With a history that began in the military and only six years ago started to become useful in marine and other rather extreme environments where they were a survival tool, it's hardly surprising that most GPS units have tended to steer closely towards a functional, rather than aesthetically pleasing, design motif. With the current consumer craze for GPS as a replacement for fiddly paper maps while driving, however, plain old ugly just doesn't cut it any more. Navman's N40i still doesn't quite reach what we'd call truly sexy tech design, but it's a sight better than many of the clunky looking GPS systems we've reviewed in the past.
Still, some things never change, and while the exterior casing of the N40i is rather more smooth and slick than the iCN 530 that it replaces, it's still recognisably a Navman GPS, especially in terms of button layout. The N40i measures in at 118 x 81 x 22.5mm with a carrying weight of 200 grams, although like most GPS units it's recognisably more built with in-car use in mind. Other than the core N40i unit, you'll also find an in-car charger, a 240-volt power pack, standard USB cable, software CD and windscreen suction mount for the N40i in the retail box.
The N40i features a 3.5-inch touchscreen display that Navman claims has an anti-fingerprint coating on it. We were sorely tempted to give this the ultimate test via the medium of a McDonald's thickshake and a two-year-old boy, but calmer heads prevailed. We will say, however, that a week's worth of jabbing at the screen with not-always-shiny fingers left no discernable smears on the screen. The processor at the heart of the N40i is a 400MHz Samsung 2400, backed up by 64MB of SDRAM and 256MB of ROM. The onboard GPS chipset is the SiRF STAR III. There's also an onboard SD card slot used for additional mapping data. By default, Australian retail units come with version 13 of Sensis' Australian mapping data — this is the same set that newer GPS units from most manufacturers are using.
The N40i also features a 1.3 megapixel camera — pretty bland in an era when even mid-range mobile phones can do better — along with Navman's NavPix functionality. When you take a shot with the camera, as long as the GPS signal is present, it'll tag the shot with the GPS co-ordinates of where it was taken. Photos can then be used as reference points for future trips, so even if you can't remember where the pub was the morning after, as long as you took a photo while you were out in the beer garden, you'll be able to let the N40i (and its bigger brother, the N60i) gently guide you back to where you left your wallet and pants.
We tested the N40i within the Sydney region both in its in-car and pedestrian capabilities. One thing we'd noted with previous Navman GPS units was that could often be a touch slow at acquiring an initial GPS lock, which isn't always ideal in metropolitan driving circumstances. It appears that someone at Navman's noticed this too, as the N40i was considerably faster at triangulating than previous models have been, taking an average of around 30 seconds to get a lock in either car or pedestrian mode.
For in-car use, the N40i comes with a suction cup attached mounting bracket. We've had our woes with these over the years too, and again we were pleasantly surprised with the N40i's attaching mechanism, which worked first time and every time during our tests. It took us some time to get used to sitting the N40i into the mounting bracket itself, but once we'd gotten the knack it became second nature. The screen resisted most of the glare that hit it whilst driving, and as with all GPS units, the trick to proper usage is remembering not to look at it most of the time, and instead to keep your eyes on the road.
The NavPix technology built into the N40i at first seemed a little gimmicky to us, but extended use won us over, at least partially. It's worth keeping in mind that the actual photo contents are largely irrelevant, as the coordinates it gives are in fact where the camera is when the shot's taken. You could take a photo of the Eiffel Tower (we didn't — the CNET.com.au travel budget isn't that extensive), or your feet in front of the tower, and the Navpix would take you to the exact same spot. As an aid to memory, and an easy way to navigate, however, NavPix is extremely well implemented and just plain fun to use.
Our one concern with the N40i came in terms of its battery life. Navman rates the N40i as being good for "up to" five hours battery life. This is a nebulous figure, at least partially because by default the N40i switches itself off on battery power after five minutes — thankfully the reboot is pretty swift. In our tests we averaged around two hours without a power supply nearby. That's a fair figure, but when you add the photo capability in — and realise that you might have the N40i in a bag or similar for some time before wanting to take a location shot — the lower standby battery life becomes something of a liability. You can preserve the battery life by totally switching the unit off, however, which is a minor saving grace.