Spotting the differences amongst this season's Navman S-Series GPS range -- narrow-screen S30 apart, obviously -- requires a keener eye for detail than Sherlock Holmes. They're not bad looking devices, mind, with their mix of silver plastic and piano black highlights. The mid-range S50 that we tested here comes with the same 4.3-inch wide-screen LCD as the more expensive S80 and S90i.
Physical buttons, as seen on the previous generation N-Series, give way to "soft" buttons accessed via the S50's touchscreen. Those on the main map screen are suitably large and can usually be accessed without too many issues when stopped at a traffic light. The menus are well laid out with the customary suite of large icons. We do wish there was a quicker way of jumping back to the map though -- it usually takes two clicks but can sometimes take more.
One of our big complaints when we tested other S-Series models was the infuriating in-car charging set-up attached to the windshield mount. The mount itself is a rather neat unit, being compact, yet providing plenty of articulation for the S50. It also has a levered suction cup, which means that it sticks to your windscreen even when you ride over the Roads and Traffic Authority's biggest and best potholes. To use the in-car charger when driving requires inserting the mini-USB into the mount, and then sliding the GPS unit into both said mount and USB plug. On the S30 and S90i we tested earlier, performing this jiggle was as difficult as aligning the planets. However with our S50 we were able to sit the device in its mount and attach the mini-USB plug on either the first or second attempt most days.
Justifying the AU$499 asking price -- AU$100 over the entry-level S30 -- is the S50's wider screen and Bluetooth hands-free. The bigger screen alleviates the cluttered, hemmed in feeling we had with the S30. On that device the turn instructions and status bar, as well as the collection of on-screen buttons, reduced the viewable map area quite considerably.
Using the S50's Bluetooth hands-free functionality with our Nokia 6110 Navigator was a hit-and-miss affair. We had no problems pairing the two up initially, nor making calls or receiving calls for that matter. However the next time we hopped in our car, the phone and the Navman refused to pair up. Eventually we pulled over to the side of the road, deleted the Navman's profile off the Nokia, and performed the whole discovery dance again. The problem is that we were turning the S50 off by pressing and holding the power switch, instead of putting the unit into standby mode, which is done by a quick tap of the power button. Once armed with this knowledge, Bluetooth worked fine ... most of the time. And when it didn't, we had to repeat the whole profile deletion and discovery jive once more. Frustrating. And we've heard tales of woe on our forums about particular phones not pairing up.
All S-Series models S50 and up include NavPix that allows you to navigate to geotagged images. Unless you're stumping up for the top-of-the-range S90i, which has a built-in camera, you'll have to hook your Navman up to a PC and download pics to navigate to. Given that we suspect most of our readers keep their GPS units in the car, we doubt that this feature will get used more than once or twice. Text-to-speech, which allows the reading out of street names, would have been a much more useful addition.
Like most portable GPS navigators out there, the S50 uses the SiRFStar III chipset and comes preloaded with the latest Sensis maps -- R14 in this instance. Gaining initial satellite lock took several minutes, as is the norm, but during this time the S50's refuses to calculate routes, and menu response is sluggish and sporadic. And because we often know the general direction we're facing, it ruined our routine of keying in a destination and then setting off while the GPS unit figures where the heck we are.
Once up and away, the navigation experience was acceptable but not extraordinary, and certainly not any different to previous Navman's which we've tested. It successfully guided us from A to B and back again, although the routes chosen were never quite the best. There was also the usual smattering of crazy routes with detours through back streets when ploughing straight on would've been sufficient. At least it refrained from guiding us through illegal u-turns whenever we strayed of its course. CBD performance was patchy, with the S50 often placing us in the wrong spot or losing us completely as the satellite signals got lost in the forest of concrete and glass.
So while it never lives up to the advertising claim that the S-Series is "better than a London cabbie", the S50 is a good GPS. And while we like the extra screen acreage, the buggy Bluetooth implementation is a worry. If you're dead keen on buying this Navman, we'd recommend haranguing sales staff into letting you try a unit before you buy -- just to ensure that your phone's Bluetooth works with it and that the USB plug lines up fine.