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Navman S90i review: Navman S90i


Like the rest of its updated GPS line, you can have the Navman S90i in any colour you'd like -- as long as you really, really like silver. In real terms, the only functional difference between the S90i, which is the top of the current pecking order, and the much cheaper S30 is the physical size of the display screen. The S30 makes do with a 3.5-inch display, while the S90i has a more luxurious 4.3-inch display. The S90i is entirely touch-screen based and those who have used Navman's previous models may bemoan the lack of simple buttons for easy map access to fuel, maps and other data, although we quickly got used to their absence. This is largely because Navman's taken a good, hard look at its interfaces, and those of its competition, and come up with menu structures that don't just ape the best, but improve upon it in almost every circumstance.


Navman S90i

The Good

Great interface. Easy to use POI. Excellent text-to-speech. Bluetooth.

The Bad

Awful USB cradle. Intermittently insane directions.

The Bottom Line

We'd love to heartily endorse the S90i but, like the spurned high school prom queen in every slasher flick ever made, its surface beauty is marred by intermittent spurts of insanity, and so we can't.

As a car-based GPS system, the S90i comes with a car mounting arm and charging system. We have few problems with the car mounting arm; it's small, easy to attach and to remove, and the S90i slots onto it with a minimum of fuss. If only the same were true for the mini-USB adaptor that charges the unit while you drive. Just as we noted with the S30, the S90i's adaptor position needs to be in exactly the right position to work, and the right position is very hard to find. To make matters worse, the charging light is on the top of the S90i, right where you can't easily see whether it's working or not. Even trying to place the USB charger first, then the GPS made no appreciable difference to our success rate. In the end, we used a car charger from a different GPS, which actually slotted in much easier than Navman's own, even through the custom car holster holding. Now that's bad design, any way you paint it.

The basic hardware that underlies GPS systems is, if you'll pardon us, incredibly boring. Yes, the S90i uses the SiRFStar III chipset, along with Sensis data. Just the same as everyone else. Those with tinted car windows can attach an optional antenna to boost signal pickup -- just like everyone else. The S90i positions itself as a premium GPS, so it comes with Bluetooth, support for TMC information -- only available in Melbourne at the time of writing -- and text-to-speech for reading out road names. We have to admit to being mightily impressed with the S90i's text-to-speech capabilities; while most GPS units have robotic voices that mangle Australian street names, the S90i got most pronunciations right -- or at least close enough that we could still navigate without worrying that our GPS had been mysteriously taken over by Daleks.

The S90i is also the only model in the S-Series that supports Navpix and comes with an integrated camera. Yes, the AU$699 S80 and AU$499 S50 have Navpix support, but only for downloaded pictures. As such, you can download a picture of Uluru and drive there, but there's scant support for adding that picture of Aunty Maude's house. If you want that functionality, the S90i is the only place you're going to get it.

We like a challenge here at CNET.com.au, so we pitted the S90i against another GPS. In this case, it was the much cheaper Mio C320, forcing the S90i to really work hard to justify the rather large difference in price between the two units. Not only that, but we didn't just throw them in a car and drive around a few Sydney streets to get a rough feel for how the GPS might work. Instead, we installed both in a car, threw in three young children (to provide the necessary distractions from GPS instructions) and drove them all from Sydney to Adelaide, and then back again. Don't ever say we don't suffer in the name of getting a review just right.

On the way to Adelaide, the S90 emerged as a very solid contender; both units gave decent directions, but the ease with which we could bring up points of interest, check the digital log book and take shots of where we'd stayed (so we could easily return on the backwards leg) seemed to easily make up for the AU$350 RRP difference between the two units. We were also impressed with how the S90i used its text to speech capability to point out which towns we should be aiming for, making road signs much easier to follow.

The return leg, however, proved to be a much different beast. Now, we'll admit that we're not as familiar with Adelaide as we'd like to be, and as such, we were heavily reliant on the S90i to get out of Adelaide and back on the way to Sydney. As the S90i had done such a great job getting us there, we set it up to get us out of Glenelg and on our way. We thought its directions were a little odd at first, as we seemed to be going in a new and strange direction, and on to a bit of freeway we weren't entirely confident of. It was only when we switched from the 3D map to the full route map that we worked out why things seemed so unfamiliar. The S90i had, thanks to its own insanity, decided that the quickest and fastest way to get from Sydney to Adelaide was to drive through a small country town that some of you may be familiar with. It's called Melbourne, and when we realised that the S90i had sent us thirty minutes in precisely the wrong direction, we were tempted to call the S90i plenty of names. Even a couple of hard resets couldn't get it to change its insane directional call. It was only after giving it a couple of hours to sit and stew in a warm glove compartment that the S90i came around to directing us in a more sane direction.

GPS systems ultimately must be ones that you trust, and we're used to the odd wacky direction from a GPS; these are usually only out by a city block or two, or involve routes that may be technically shorter but perhaps involve more traffic lights. Getting it wrong to the tune of several hundred kilometres, on the other hand, is a far more serious breach of trust. To give the S90i its due, it did manage some very slick navigation afterwards, perhaps in an effort to make up for its previous grievous error; one bit of particularly nifty navigation saw us take just about every back street in Sydney and cross from Liverpool to Hornsby in peak hour traffic in under one hour, which is practically black magic.

In the minor quirk category, we did manage to get the S90i to successfully pair up with a Bluetooth mobile phone -- in this case, an O2 XDA Atom Life -- but only after working out that our review model would only pair when Bluetooth was switched off. We're still not sure how that's meant to be right.

The S90i has a lot going for it, even in the premium GPS space. We adore Navpix, love the new Navman interface and anxiously await the arrival of TMC services outside of Melbourne so that we can test them fully. At the same time, the USB charger is an abomination that should never have made it outside the development laboratory, and the unit's major bout of insanity kept us exceedingly wary of using it without checking every direction it gave first -- and that basically makes the point of having a GPS very moot indeed.