The last portable navigation system we reviewed from Mio Technology didn't fare so well in our tests. It's a shame, because the Mio C220 had so much going for it--affordable price, good performance, compact design--but its screen was a complete wash. Fortunately, Mio's latest GPS device, the Mio C520, delivers a better experience and packs in even more features at a wallet-friendly price of $399. For that money, you get a large 4.3-inch touch screen, integrated Bluetooth, multimedia capabilities, and accurate directions. It's certainly a better value than the Magellan Maestro 3100. That said, the C520 has its downfalls: the Bluetooth integration is limited, and real-time tracking and route recalculations could be better. If navigation and usability is of the utmost importance to you, and you can find a good deal on the Garmin Nuvi, you'd be better served by that device instead.
The Mio C520 is one of the best-looking portable navigation systems we've ever seen. The charcoal-gray-and-silver color scheme is attractive, but even more alluring is the thinness of the device. At just 4.9 inches wide by 3.2 inches tall by 0.8 inch deep and weighing 6.7 ounces, it's extremely sleek, so much so that of all the multimedia-capable GPS models we've tested, the Mio C520 is one we'd almost consider using as a portable media player--almost (more on this later).
There's also beauty in the simplicity of the design. Aside from a power button on the top of the unit, there are no other external controls cluttering the device. Instead, all functions and text are entered through the C520's spacious, 4.3-inch touch screen. It displays 65,000 colors at a 480x272-pixel resolution, making the maps and images look vibrant and text sharp. Also, much to our relief, we could still read the C520's screen under sunlight, unlike the Mio C220 whose screen washed out to the point of being unreadable. We still wish there was a bit more brightness and contrast to the maps, but still, it's a much improved experience over the C220. We should note that some address and POI listings are hard to read since the font size is pretty small.
The interface and main menu system are user-friendly, with clearly marked and bubbly icons. For the most part, we were able to use it without having to crack open the manual, but things do get a little less intuitive as you dig deeper into the applications. For example, there are a number of tabs on the map screen that open and hide various navigation tools that require some time to learn and master. Also, some of the media player controls are hard to discern since their functions aren't identified. On a brighter note, thanks to the larger screen, the virtual keyboard is easier to use than the C220's, and it's also in QWERTY format, so you get the familiar layout and feel of your computer's keyboard. In addition, like Magellan's GPS devices, the C520's keyboard has a predictive function, which will gray out any letters or numbers that don't match street names or numbers as you begin to enter an address.
Other mentionables include an external antenna port and speaker on the back, and a mini USB port and 18-pin power connector on the bottom. There's also an SD expansion slot and 2.5mm headphone jack on the left spine. We are a bit puzzled and disappointed that the C520 isn't equipped with a 3.5mm headphone jack for a better multimedia experience.
The Mio C520 comes packaged with a car charger, an AC adapter, a vehicle mount (windshield and dash), a USB cable, and reference material. The windshield mount did a good job of securely holding the unit in place, although we think the cradle felt a bit plasticky and cheap, so take extra care when attaching and removing the system.
The Mio C520 is equipped with a 20-channel SiRFIII GPS chip and comes preloaded with TeleAtlas maps of North America and 6 million points of interest. The basic navigation features are similar to the C710. The system can create directions by fastest, shortest, or most economical route; with or without toll roads, highways, u-turns, and so forth; and in various modes, including car, bicycle, and pedestrian. Other goodies include route recalculation, 2D and 3D map views with day and night colors, route simulations, and safety camera warnings. You can get read our Mio C710 review for a more detailed description of the Mio navigation system, but for this review, we'll concentrate on some of the unique and new features to the C520.
One welcome feature is the addition of text-to-speech functionality. This means the Mio C520 will now speak actual street names, allowing you to pay more attention to the road rather than the map screen, because you get more precise audible prompts. You also have your choice of 14 language and voices, but you can only get text-to-speech directions in English. To complement the voice-guided directions, there's a new split-screen view that displays various details about your trip. You can cycle through several views that give you the distance and direction of your next turn; a list of upcoming turns; nearby gas stations; current time; estimated time of arrival; speed; and more. There's an option to hide this panel altogether if you find it too overwhelming and just want to rely on the map and voice prompts.
With the integrated Bluetooth, you can use the Mio C520 as a hands-free speaker system for your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone or smart phone to receive and make calls. For outgoing calls, you can use the onscreen dial pad or select a contact from the device's phone book. Also, if a POI has a listed number, there's an option to dial out directly to that business. Unfortunately, you can't wirelessly transfer contacts from your mobile's address book to the C520, and call history synchronization isn't available on all phones. (See Performance for more.) A nice and unexpected bonus is that the unit works with Bluetooth stereo headsets (A2DP profile).
The Mio C520's media player is basic (though you get equalizer settings and playlist creation) and as we mentioned earlier, the interface is somewhat confusing and bare-bones. Still, you can learn to work with the player; the bigger problem is that the system doesn't always work with all supported formats. Mio says the C520 can play MP3, WMA, WAV, WMV, AVI, and MP4 music and video files, but we weren't able to view any WMV or AVI movies. Mio does include Ulead video converter software, however. Clearly, the most important function of this device is its navigation tools, but with the sleek design and large screen, we could have seen ourselves occasionally using the C520 as a portable video player, so the limited support is disappointing.
We tested the Mio C520 in San Francisco, and from a cold start, it took about three minutes to get a satellite fix under cloudy skies. Subsequent starts took anywhere from a few seconds up to two minutes, but once locked on, the GPS receiver did a good job of holding onto the signal as we drove throughout the city. We did notice, however, that the system was about half a block behind us when tracking our location. We also entered our standard trip from the Marina district to CNET's downtown headquarters, and the C520 quickly returned with accurate directions. The text-to-speech voice directions were helpful and detailed; the female voice was a bit robotic but we had no problems understanding her. We also missed several turns to test the route recalculation rate, and while the system was fast to give us a new and precise itinerary, we didn't find it to be very efficient. There were times when we knew a more direct route than the one recommended by the C520, but if you're completely new to an area, the C520 can be a lifesaver, getting you back on track to your destination.
For Bluetooth compatibility, we connected the C520 with the Palm Treo 755p and HTC S710 smart phones. We had no problems with the pairing process, and we were able to make and accept calls. However, we couldn't synchronize our call list from either phone. Multimedia performance was mixed. Music playback through the unit's speakers was surprisingly good with plenty of volume and richness, but again, we wish the C520 had a 3.5mm jack so we could plug in a nice pair of headphones. Watching an MP4 video clip was a less satisfying experience, as images often looked pixilated. The Mio C520's 1300mAH lithium ion battery is rated for up to 4.5 hours of GPS use and up to 8.5 hours of MP3 playback with the backlight off.