We've reviewed a couple of in-car GPS devices from Alpine Electronics, including the Alpine Blackbird and the Alpine Blackbird II, and we haven't come away particularly impressed. While offering a decent feature set, the performance was subpar and definitely not worth the eye-popping price tag.
The company's latest model, the Alpine PND-K3 is an improvement, featuring an improved user interface and better performance. The portable navigation device also now has text-to-speech functionality and advanced lane guidance. Unfortunately, the downfall of the K3 might be its price tag. While less than the Blackbird models, at $550, it's still expensive, particularly when you compare it to the competition. The TomTom GO 930 costs $50 less and offers everything the K3 has, plus voice recognition. Similarly, the Garmin Nuvi 265WT has comparable features and great performance, and is $200 cheaper than the K3. While you might be able to find the Alpine PND-K3 for less than the suggested retail price, we still think you'll get a better value from the other two GPS.
The Alpine PND-K3 looks like most portable navigation devices with a compact, rectangular frame. The unit measures 4.8 inches wide by 2.9 inches high by 0.7 inch deep and weighs 6.3 ounces and has a nice, solid construction, making it good for multi-vehicle use. The charcoal gray-and-black chassis is attractive enough, but you can also customize the menus with different colors to match the interior of your car or just to your personality (more on this in a bit).
The K3 features a 4.3-inch touch screen with a 480x272 pixel resolution. Text and maps looked vibrant and sharp on the display, and you can adjust the screen's brightness and backlight time. Going back to the customization we referenced earlier, you can choose from a number of color schemes for menus and maps, such as ruby, aqua, or emerald. It's nothing revolutionary, but it's a nice personalization option.
Alpine also decided to ditch the user interface found on the Blackbird models, and start from scratch and build a new user interface from the ground up. The result is both flashy and functional. The start screen has four main options--Go to, Play, Home, Info--and you can also access the Settings menu and go directly to the map. We enjoyed the smooth, animated transitions when navigating through the menu options. The onscreen keyboard is also easy to use and spacious; like some other PNDs, the K3 will bring up possible search results as soon as you input a couple of a letters. Our only complaint with the whole user experience is there's no easy way to get back to the Main Menu from some of the submenus (e.g., the point-of-interest database). There's a shortcut to the map but otherwise, you have to back out several layers to get back to the main page.
There's a power button, an SD expansion slot, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left side, and much to our delight, there are external volume controls on top of the device for easy access. You'll find a reset button and a mini USB port on the bottom of the system.
The Alpine PND-K3 comes packaged with a car charger, an AC adapter, a USB cable, a vehicle mount (dashboard and windshield), and reference material. The vehicle mount requires some assembly, but it's not too complicated. There's a lever lock on the accessory to ensure a secure seal with your windshield, and it held the unit securely in place during our test drives.
The Alpine PND-K3 is equipped with a 20-channel GPS receiver and features advanced accuracy vehicle positioning technology (basically a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope) to give you a better approximation of your current location even if you go through a tunnel or lose reception along your route. The K3 comes preloaded with Navteq maps of the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The trip planning process is similar to other PNDs; you can enter a specific address, intersection, or coordinates; choose a point of interest (POI); select from a list of previously visited locations; or navigate to a programmed home address. The K3 supports multidestination trips, allowing you to add numerous waypoints along your route.
The GPS comes with a database with 6 million POIs, and you can have up to eight categories displayed on the map. The catalog includes all the major POI, such as banks, gas stations, lodging, and restaurants (divided by cuisine type). There are more specialized interests as well, including wineries, marinas, and parks.
Once you have entered your trip information, the K3 can calculate routes based on the shortest distance or quickest time. You can also instruct the system to use or avoid freeways, toll roads, and so forth. Sadly, there are no pedestrian or bicycle modes; the K3 is limited to car use only. On the bright side, the Alpine PND-K3 offers route simulation, a detour function, and automatic route recalculation.
The Alpine PND-K3 features text- and voice-guided directions in English, Spanish, or French. In addition, the unit has text-to-speech functionality so you'll hear actual street names instead of generic voice prompts. Maps are presented in 2D or 3D view, and while driving a specified route, the map screen will show you the distance to and direction of your next turn as well as the street name, your current driving speed, estimated time of arrival, and other useful information. For complicated intersections on the freeway, the K3 presents a split-screen mode where you get an overview map on one side and then a zoomed-in view of the intersection. It will also overlay an arrow on the lane that you should be in to make it completely clear.
Bluetooth is onboard, so you can pair the Alpine PND-K3 with your Bluetooth-enabled phone and use it as a hands-free speaker system. You can transfer your phone's address book and call history to the K3, but it's not necessarily automatic. We paired our review unit with the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8310, and the pairing process went smoothly. We just entered the security code as instructed and within a couple of minutes, the two devices were connected. However, to transfer our phone's contacts, we had to press an extra button. It wasn't automatic like the Garmin Nuvi 880, but really this was a small matter as the whole process was quick and went off without a hitch.
Last but not least, there's a built-in music player, which supports MP3 and WMV files. You can load songs via an SD card, and the expansion slot accepts up to 4GB cards. The players are fairly basic with just the basic functions--play, pause/stop, rewind, fast-forward, shuffle, and repeat--but it does support playlist creation.
We tested the Alpine KND-K3 in San Francisco and from a cold start, it took the unit about 5 minutes to get a fix on our location under cloudy skies but luckily, subsequent starts were much faster. The K3 did a fair job of tracking our moves as we drove around the city. We drove through the Broadway Tunnel and Financial District where satellite reception can get a bit dodgy and with the accelerometer and gyroscope technology, it was able to provide a more accurate idea of position when we exited both areas.
As we do with all GPS devices we test, we planned our driving course from the Marina District to CNET's downtown headquarters. The K3 was fairly quick to calculate a route. We did a quick check of the text-based directions, which was accurate, and set off on the road. Voice-guided directions were loud and clear, and the text-to-speech pronunciations were decent, though there were a couple of mispronunciations--not any worse than other systems. We missed several turns to test the route recalculation rate. Though the system provided new instructions quickly, we didn't always agree with the new route; on a couple of occasions, we knew of a more efficient way to our destination.
Finally, one issue we had with previous Alpine GPS devices is the short battery life, and unfortunately, the problem continues here. The K3 has a rated battery life of 2 hours, but we found that even after about an hour of use, we were getting a low battery alert. Granted, you'll probably have the car charger with you, but still in the chance that you don't, you're going to be in trouble.