Hitherto HP's iPAQ line has been all about PDAs. Now, with the 312 Travel Companion, it's trying to conquer the world portable GPS navigators.
There's nothing particularly ground breaking about the 312's design. That's not to say it isn't nice, though. Dominating the front is a 4.3-inch touchscreen, which is surrounded by a dark purple/brown face plate. The rubberised sides and back give the 312 a feel that exudes both quality and ruggedness. Like most name brand GPS devices, the iPAQ has declared a War on Buttons; there's a prominent power button on the front, a clickable scroll wheel on the right-hand edge and, well, that's it.
This click-wheel attempts to address one of our chief complaints about recent portable navigators, that is it takes an inordinate number of clicks through the menu system to change the volume. Sure, with most systems it's easy to mute and unmute, but oftentimes we'd like to turn the volume down a couple of notches to make conversation easier when we're ferrying passengers around. This is where the click-wheel comes in; on the 312, you can adjust the volume (click the wheel once and scroll), change screen brightness (click the wheel again and scroll) or alter the map perspective in 3D mode (just scroll). However, with three functions crammed into one little control, it's all too easy when on the road to dim the screen when you mean to lower the volume.
Below the wheel is a reset pin and rubber flap hiding a mini-USB port, 3.5mm headphone jack and connector for an external GPS receiver. On the left-side there's a slot for an SD card, while there's also a stylus hiding along the top edge. What purpose it serves is beyond us though as the 312's on-screen buttons are all large enough to be easily finger mashed.
The 312's windscreen mount is a multi-piece affair that after initial assembly fulfils all the main criteria — it's a cinch to mount, the navigator snaps in and out with minimal fuss, and the levered suction cup sticks on like a leech even through the worst roads that New South Wales had to offer.
Being a late comer to the portable GPS field you'd expect the 312 Travel Companion to be bristling in the features department. That would also compensate for its price tag of AU$499, which while competitive at the beginning of year is now a bit on the pricey side. To that end, the 4.3-inch touchscreen packs in an impressive 800x480 pixels — considerably more than the 480x272 offered in competitors' screens.
The high resolution screen means that all graphics — menus, maps and so forth — are beautifully rendered. Combine this with the gruntier than normal 600MHz SiRF Titan ARM11 dual-core processor and the Travel Companion might be the first portable GPS we'd actually consider worthy of its multimedia functionality. Photo slideshows are actually pleasurable instead of being another dreary visit to Pixel Land. Even the DivX and Xvid movies we tried were a joy to behold. MP3 music files played decently too when we had a pair of headphones hooked up, although performance via the single, tinny rear speaker was rather less impressive. There's also a clutch of on-board games, if you're that way inclined.
Other notable features include Bluetooth hands-free and text-to-speech. Phone compatibility via Bluetooth, however, was rather patchy. Our Sony Ericsson S500i paired up fine but refused to make or receive calls via the iPAQ, the Palm Centro we're currently reviewing only works intermittently with the 312, while the first generation iPhone had no problems whatsoever. If Bluetooth hands-free is a key feature for you, you might want to check it out in a store first. As the 312 uses Bluetooth 2.0, it should also work with wireless stereo headphones, although we didn't have any such headphones on hand to test it with.
As with most Australia-bound GPS devices, HP has loaded the 312 with the Whereis R14 maps. Thanks to its well-specced processor, however, route calculation on the HP was better than class average. Chosen routes were good; that is the number of crazy directions and U-turn requests were kept to a minimum, although nothing has yet come close to being comparable with local knowledge. CBD performance was the usual mix of lost GPS signals and random placements on the map, with occasional sunny breaks where everything was hunky dory.
Text-to-speech on the HP was a massive disappointment. Female voices were rather too soft, even at maximum volume, and sounded way too much like robots from the future sent to exterminate mankind. The males were far more lifelike but, like their female counterparts, were beset with pronunciation problems. Many streets were spat out too quickly to be comprehensible and, with even the British accented voices stumbling over typical English street names, we weren't too surprised to hear it mangling Bourke Street into Bork Street. Add this to the unit's propensity to substitute road numbers for names — S54 instead of King Street and X4 in lieu of Parramatta Road, are just two examples that spring instantly to mind — and you'll probably look at the screen less if you turn text-to-speech off.
Despite the functionality being there, speed and red-light camera data hasn't been included for Australian 312s, although you can add these in manually if you so wish. Another nicety, elevation data, is only available outside of built-up areas but does add some visual interest for passengers when you're taking on that Australian road trip.
In the end, we were left with very mixed feelings about HP's stab at the portable GPS market. On the one hand there's the patchy Bluetooth hands-free and text-to-speech implementation, while on the other we have that brilliant screen and plentiful processing grunt.
Our experience was also tempered by the fact that our first two 312s died unceremonious deaths. The first of these occurred as we were barrelling along a motorway to nowhere at great pace and unsure of the exit we should take. We do, however, suspect that these deaths may have been caused by our use of another GPS unit's mini-USB car charger.