unit doesn't exactly offer the most accurate positioning. During highway testing, the 'Mind occasionally would lose track of our position on the main highway and place the vehicle marker on an access road adjacent to the freeway. Eventually it would figure our location out, but the recalculation was frustrating.

Point-of-interest (POI) search was equally frustrating. For example, the ClarionMind has an option to search for POI nearby, but attempting to do so resulted in a frozen unit. On the other hand, if we did the same search, but manually entered the city, the results were snappily returned. We shouldn't have to tell a GPS device where it's located to find a business.

Then there's the issue of a device as expensive and full-featured as the ClarionMind not supporting useful traffic updates out of the box. To enable live traffic, a car cradle must be purchased; however, we were unable to find any information about where to get the car cradle or how much it costs in Clarion's literature.

Outside of the car, the 'Mind's performance was satisfactory, provided that you don't attempt to run too many applications simultaneously. When we forgot that a processor-intensive application was running in the background, the 'Mind's performance and stability dropped dramatically.

Joining a Wi-Fi network is a straightforward affair, but pairing a compatible Bluetooth phone for data essentially turns your handset into a dial-up modem using your carrier's data tethering plan, which can be difficult to configure and may add additional charges to your wireless bill. An additional option would be to bring your own ISP and get an account with a company like NetZero, but then you'll lose your high data speeds. Of course, all of this is hinged upon your phone supporting the Bluetooth dial-up networking protocol in the first place, which some popular phones may not.

Multimedia playback from the internal memory was stable, but digging through large libraries on microSD cards or USB drives occasionally caused the unit to freeze, particularly if there were other unsupported file types on the drive. Some of the more severe crashes rendered even the power button useless, requiring removal of the battery to shutdown the unit.

Battery life for the ClarionMind is rated at about 2 hours. However, using Wi-Fi for Web browsing or engaging in processor-intensive functions (such as multimedia playback) cause the battery life to drop by about half.

In sum
We really wanted to like the ClarionMind. Its extensive list of functions makes it appealing to our inner geek, and resulted in a high features score. However, we had to dock points for the lack of useful traffic reporting out of the box. The simple design, wide variety of inputs, and intuitively designed interfaces (both for handheld and in-car use) earned the UMPC/PND hybrid a high design score, as well.

However, our issues with POI search and stability hurt the 'Mind's performance score. Additionally, the device isn't exactly easy to set up and use for surprisingly little payoff. For example, the process of pairing a Bluetooth phone, paying for a separate account, setting up that dial-up account, and then having to deal with dial-up speeds is a huge set of barriers to even using the feature.

At the end of the day, the biggest stumbling block for the ClarionMind is that most of its functions can be replicated on modern GPS-enabled smartphones. For example, the iPhone 3G S can do everything the 'Mind can do, but also features better battery life, a smaller design, more stable performance, and a built-in Web connection that's faster than dial-up. Similarly, the Palm Pre and various BlackBerry handsets from RIM also outperform the 'Mind. Alternatively, connected GPS devices, such as the TomTom GO 740 Live and the Garmin Nuvi 880, deliver better in-car navigation experiences with less-involved setup.

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