Longtime mapmaker Rand McNally may have taken the long route, but it's finally made its way to the land of portable navigation systems. The Rand McNally GPS Navigator ($499.99) is the company's first in-car GPS device and includes many of the standard features of other nav systems, such as text- and voice-guided driving directions, automatic rerouting, an extensive points-of-interest (POI) database, and a 3.5-inch touch screen with 2D and 3D map views. The company also throws in a couple of extras, including a hard copy of Rand McNally's Road Atlas & Travel Planner and 26 Best of Road trip itineraries with staff-recommended attractions, restaurants, and shops--great for those who love taking long road trips or for family vacations. That said, we found the system's maps and interface to be a bit confusing--with a few refinements, it could certainly hold its own against competitors such as theand the .
The Rand McNally GPS Navigator's design is basic and functional. Like most portable nav systems today, it's compact and light (4.5x3.2x1.4 inches; 7 ounces) so you can move it from one car to another. On the right spine, there are controls to power the unit on and off, launch the navigation app, and increase and decrease volume. Be warned, when you adjust the sound, the female (or male, depending on which option you chose during setup) voice prompt will say "Louder" or "Softer" as you adjust the sound. Though we thought this was cool at first, we grew tired of it (and the stares and snickers from onlookers) after the first couple of tries and would have preferred a visual prompt instead.
On front of the unit is a 3.5-inch QVGA touch screen. It displays 65,000 colors and is still readable in direct sunlight. The display was also responsive to our commands, but we found the onscreen keyboard small and cramped. Fortunately, the Rand McNally GPS Navigator comes equipped with a stylus (located on the lower-right side), so you don't have to struggle as you enter street addresses. In the user interface, the main menu pages are pretty straightforward, with large icons and clear identification. However, the map screen can get confusing because the information bar isn't clearly marked and the icons don't necessarily match the function. As such, we recommend you give the quick-start guide a read before heading out on your trip.
On the bottom of the Rand McNally GPS Navigator is a reset hole, a mini USB port, and a main power switch, which you have to fiddle with only once to initially turn on the unit. The SD card slot is located on top of the device. Rand McNally packages the GPS Navigator with an SD card preloaded with maps, a copy of the Road Atlas & Travel Planner, a vehicle mount (windshield and dash), a car charger, a USB cable, software CDs, and reference material.
The Rand McNally GPS Navigator is equipped with an integrated 20-channel SiRFstarIII GPS receiver and comes with maps of North America, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands preloaded on an SD card. The unit is a plug-and-go solution, so all you have to do is insert the card into the expansion slot and start navigating once you have a GPS fix. You will, however, have to go through several quick and easy setup questions (selecting language preference and regional map, for example) the first time you turn on the device.
For navigation, you have the options of entering a specific address, planning a multidestination trip, or simply having the device track your location as you go about your daily routine. To save time, you can also select locations from your Favorites list and recent destinations. If at any point you need directions from your current location to your house, just select the Go Home icon from the main menu.
For longer road trips, Plan Trip is a great tool. Here, you can plan multiple stops along your route, and it's also where you can find Rand McNally's Best of Road trip itineraries with staff-recommended attractions, restaurants, and shops. There are 26 all together, and they include such excursions as "A Pacific Northwest Passage" and "Quintessential New England." Each entry includes an introduction about the journey and which states and attractions it covers. You can access the entire collection by tapping the folder icon with the Rand McNally logo on it; all of the information is also printed in the supplemental copy of Road Atlas & Traveler Planner. This is really a nice feature for those who enjoy road trips or for families on vacation.
Of course, you can also supplement the attractions listed above with the unit's points-of-interest (POI) database, which contains all the basics (gas stations, hotels, ATMs, and so forth) and more specialized categories, including video and game rental shops, health clubs, and churches. You can also search for restaurants by type of cuisine. As we have found on a number of GPS devices we've tested, the Rand McNally GPS Navigator's POI database was a bit outdated.
The GPS Navigator calculates routes by fastest time or shortest distance, and you can instruct it to allow or avoid interstates, ferry ways, or toll roads. You're not just limited to operating on four wheels either, as there are bicycle or pedestrian modes as well. You can access all of these options under the Settings menu. Other navigation features on this device include automatic route recalculation, a detour function, and a route demo.
The map view is where we found the Rand McNally GPS Navigator to stumble behind the competition. Though it offers 2D and 3D views with day and night map colors, the map screen can get confusing. First, in 3D mode, it's sometimes hard to tell which street names correspond with which road, and if you choose to enable POI icons on your maps, the number of graphics that inundate the screen can be overwhelming. Also, as we mentioned in the Design section, the information bar that lines the top of the screen isn't completely intuitive. Some functions are apparent--for example, the magnifying glasses clearly signify the zoom feature--while others are a mystery. The two that really perplexed us were the I icon, which repeats the voice directions, and the A to B button, which zooms out to view the entire route. In addition, the icons are tiny, so it's easy to press the wrong function. Fortunately, the visual cues along the bottom of the map screen that show your next turn, street name, and so forth, are much clearer and easier to understand. Plus, you always have the voice prompts to rely on for guidance. The GPS Navigator does not support text-to-speech functionality.
Finally, the Rand McNally GPS Navigator also has a built-in MP3 player. It supports only the MP3 file format, but you can create and edit playlists right on the device, adjust sound with the equalizer, and repeat tracks.
We took the Rand McNally GPS Navigator on a test-drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, and the unit performed admirably. From a cold start, the GPS Navigator took about two minutes to obtain a GPS fix, and subsequent starts were much faster; plus, the unit was quick to return with a prescribed route. Before we started our journey to Southern California, we ran some errands about town, and it accurately tracked our position. Once on the road to Santa Barbara, the system provided accurate directions and it also got us back on track quickly after we got off course. Unfortunately, we didn't have the opportunity to check out one of the 26 Best of Road trips since none of them fit into our route.