As the entry-level model in the Sony NAV-U line of portable GPS devices, the NV-U44 has a fairly basic feature set. There's no Bluetooth hands-free. There's no traffic information. There's no multimedia playback. For your $249 dollars, the only feature that you get beyond basic navigation is a photo viewer.
However, for many consumers the basics are all that is needed. In this respect, the NV-U44 does a pretty good job of creating a good navigation experience without breaking the bank.
After opening the NV-U44's plastic blister pack, you'll find a car cradle with suction cup, a 12-volt power adapter, a USB cable, a dash mounting adhesive puck, various instruction papers, and the NV-U44 itself, in one of three colors: black, silver, or red.
The device itself is fairly small, measuring about 3.75 inches by 4.3 inches, and able to fit rather easily in the palm of one's hand. The 2.1-inch depth makes the device very pocketable. The rounded edges and understated design make the NV-U44 one of the more attractive of the GPS devices in its price point.
The 3.5-inch screen is easy to view in daylight and has a sharpish resolution of 320x240. While the screen's antiglare coating prevents all but the greasiest fingerprints from showing up, the glossy bezel picks up fingerprints and smudges easily. The NV-U44 has a very different aesthetic from the larger members of the NAV-U lineup, but the general configuration is similar. Two buttons are located on the left side of the screen, one to call up the menu and another for voice/pos. On the left side of the device is a slot for the Memory Stick Pro Duo. On the top is the power button, and on the bottom are the reset button and the USB port used for charging the device and connecting to a computer. There is no lock switch, because the power button requires such a deliberate press and hold to actuate.
The NV-U44 mounts to the windshield--or any smooth, nonporous surface--with a suction cup that locks into place with a lever. For dashboard mounting, Sony has included an adhesive puck, which can be stuck on the dash to provide a smooth surface for the suction cup.
The menus and menu structure of the NV-U44 is familiar because it's the same operating system as the rest of the NAV-U lineup. The interface scales nicely to this much smaller screen, with virtual buttons that are easy to hit and crisp text and graphics. There are a few odd spots to the shared interface. For example, the only application is the Photo viewer, which makes the Application tab look empty with wasted space. Overall, however, the truncated list of options does make for an experience more focused on navigation, than the larger models in the NAV-U line.
The NV-U44 features a Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo slot on its left side and is able to display photo slide shows if JPEG images are present on an inserted Memory Stick.
Sony has implemented its Gesture Command System on the NV-U44, which allows quick navigation using simple finger movements. For example, drawing an inverted "V" shape, which resembles the roofline of a house, causes the NV-U44 to set the destination to Home and begin navigation. The problem with the gestures is that they aren't well documented. There's only a casual mention of the feature in the instruction manual, and Sony's Web site wasn't much help, either. After much searching, we were able to find but five commands: the previously mentioned "Home" command, clockwise and counter-clockwise circles for "zoom in" and "zoom out," and an L-shape and a reversed L-shape for user preset one and two.
The device also allows the storage of two quick links in the "Find a Place" menu for easy retrieval of POIs that are often chosen. The quick links can be defined by name, category, or both. For example, I could store "Gas Station" as a quick link to pull up all gas stations nearby, "Shell" to pull up all POIs that begin with the word "Shell," or "Gas Station: Shell" to pull up all Shell Gas Station nearby. This is a neat feature if you have a favorite restaurant or belong to a gas-buying rewards program.
Many of the POIs stored on the device feature brand icons that can be selectively displayed on the map, which is again good for finding the nearest gas station or hotel, but can easily clutter the screen if too many icons are selected.
Route planning is also available, which allows the programming of multiple destinations and the storing of custom routes. This is useful for setting a group of locations for daily errands or, more creatively, programming in points for a tour of a new city. Checkpoint entry is fast, thanks to the fact that the NV-U44 doesn't calculate the route until all checkpoints have been entered.
There is also an address book, which allows the addition of favorite destinations across multiple groups. You can also back your address book up to Memory Stick or import address book items from a friend.
Beginning with a cold start, the device took about 10 minutes to get a satellite lock, which is a bit longer than we'd have liked. Subsequent starts were quicker, taking less than a minute on average.
The NV-U44 uses the same Navteq software package to power its maps and routing and the same Sony GUI as the rest of the NAV-U family of devices. Despite having the smallest screen of the bunch, destination entry was just as smooth as the much larger NV-U94T with quick predictive text entry that suggested street names and points-of-interest as you type. Of course, the same criticisms exist for the NV-U44 as its larger brethren. We still think that the search is a bit jumpy, often switching screens just as we reached for the next letter, causing us to accidentally choose one of the presented options. After a few fumbling attempts, we found that our typing speed actually slowed down a bit, as we hesitated to hit the next button for fear that it'd have changed at the last moment.
Once we'd gotten a satellite lock and entered a destination, the NV-U44 did a good job of staying on track when there is a clear view of the sky. Upon entering the densely packed tall building of downtown San Francisco or long tunnels, the signal dropped out for a moment or so, but the device quickly reacquired a lock when the skies cleared up.
The detailed view split screen of the larger NAV-U devices is also present on the NV-U44, though the much smaller screen means that the split is no longer 50/50. Instead, the detailed view takes up most of the screen while the broad view is compressed to almost a sliver on the right side. Separating the views is a meter that counts down the distance to the turn, which we found very useful. When approaching a complex freeway exit, lane guidance appears on the bottom of the screen and in the detailed view, notifying the driver of what lanes are valid and what direction he should be headed.
Text-to-speech is a great feature that we're only recently starting to see on entry-level models. This feature reads street names aloud, which means that you--the driver--can spend more time with your eyes on the road and less time reading the screen. The NV-U44's internal speaker is plenty loud and instructions and prompts are very easy to hear over road noise.
The Sony NV-U44 is a solidly performing entry-level GPS navigator. The few features that it has are very focused on basic, no-frills navigation. That being said, the NV-U44 offers good performance, on par with its two most obvious rivals, the Garmin Nuvi 255W and the TomTom One 130S. All three devices have the same MSRP ($249) and all feature text-to-speech functionality. What the Sony offers over the competition is the dual view with lane guidance, which proves invaluable for users in cities with complex highway systems.