Review: Magellan RoadMate App and The Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone

One of the great selling points of the iPhone is its ability to take the place of many of the individual electronic gadgets that rule our lives, and consolidate them into one all-powerful gadget that we cannot live without. In addition to a phone, MP3 player, and digital still/video camera, starting with the iPhone 3G, the iPhone can also serve as a standalone car GPS replacement. There are now a fairly large assortment of GPS apps available for the iPhone, and surprisingly many of them are from big name GPS manufacturers such as Tom Tom and Magellan. It’s apparent that these companies can read the writing on the wall and have realized that the future of GPS is the cell phone, and their future as a company will rely more and more on providing the GPS software over the hardware they are used to producing.

That being said, it doesn’t mean the iPhone’s GPS receiver is quite up to the task of replacing a dedicated GPS unit yet, and Magellan has recognized the need for a more robust iPhone/GPS solution. Their answer to the problem is their Magellan RoadMate GPS app, and their Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone, a hardware docking cradle with its own GPS receiver to replace the sometimes flaky iPhone receiver.

Because you can use the software without the cradle, and the cradle without the software (the Car Kit’s GPS will work with any core location app) I will split this review into two parts, one for the app, one for the hardware.

The RoadMate App

There are many GPS apps now available on the iPhone, and while the prices/pricing schemes vary wildly from MotionX to Tom Tom to Navigon to Magellan (and even good old AT&T), to me the price isn’t nearly as important as the intuitiveness of the app and the accuracy of the maps. I have tested out all of the above apps, and quite frankly they are all very useable, and also all have their own problems (at least in MY mind). Of course what annoys me about one app might be your favorite feature, so if you know someone who has one of these apps, it would be a great idea to test it before you buy it. That being said, here are my thoughts on the Magellan RoadMate App.

The Magellan RoadMate App comes in 3 flavors: North America US/Canada ($59.99), USA ($49.99), and Canada/Alaska ($34.99). I’m using the USA version. 

The Good

The RoadMate App looks pretty much identical the one found in Magellan’s stand alone GPS units, and that’s a good thing. Menus are readable and the  colors of roads and routes are pleasing to the eye and easy to figure out. I won’t go so far as to say the interface is insanely intuitive, but I would not say that about ANY GPS app. If you are not currently a Magellan GPS customer, odds are you will need to poke around a bit to really get a feel for how Magellan likes to do things. However Magellan HAS implemented a couple nice touches to make navigation a bit easier than other GPS apps, and chief among them would be their “One Touch” menu, a customizable menu that gives you one-touch access to any of the RoadMates’ most commonly used features. For example, if you always want to have quick access to the nearest gas station or coffee house, you can add that as a button to the one-touch menu (which can always be accessed fro the bottom right of the map screen while driving).

The RoadMate is an all around solid GPS app with all the features you’d expect from a company with Magellan’s track record. Night mode driving maps, route simulation, find my car, highway lane assist (very cool), QuickSpell Address Entry, Dual-Destination Routing, Speed limit warnings (more on that in the “issues” section), auto-zoom, etc.  

But Magellan also added a couple nice touches not found on every GPS app, such a Pedestrian mode, 3D Landmarks, iPod music control, and the ability to click on Points of interest on the map (such as gas stations, restaurants, etc.) and call them from within the app itself. 

But by far the best feature is the voice guidance, which includes “free” Text to speech (TTS) spoken guidance, which means the app will actually speak the name of the street for you. I say “free” because while you do have to pay $50 for the app, there are no recurring subscription fees for this feature as there are with some other apps. There are 2 choices (1 male, 1 female) for the text to speech voices, and 3 “standard” navigation voices, which sound more natural, but are limited to ” In 100 feet, turn left” type directions instead of ” In 100 feet, turn left onto Elm Street” as the TTS voices do.

One final thing worth mentioning is a pet peeve of mine on many GPS apps that Magellan got right on the RoadMate app, which is the way they handle exiting a highway. Many apps will have the spoken voice simply say “keep right in 1 mile”, “prepare to keep right”, and “keep right” as you get close to a highway exit. RoadMate correctly says “Prepare to EXIT the highway in 1 mile at exit…”. When exiting, I do not want to be told to “keep right”, it’s an exit, not a highway split. Anyway, Magellan does this correctly, so this rant is for the other app makers.

Issues

All in all the RoadMate app is a very nicely thought out GPS app with the end user clearly in mind. However that doesn’t mean I can’t complain about some things. My main issue with the app is the volume of the voices. If you  are simply listening to the GPS (meaning no music from your iPod) then the volume of the voices is fine, but if you are listening to music, and the voice chimes it, you will not be able to hear it in most cases. The music audio fades, which is nice, but I suppose the voice audio is just not as loud as the music volume, and I very often found it hard to tell what the voice was saying. The good thing is since it mutes your songs while giving directions, you know that SOMETHING is coming up, so you can glance at the map, but I would prefer a louder voice volume in relation to the music volume. There is an option to amplify the audio, but this doesn’t seem to do much more than distort it a bit.



Speaking of audio (and yes, I’m still pretty young and have decent hearing), there is also an EXTREMELY subtle “chime” that dings right before the RoadMate tells you to do something. This sound might as well not even be there for how soft it is. Again, boost the volume. 

My second complaint has to deal with one of the main reasons you buy a GPS app – the accuracy of the maps. The very first location I tried to use the RoadMate for was to find the IKEA in Elizabeth NJ. I clicked on POI (Points of Interest) typed in IKEA, and was presented with every IKEA on the planet except the one that is only 16 miles from my house, even ones I know we built 10 years AFTER the Elizabeth one. Luckily I could fire up Google Maps, get the address, and manually type in the address, but it was still a bad start. A search for other locations over the months yielded better results, although on a trip to the circus it did not know the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton has been the Sun National Bank Center for a year or two. So if the app could ideally access Google’s incredibly up-to-date database for POI, that would be welcome.

My final minor issue is the way the RoadMate app handles speed limit warnings. This can be useful if you do a lot of highway driving and wish to avoid a ticket – the app will actually let you know when you are going to fast based on what you set as your personal threshold for “too fast”. The problem I have is, while most other apps I’ve seen let you set this threshold as a number (ie. 5 mph over, 10 mph over…) the RoadMate uses a percentage slider. And the really odd thing is its goes below the speed limit as well. Maybe this is for trucks or something I am not aware of that for some reason need to drive a certain amount BELOW the speed limit, but the need escapes me, and I don’t want to do any math when setting this level.

Conclusion

When GPS apps first appeared on the App Store, many were in the neighborhood of $100, and many others charge yearly subscription fees as well, making the choice between buying a GPS app for the iPhone or buying a more robust actual hardware GPS unit difficult. The Magellan RoadMate comes in at a very affordable $50 with no monthly/yearly subscription fees. The interface is among the best we’ve seen, and the ability to customize the One-Touch menu is a great time saver that makes navigating while driving quicker and safer. I have some issues with the volume of the alerts and spoken words, and I did notice the maps are not as current as Google (but then, who’s are?) but it’s still a solid performer.

Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone

When you’ve tried out as many iPhone GPS  apps as I have, one thing becomes painfully obvious – the iPhone’s GPS receiver is no match for a stand alone GPS. Oh sure, it will get you where you’re going, but there will be a lot of “searching for Signal” and recalculating along the way. Much of the time you may not even notice you’ve lost a signal depending on the app you’re using. For example, a MotionX GPS user might only notice it if they glance at the screen and see the “signal globe” has turned red, where a Navigon user may suddenly hear “When possible, make a U-Turn” only to have the GPS location catch up a few seconds later. The somewhat flaky GPS receiver in the iPhone is the reason behind Megellan’s decision to release its own hardware GPS receiver/cradle meant to supplant the one used in the iPhone.

The Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone costs $130, which is no small chunk of change considering you can buy a not so low end GPS from Magellan or Tom Tom for $130 (or less!). So, does it make sense to spend so much on a piece of hardware designed to give your iPhone’s GPS reception a boost? No. But the Magellan Premium Car Kit actually does a little bit more than just that. Read on.

The Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone is more than a GPS receiver – it’s also an iPhone charging cradle, docking station, bluetooth Speaker Phone, and it provides an audio out port to your car’s mini stereo in as well. All those things combined might come close to the $130 price tag on their own, but throw in the GPS receiver and the value becomes more apparent.

Design-wise the Car Kit is nicely put together. To the right of the cradle are the power and audio out cables (you must have an available cigarette adapter for power) and both cables are generously long enough for use in most cars. 

There is a sturdily made suction cup base that will adhere to any glass surface (more on that in my issues section) and it can rotate a full 360 degrees, although you’ll want to affix it with the rubber tab facing down to help support the neck from drooping (at least on vertical smooth surfaces – see the ISSUES section). The dock connector can tilt forward to aid in inserting your iPhone, and the top of the unit can extend to make it possible to use the Car Kit with an iPhone that is still in its case. Not being able to use a car adapter with a case is one of my main gripes with just about every other solution out there, so kudos to Magellan. 

On the left side there is a volume knob to control speaker phone volume, and on the bottom there is a blue LED that will light up when paired via bluetooth. Pairing was idiot proof, and the iPhone discovered the Magellan immediately (although your car DOES need to be turned on).

On top of all else it has going for it, the Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone has something you might not expect from its name – it works with the 2nd gen or newer iPod touches as well! Of course since the iPod touch does not have 3G access, you will need to use a GPS app (like Magellan’s own RoadMate app) that downloads about 2 GB of maps to your device, instead of downloading as you go, like Google Maps does, but it works well and can give a 2nd life to an older iPod touch.

And yes, the coolest thing about the MPCK is that as good as the RoadMate app is, if you already have a GPS app you like, odds are it works with the cradle. Magellan says any Core Location GPS app should take advantage of the Magellan receiver, so you’re not locked into Magellan’s App if you don’t want to.

GPS reception

From the moment we began testing the MPCK for iPhone we noticed a definite improvement in signal strength. Throughout NJ, Pennsylvania and New York the reception never once dropped, although we DID notice some odd behavior in NYC. While the car kit had no problem getting us into the city and to a selected parking garage early in the morning, on our way out, around 5 PM the thing went CRAZY, and could not seem to lock onto our location. Or car kept updating locations, usually incorrectly, and the constant “recalculating” drove us nuts. We tried unplugging, reinserting the iPhone, etc with no luck until we were out of the city center, and then things went back to normal. While I can understand it can be confusing to triangulate a good GPS position in a canyon of buildings full of interference, driving in NYC would be one of the main reasons I would GET a GPS, so I was a little disappointed there. I have no explanation for why it worked in the morning and not in the evening, aside from some weird atmospheric explanation, but that was our only reception issue in our fairly extensive tests.

Issues

One thing I wish the Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone needs is some sort of setting for what type of audio will play from the built-in speaker. For example, the volume wheel on the side of the device controls speakerphone volume, but if you are playing music, it also comes out of the speaker. I can’t think of any situation where this would be useful, as the somewhat tinny sound competes with the sound coming through my car’s stereo. There should definitely be a setting to make it an either/or affair.

My other major complaint appears to be more of a complaint against my Toyota Camry than the Magellan, although at first I was all set to blame the unit (and as it turns out the Magellan DOES have some explaining to do). As some long time readers may remember, I have been having a hell of a time finding a decent car mount for my Toyota Camry. The Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone seemed like a Godsend as it was the first charging cradle with a suction cup mount that actually fit perfectly on the smooth plastic front of my radio display. I hate the look and functionality of a windshield placed mount, and for almost 3 months the MPCK worked wonders. However, starting about 2 weeks ago it began losing suction, and can now no longer stay attached for more than 24 hours without falling off. I’ve tried cleaning the cup and glass with alcohol with no luck. I initially wanted to blame the suction cup, thinking perhaps with the summer heat it had become too soft to stick, but after placing on a side window for 4 days straight with no issue, it became obvious that if heat was indeed the issue, it was affecting the Camry’s plastic, not the Magellan.

However, in testing the suction cup on actual glass, I’ve found that while it has no problem sticking to glass, the support neck is oddly not well-suited for glass placement. Invariably, no matter how you position the cup, the iPhone cradle sags under the weight of the iPhone, especially when suctioned onto an inclined surface such as the front windshield. So unless you have “real” glass on a vertical surface like your central dashboard area or don’t mind placing the cradle awkwardly on the driver’s side window (and blocking the side mirror and having power/audio cords cross your steering wheel) I feel you may not be happy with the mounting possibilities of the MPCK.

Finally, I have found that the Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone does not appear to work all that well with the iPhone 4. When I placed the iPhone 4 in the cradle, I initially heard the charging “chirp”, but once fully in the iPhone stopped charging, and the 2 GPS apps I tried exhibited odd behavior. I have since discovered that the iPhone 4 will charge in the Car Kit when tilted forward for some reason, but when you insert it fully the charge icon turns off, as does the audio. If you try really hard, you CAN finesse the the iPhone into a location that allows it charge and play audio, but it is by no means as sturdy a connection as with the iPhone 4. There is a switch on the back of the Car Kit that helps adjust the fit for the iPod touch, and this helps a bit, but not quite enough.

Conclusion

The Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone definitely delivers on its promise of improved GPS reception across multiple iPhone GPS apps (so long as you do not have an iPhone 4). The ability to use an iPod touch instead of an iPhone is also a nice touch, as is the built-in bluetooth speaker phone. While we did experience a bit of GPS interference in New York City, everywhere else the signal was rock solid. Unfortunately, the somewhat floppy “neck” on the device makes finding an ideal mounting location inside a car difficult, and this in turn makes it more or less useless as there is no other way to mount the device.

Comments
5 Responses to “Review: Magellan RoadMate App and The Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone”
  1. Darwin says:

    It would be useful to know how much better the GPS is in the iPhone 4. It seems a lot better in mine.

  2. Bob says:

    FYI, mine worked with the 3GS, but doesn’t work with the 4!!

  3. Mike says:

    I have had the MPCK since February and have found quite a few quirks with the device. First of all the volume is incredibly soft coming out of the speaker even at full volume. I have since discovered that if I start the application prior to placing the iPhone in the dock the volume is much louder and actually audible while driving. Unfortunately as soon as you get a call or something else pulls you out of the app, the increased volume goes away and it becomes inaudible again. Secondly, ever since the upgrade to iOS4 on my 3GS I have experienced numerous occasions where it will start charging, stop charging, start charging basically every 20 seconds or so and it plays the charging chirp every time it turns back on which can be incredibly annoying not to mention distracting when you are trying to get directions. It does increase the GPS reception which is nice however sometimes it does get a little crazy and starts jumping my position all over the place and I have to undock the iPhone and then dock it again. My third complaint is the placement of the speaker. I don’t understand why they would place a speaker on the unit so that the sound is traveling away from you instead of towards you. When you place the unit in the window and then angle it so you can see it, you either point the speaker towards the floor, towards the windshield or towards the passenger side depending on how you have the iPhone in the unit. There is no way to have the speaker point towards you and still be able to see the screen. Had they positioned the speaker on the front it might help with the volume issues. Overall it’s a good piece of hardware as long as you have an aux cable to plug it in and aren’t going to rely on the speaker.

  4. Lenn says:

    I purchased the Magellan Premium Car Kit for my iTouch from a local retailer here in Vancouver BC Canada and the RoadMate US & Canada from iTunes store.
    I am reasonably pleased with the performance, even though the interface could be more intuitive.
    There are a few irritants from perspective that bears mentioning:
    1. Every so often when I start up the system, The GPS will not find my current location and the only way out of this is to reboot my itouch! Strange to say but RoadMate doesn’t seem to provide a RESET button. I am still trying to find out how to avoid getting into this fix.
    2. The address book only works with a few of my addresses, and nothing in the instructions seems to indicate if there is a special for required in order for RoadMate to find these addresses.
    If there is someone out there with solutions for this, I would appreciate your suggestions

  5. Steve says:

    I downloaded the magellan 2110 USA and it reads that the GPS reciever has been turned off. I cannot find how to turn it on.
    Any Ideas?

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