Depending on how you look at it, the NV-U84 is either the second or third highest device in the Sony NAV-U GPS lineup. There's no question that the NV-U94T is the flagship, but determining the NV-U84's value compared with its siblings is a tricky affair.
For one, it has the big 4.8-inch touch screen and higher price that imply that it's a step up the ladder from the 4.3-inch screen of the NV-U74T. On the other hand, it lacks most of the advanced features of the NV-U94T and U74T--such as Bluetooth and traffic data--which puts it at a huge disadvantage.
The NV-U84 features a downright huge 4.8-inch wide-screen display with a matte-finish gunmetal gray bezel. The device is 5.2 inches wide by 3.1 inches tall and is 0.8 inch thick. The top of the device is home to a sliding power switch. On the bottom are an open/release button, a Memory Stick Duo slot, a headphone jack, and inputs for charging over USB or with the included 12V power adapter.
The Super Suction Cup system combines the best parts of a suction cup and an adhesive Wacky Wall Walker to allow the device to attach to a vehicle's dashboard as easily as it attaches to the windshield. The attachment process begins with placing the sticky suction cup on the dash, then depressing a button to force the air out of the space between the surface and the cup. Finally, a lever is rotated to lock the device in place. It sounds like a bunch of steps, but it only takes a few seconds to attach. Once locked into place, a great amount of force is required to remove the Super Suction Cup, so there should be no worries about the device falling off during spirited driving.
The Super Suction Cup's mounting bracket features a redundant input for the 12v power adapter, making placing and removing the device a one-hand affair by eliminating the need to disconnect the power cable. The device can be used without the cradle and power adapter, but the internal battery only lasted about 2 hours on a full charge during our testing with Bluetooth and traffic activated.
The map screen features crisp graphics and an uncluttered interface, enhanced by the large amount of screen real estate provided by the large display. The bright backlight makes for easy viewing even in direct sunlight. The screen switches to a dual view as an intersection is approached to show detailed information about the upcoming turn, and on the highway the device shows a 3D representation of exits to notify the driver of what lane he or she should be in. While in dual view, the two views are separated by a bar that counts down the distance to the turn.
The menu features three main tabs for Navigate, Application, and Settings. The Navigate tab is where you'll find buttons for address entry and points-of-interest (POI) search, along with buttons for home and address book. The Application tab has the photo viewer and traffic information, but more on this later. The Settings tab holds the rest of the options, such as disabling the feature demonstration mode or changing map colors. The Settings menus require a bit of scrolling, so it's best to leave this tab alone unless the vehicle is stopped.
The internal speaker faces the rear and bounces sound off of the windshield, so ultimate sound quality will vary with mounting location and vehicle acoustics. Audio quality for the text-to-speech driving directions was good in our test vehicle, and the internal speaker was pretty loud. The NV-U94T supports the playback of JPEG photo slide shows from its Memory Stick Duo slot.
The gesture feature of the previous NAV-U line is still present, allowing quick access to select functions by "drawing" a command on the touch screen with your finger. For example, tracing the inverted-V shape of a rooftop sets Home as the destination. Other commands included drawing clockwise or counter-clockwise circles to zoom in/out to two preset scales.
When connected to USB, Sony offers a downloadable NAV-U tool that allows for backing up and updating map and voice data, as well as editing destinations stored in the address book, but it's nowhere near as robust as the software that comes with the Tom Tom devices. The process is as slow as cold molasses, so if you plan on using it, set aside about half an hour for the initial backup.
As mentioned earlier, the Applications menu features a button for Traffic Information, but the feature is not active on the device. Because the traffic antenna doesn't reside in the device, Navteq TMC traffic can be added with the purchase of an upgraded mounting bracket (similar to the one used on the NV-U94T) and a subscription to the Navteq traffic service. The mounting bracket costs $69, making the prospect of adding traffic to the NV-U84 more expensive than just buying the NV-U94T for $50 more.
The NV-U84 includes a feature called Position Plus, which uses accelerometers and a barometer to enhance the GPS system's accuracy in tracking vehicle location. Even if the satellite signal is completely lost, as in the case of driving through a long tunnel, the device can continue to track the vehicle's position and speed. When the system is using Position Plus, the position arrow on the map turns orange, notifying the user that they're operating without satellite assistance.
Satellite acquisition was quick, taking about 5 minutes for the first start with a clear view of the sky and less than a minute for subsequent starts. Once a destination is chosen, the NV-U84 very quickly routes the journey and does a good job of maintaining satellite contact, even amidst the tall buildings of downtown San Francisco.
The destination entry screen features a large QWERTY virtual keypad with big, easy-to-hit buttons. Sony has added an autocomplete function that pops up suggestions for street and city names to this generation of its GPS devices. The auto-complete function is a bit jumpy, popping over to a completely different screen to display results without warning. This screen change can be jarring when you're trying to quickly enter an address and the letter you were reaching for suddenly becomes the wrong street name. The system actually slowed down the destination entry, as we became more cautious of the search's erratic nature. It would be better if the autocomplete occurred within the search bar instead of on a new screen.
The POI database features brand icons for well-known brands like Quiznos Sub shops or Shell gas stations, which can be displayed on the map for easy location. If that's too cluttered for your liking, then the icons for some or all of the POIs can be turned off in a menu.
Text-to-speech functionality reads aloud street names, aiding in keeping eyes on the road when looking for a turn. If a turn is missed, the NV-U84 very quickly reroutes, but it can take it a few moments to realize that the turn has been missed. At times we were able to get as far as a full city block off course before the device started recalculating. We'd think that the Position Plus feature would help to reduce this lag. The recalculation process itself usually only takes a few seconds.
The NV-U84's price puts the $349 device in interesting company. For the same amount of money, you could have the Garmin Nuvi 265WT, which includes free lifetime traffic and hands-free Bluetooth. Faced with this sort of competition, the only compelling reason to choose the Sony is its slightly larger screen. Unless you have some sort of hard-core aversion to Bluetooth and traffic info, you'll have to step up to the NV-U94T or down to the NV-U74T to get a good value for your dollar in the Sony lineup.