Best known for its car stereo products, Alpine Electronics' Blackbird represents the company's entry into the portable vehicle navigation arena, and it's not a bad first try. The Blackbird ($750) offers all the standard navigation tools found in other GPS devices--text- and voice-guided driving directions, an expansive points-of-interest database, and automatic rerouting--and even includes some extras, such as an integrated music player and a traffic tuner. Its sharp looks don't hurt either. Unfortunately, it's not all smooth sailing, as the Blackbird has a small hard drive and suffers from sluggish route calculation and short battery life, reducing its usefulness on foot and keeping it just behind the competition. The Alpine Blackbird is one sharp-looking device. Though it borrows the same basic shape as Magellan's RoadMate family of GPS devices, the Blackbird is thinner (1.06 inches) and lighter (8 ounces) than any RoadMate model. The unit's matte-black finish with silver trim adds a touch of elegance, as does the oversize brushed-aluminum iPod-like controls to the right of the screen. The circular control lets you toggle between GPS and music player mode, and it's used for zooming on maps. To the left of the navigation pad is the 320x240-pixel, 3.6-inch color touch screen. It's easy to read in all but the brightest sunlight, which causes it to wash out and lose some of its luster. The Blackbird's user interface is fairly straightforward and uses familiar icons to guide you through the various menu screens, where you can change display settings and guidance parameters, edit your address book, and view routes and waypoints.
Along the top edge of the unit are a power button, a headphone jack, a volume control, and a SD/MMC memory card slot. The bottom bezel contains a USB miniconnector for updating the mapping software via a PC, a port for connecting an external GPS antenna, and a connector for attaching the Blackbird to its mounting cradle or an optional docking station. A rechargeable lithium-ion battery slides out of the left side, and a flip-up antenna and an internal speaker are located on the back of the unit.
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.