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Magellan SmartGPS review: Web-connected GPS navigator is a triple threat

Old meets new as the SmartGPS system blends traditional GPS hardware with a smartphone app and cloud-based address book management.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
10 min read

The Magellan SmartGPS is a portable navigation device, but it's also part of a larger system that, at the time of publication, has parts that give users multiple ways to navigate, search for destination, and manage their favorite places. At the core of this system is the SmartGPS hardware, which can be used as a standalone navigation device. However, the hardware works best when used in tandem with Magellan's smartphone apps for iPhone and Android devices and a cloud syncing service called MiCloud that is accessible via any Web browser.


Magellan SmartGPS


The Good

The <b>Magellan SmartGPS</b> hardware connects to the Web via Wi-Fi and syncs contacts, favorites, and recent destinations with a smartphone app and a MiCloud Web service. Via its Internet connection, Yelp and Foursquare destinations can be downloaded and real-time traffic and fuel price data are provided. Bluetooth hands-free calling rounds out a strong feature set.

The Bad

Syncing can be slow at times. The interface crams a lot of information on the screen, and the flipping of the smart squares can be distracting.

The Bottom Line

The Magellan SmartGPS bridges a gap between connected navigation apps and car-friendly GPS hardware with its ability to sync with the cloud and connect to the Web via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but its busy interface could use fewer moving parts.

The SmartGPS hardware looks about like you'd expect a portable navigation device to look. It's a plastic slab with a touch screen on one side that gets suction cupped to your windshield.

The device measures about 6.75 inches from corner to corner, but has a diagonal screen size of only 5 inches. There's a lot of glossy black bezel around that screen, which seems like a lot of wasted space -- particularly on the horizontal -- for those of us used to seeing smartphones, tablets, and even other portable navigation devices push their screens closer and closer to being edgeless. Imagine a device that's about the size of a small tablet with a screen the size of an average Android phone and you'll have an idea of the potential for extra display real estate. To be fair, 5 inches is a respectable screen size for a navigator, but when you consider the amount of information that Magellan tries to cram onto the SmartGPS' screen, this seem like a missed opportunity to go bigger or wider.

SmartGPS size comparison
The 5-inch screen isn't substantially larger than my Samsung Galaxy Nexus', despite the SmartGPS' larger footprint. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The screen is glass and features capacitive sensitivity, enabling swiping, pinching, and tapping gestures. The glossy black bezel is home to a capacitive home button located near the upper-left corner and a pinhole microphone for hands-free calling.

Flip it over and you'll find a speaker on the SmartGPS unit's back side and a power button on top edge.

The bottom edge is home to all of the ports and connections supported by the SmartGPS. There's a microSD card slot for updates and increasing available memory for maps, a 3.5mm analog output for connecting headphones or plugging into your vehicle's auxiliary input, and a micro USB port that connects to the 12-volt-to-USB charging cable that embeds in the suction cup mount for one-handed connection and disconnection. The included suction cup mount is a sturdy one, once mounted properly to a glass windshield. The mount only has one point of articulation -- a ball joint with a locking ring at the base of the cradle -- so there's not a lot of flopping around once you've got the SmartGPS locked in.

smartGPS ports
All of the physical connections can be found on the bottom edge. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Finally, there's an 3.5mm AV input that makes the SmartGPS compatible with Magellan's rear-view camera add-on.

The SmartGPS also hosts invisible connections for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for data synchronization and, for the former, hands-free calling.

Standalone navigation
The SmartGPS mixes up Magellan's familiar interface by adding smart "Squares," which are live-updating tiles that occupy part of the map screen and provide auxiliary data at a glance and quick shortcuts to destinations. On the default home screen, four of these squares are displayed, showing shortcuts to nearby destinations pulled from Yelp and Foursquare, nearby gas stations and live fuel prices, and nearby traffic events. When navigating, the map (which normally only occupies half of the screen) expands from to occupy three-quarters, pushing two of the smart squares off of the right edge of the display.

Along the bottom edge of the home screen are shortcuts for settings, Bluetooth calling and messaging, destination search, an address book of stored destinations, and Magellan's OneTouch menu of quick shortcuts to searches and destinations.

Smart squares
Expanding the smart squares reveals live updating tiles for nearby destinations, fuel prices, weather forecasts, and more. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Along the top of the screen is a status bar that is very reminiscent of a smartphone's interface with icons for wireless connection and sync status, battery level, GPS connection strength, and the current time. There's also sort of virtual scroll wheel that can be swiped to the left to reveal more smart squares -- for total of eight squares -- adding weather, safety alerts, current position, and a shortcut to a browser. Swiping to the left hides the squares and expands the map to full screen.

The browser should probably not be used when driving, but when parked (or outside of the vehicle) and connected to Wi-Fi, users can load Web pages. Addresses and phone numbers that appear during your browsing can be tapped to initiate a trip or a hands-free call. From the looks of the browser interface and settings screen, it appears that the SmartGPS is built on a heavily modified 2.x version of the Android operating system.

SmartGPS browser
The Web browser is probably the least useful feature, but it does hint that the SmartGPS hardware is powered by Android. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Each of the smart squares has a sort of Rolodex-like appearance and cycles through its available data. For example, the fuel square will cycle through the nearest gas stations and their respective fuel prices, or the Yelp square will show the nearest restaurants with their average Yelp rating. Each square can be swiped up and down to quickly scroll through the available data and tapped to display more information or instantly navigate to the destination displayed.

The data for these smart squares is synced from the Web. After connecting the SmartGPS to a nearby Wi-Fi hotspot, the portable navigation device will connect to the Web and download the newest data for fuel prices in the area, highly rated Yelp and Foursquare destinations for your chosen categories, traffic prediction data, safety alerts, speed and red light cameras, and favorites and recent destinations stored to Magellan's cloud service. Once this data is synced, the SmartGPS doesn't need to maintain an Internet connection to access it; you can just hop in your car and drive around.

Destination information
Clicking a Yelp or Foursquare tile reveals more information -- including deals or tips -- and buttons to start navigation. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

When you return to your garage or bring the SmartGPS inside at the end of a trip, it quietly reconnects to the Internet to once again sync data.

SmartGPS app integration
Owners of of iPhones can download the free SmartGPS app from the App Store to link their portable navigation to the Web via the handset's Bluetooth and data connections. While connected, the SmartGPS will have access the absolute most recent fuel prices, road hazards, traffic data, and points of interest. Magellan tells us that it has optimized the SmartGPS' data use so that it doesn't gobble up your entire data plan, only pulling relevant bits of data as necessary.

Since many users will already be Bluetooth connected for hands-free calling, there likely won't be much setup required to get this bit of connectivity working properly.

The app itself allows users to manage favorites, browse and search for destinations, and send those destinations either to the cloud for later retrieval or directly to the SmartGPS device for immediate navigation. If the SmartGPS is out of range or powered off, the app will queue the destination and automatically push the address when the Bluetooth is restored later.

Send to SmartGPS
Any destination on the connected phone can be beamed directly to the SmartGPS over Bluetooth for immediate navigation. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

So, you could start searching for a restaurant on the phone while still at your desk and automatically beam the address to the SmartGPS when you reach the car to take advantage of the PND's larger screen, more accurate GPS receiver, and louder speaker while driving. If you end up having to park a few blocks away from the restaurant, you can toss the destination back over to the phone for a final leg of pedestrian navigation.

Destinations that come from other apps, such as an address that is text-messaged from a friend or a meeting place in a calendar appointment, can also be funneled into the SmartGPS app and then queued for navigation when the phone is connected to the SmartGPS hardware.

Smart squares
The SmartGPS app for iPhone uses the same smart squares as the hardware and can be used for destination discovery. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The SmartGPS app also features the same smart squares as the SmartGPS hardware, with shortcuts to Yelp and Foursquare destinations, traffic incidents, and current location data. The app can also be used as a standalone navigator if you chose to unlock spoken turn-by-turn directions with an in-app purchase. This makes the SmartGPS ecosystem a bit more attractive to multicar, multidriver households.

At the time of publication, Magellan had not released the Android version of the app but did provide a Magellan Link app in Google Play that allows the SmartGPS hardware to make use of the smartphone's data connection for downloading and syncing to the cloud only. I'm told that an Android version of the complete SmartGPS app would be made available shortly after the hardware launches in summer 2013.

Online portal
Both the SmartGPS app and the SmartGPS hardware sync to Magellan's MiCloud online portal.

After logging into the Web site, users can search a map and database for destinations, organize their favorite destinations, and save interesting spots to a Wish List that can be quickly accessed on the SmartGPS device and app.

Using the Web app's graphic interface, users can quickly create multidestination trips by dragging and dropping favorites and, at the touch of a button, optimize a trip for the minimum driving distance. This is a cool feature for families: one could just drop all of the errands that need to be run in a day into a list and let the software figure out what order you should run them in.

Magellan Web portal
The Magellan Web portal allows users to discover and manage their favorite destinations by dragging and dropping on a larger screen. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I found that sometimes the SmartGPS device can be a bit slow downloading changes to favorites and wishlist destinations made from the MiCloud interface, and because sychronization happens automatically, there's no real way to tell from the device whether the download has been completed until you check the My Places menu. Automatic syncing is keep things simple for the user, but depending on the time between making an online change and leaving your driveway, you could miss downloading the trip you just set up. A manual "sync" button somewhere in the interface would be nice. Of course, using the SmartGPS app to augment the Wi-Fi connection somewhat resolves this issue by continuing the download in the background once you're on the road.

From the online portal, users can also view pending updates to the software and maps on their SmartGPS device. With the touch of a button, the new software can be downloaded and synced to the device via its Micro-USB connection.

Getting there
That's a lot of talk about how the SmartGPS and MiCloud will help you to find and manage your favorite places, but how is it at getting you there? I wasn't surprised to find that it performed well.

Path-finding was quick, and chosen routes were logical and in-line with my local knowledge of the San Francisco Bay area. The device gives the driver the choice of three different routes at the beginning of every trip: fastest, shortest, and least use of highways. Traffic reports were remarkably accurate when the device was connected to an iPhone running the SmartGPS app, and ETA data was usually on point within a few minutes -- if it said there would be a 30-minute delay due to a traffic jam, I could count on it.

On a few occasions, when I ignored the traffic warnings and purposely charged into a jam, the SmartGPS would display a small icon on its screen that, when tapped, would present an alternate route around the jam. This icon is ridiculously tiny, poorly labeled, and easily lost in the cluttered interface that the SmartGPS puts in front of its users. Instead, I'd like to see some sort of "would you like to find an alternate route?" prompt pop up or take over one of the live squares when a faster path is available.

When navigating at surface street level, the SmartGPS' turn-by-turn directions used natural language instructions that occasionally used landmarks instead of street names. On one occasion, I was told to "make a sharp left at the Honda dealership" and on another I was told to "keep straight past the hotel on the right." These landmarks are much easier to spot from a distance than tiny (or nonexistent) street signs and afforded me, the driver, extra time to react.

On the highway, the instructions are more traditional, but are also augmented by visual lane guidance and virtual representations of highway signs, both of which are very helpful for picking lanes and avoiding last-minute swerves for exits.

I'm not sure if Magellan is taking advantage of the data connection from Wi-Fi or the paired smartphone to help the SmartGPS with initial GPS location, but the SmartGPS found itself in the world with startling immediacy at the beginning of every trip. Even if I powered the device off, moved miles away to a completely different part of town before, and powered back up, the device always knew where it was within about a city block and quickly zeroed in to within a few feet. The SmartGPS refused to be confused. This is a very good thing for drivers who want to hop in the car and go.

In sum
The SmartGPS will retail for $249 when it hits shelves later this summer. That wouldn't be a bad price for a standard GPS navigator of this size and quality, but the addition of the smartphone apps and cloud sync that can be had for free further increase the value here. I liked having live fuel prices, traffic updates, and nearby destinations at my fingertips. Plus, the ability to find destinations on my phone or plan trips with multiple stops on a laptop and then have that trip waiting when I climb into the car proved to be extremely convenient. However, some drivers may find the torrent of information provided by the smart squares to be a bit distracting. It's easy to hide all of that auxiliary data when on the road, but that the SmartGPS shows the squares by default will be a turn-off for some.

Magellan SmartGPS and app
The SmartGPS is good on its own, but better when connected to the Web. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Frankly, I think that the connectivity to the phone and Web do more good than potential harm and extends the usefulness of this portable navigation device.


Magellan SmartGPS


Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 8


See full specs Recommended Use automotiveFeatures Best Parking, Landmark Guidance, OneTouch favorites menu, QuickSpell with SmartCity search, Smart City Search, Smart Detour, Speed Camera warnings, Turn-by-Turn Routing, automatic day/night mode, built-in microphone, built-in speaker, fuel prices, junction view, lifetime map updates, multi-destination routing, preinstalled POIs, speed limit warning