About a month ago, we reviewed the Alpine IVA-W205, an innovative aftermarket in-dash unit that works as a multimedia player and a navigation system. The latter function is provided by docking the Alpine PMD-B200 (aka Alpine BlackBird II) portable navigation system into the IVA-W205, but the cool thing is that the PMD-B200 can be used independently as a standalone GPS unit. This is the subject of this review.
As a follow-up to the original Alpine BlackBird, the PMD-B200 brings Bluetooth and faster performance, and continues to offer the essential navigation tools and traffic services. However, during our road tests, we were displeased by the convoluted route recalculations and the lack of text-to-speech functionality. This was particularly hard to swallow when we discovered the BlackBird II comes with a hefty price tag of $750. If you're going to spend that much money, you'll be better served by one of the higher-end Garmin Nuvi models.
Compared with some of today's portable navigation systems, the Alpine PMD-B200 is definitely on the bigger side. The unit measures 4.8 inches wide by 2.9 inches high by 0.7 inch deep and 6.3 ounces, which pretty much limits its use to just in-car navigation. The good news is that Alpine has integrated the GPS receiver into the system, so you don't have to worry about any flip-up antennas. Plus, the system is still compact enough to transport between vehicles, and as we noted before, you can dock it into the Alpine IVA-W205.
The Alpine PMD-B200 boasts a spacious 4.3-inch touch screen with a 480x272-pixel resolution. The display is one of the best we've seen in recent memory as maps and text looked extra sharp and vibrant. It was also responsive to all our commands, and we could read it in various lighting conditions, including bright sunlight. Unfortunately, the maps themselves are rather lackluster and the user interface isn't quite as eye-catching, but the latter is really a minor complaint. It's more important that the system is intuitive and easy to use. The onscreen keyboard is a bit cramped, and there's no stylus to help with more accurate text input. The good news is that the PMD-B200 has predictive text, so as you enter addresses, it will gray out any numbers or letters that don't match in the database.
To the right of the display, you'll find a control pad that gives you shortcuts to the different apps and functions. Pressing the toggle up or down zooms in and out of maps. The left side provides a shortcut to the navigation app while the right launches the music player. Finally, the center button calls up the Bluetooth function. The top bezel holds the SD expansion slot, the power button, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a volume rocker. On the bottom, there's a reset button, the cradle connector, an external antenna jack, and a mini USB port.
The Alpine PMD-B200 comes packaged with an AC adapter, a vehicle mount (windshield and dash) with a built-in traffic receiver and car charger, a soft carrying pouch, a USB cable, an external microphone, and reference material.
The Alpine PMD-B200 is equipped with a 20-channel GPS receiver and comes preloaded with Navteq maps of North America, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. You get the usual array of navigation features, including turn-by-turn text- and voice-guided driving directions, automatic rerouting, a trip computer, and route demo. There's also a 6 million points-of-interest (POI) database, so you can search for places by name or category and sort them by name, city, or distance from your current location.
There are a number of ways to start planning a trip. You can enter a specific address, intersection, input coordinates, choose from recently visited places, and so forth. In addition, the BlackBird II will calculate directions in one of three methods: shortest route, quickest route/maximize freeway, and quickest route/minimize freeway. If you don't like a certain part of the prescribed itinerary, there is a detour function. Also, the traffic receiver that's built into the vehicle mount allows you to get information from Navteq's traffic service. If there are any incidents, you'll be alerted to them via several onscreen icons and you'll be given the option to route around any accidents or congestion.
Maps are presented in 2D or 3D view with either north or the direction you're traveling at the top of the screen. The system can also automatically switch between day and night map colors. While driving, the map screen shows you information, such as the name of the current street and the distance to and direction of your next turn. Unfortunately, the Blackbird lacks text-to-speech functionality, which is really disappointing for a high-end device like this, especially for the price.
The Alpine PMD-B200 also features integrated Bluetooth so you can use it as a hands-free speaker system for your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone or smartphone to receive and make calls. We're also particularly thrilled to see that your phone's address book and call history are automatically synced with the system. For outgoing calls, you can use the onscreen dial pad or select a contact from your phone book. Also, if a POI has a listed number, there's an option to dial out directly to that business.
Finally, the Blackbird II's music player supports MP3 and WMA files and contains the basic play, forward, and rewind buttons as well as shuffle and repeat modes. The player displays the artist name, the song title, and the playing time. In addition, there's a built-in FM modulator so you can listen to music and driving directions through the car stereo. And don't worry: A feature called Navi Mix automatically lowers the music volume when giving voice-guided directions.
We tested the Alpine PMD-B200 in San Francisco, and from a cold start, it took the unit about 2 minutes to get a lock on our position under partly cloudy skies, while subsequent starts were faster. The BlackBird II did a good job of tracking our position during everyday drives around the city, and even maintained a satellite fix as we drove through the financial district where tall buildings block a clear view of the sky. We did lose a signal, however, going through the Broadway Tunnel, but this is typical of GPS devices.
We also entered our standard test trip from the Marina district to CNET's downtown headquarters. The system quickly returned with directions, and glancing over the text-based maneuver list, we found them to be accurate. Once on the road, voice prompts were clear with plenty of volume, but we really wish the PMD-B200 offered text-to-speech directions. True, you can look at the onscreen prompts to find the distance to and street name of your next turn, but it's nice (and safer) to be able to hear it. We missed several turns to test the route recalculation rate, which was swift but didn't offer the most efficient routes. On a number of occasions, it had us going in circles, which got to be really irritating.
We also paired the Alpine PMD-B200 with the Sony Ericsson P1i. The process was smooth and once connected, our phone book and call history synced over to the nav system within a minute or so. We were able to make and receive calls easily, as well. Music playback was decent through the system's speakers, though we'd recommend piping songs through your car's speakers via the FM transmitter for better sound. The PMD-B200's lithium polymer battery is rated for up to 2 hours of continuous use, but we found it to be much shorter. After less than an hour of tooling around, the battery indicator was already on the last bar, which is pretty sad.