Magellan RoadMate 2200T GPS receiver review

Mostly unremarkable and therefore brilliant

The Magellan 2200T portable GPS unit is mostly unremarkable. And that's brilliant. But before I tell you why I think that, let me tell you a little about how I came to buy one because that may be relevant to knowing why I think what I do.

I'm a confirmed gadget dork. I own more than one iPod. When I saw a buddy's DS Lite, I knew that I had to have one. I have two sets of lightweight headphones for different purposes. I live in Minneapolis, but my cellphone was never sold by an American carrier. I once bought a Japanese-market laptop.

And I considered getting a portable GPS unit more than once. But looking at the products on the websites of two main manufacturers, Garmin and Magellan, is an exercise in annoyance. It's true that, from a marketing perspective, It makes sense to "segment" a market by selling different products at different price points to people who are willing to pay different amounts of money. But these guys are nuts. As of this writing, counting just portable GPS units that are intended for use in cars, Magellan sells 11 of them and and Garmin sells 21. Who wants to read through the marketing drivel for that many products in order to try to figure out which one you really want?

The companies further annoy potential customers by leaving things out of the box that you're going to want and so have to pay extra for. Such as maps in some cases. Or enough storage to hold the maps for the whole U.S. I can't think of a product category in which the manufacturers do a better job of alienating potential customers. They certainly put me off a few times.

But then I used a car GPS unit on unfamiliar roads in difficult driving conditions. I was traveling alone to visit a buddy who lives in a small town in Maine. Northwest Airlines cancelled the leg of my flight from Detroit to Portland, Maine a few days before my trip and so I had to fly into Manchester, New Hampshire. The drive from Manchester into Maine looked like it would take a little more than two hours and I had good maps and good directions. That shouldn't be a big deal. I've done any number of drives like that in the past without any trouble. But the route was reasonably complicated, my plane would be landing late in the afternoon, and the weather forecast for the area wasn't all that good. So I called up Hertz the day before I left and told them I wanted a car with a GPS. They said that that wouldn't be a problem.

Getting in my car in the Hertz lot in Manchester, I found that making their "NeverLost" GPS unit work was snap. Which it would really have to be since otherwise they would have a bunch of annoyed customers going back into airports demanding that someone show them how the thing works. Hertz and Magellan must have done a lot of usability testing to make the unit as easy to use as it is.

Following the unit's guidance, I made a wrong turn just out of the airport. That was because I had mistaken the scale of the map it was displaying. But even that turned out to be just fine because it calmly displayed "Recomputing route" and told me where to go from where I had gone to. From there to the end of the trip (and, indeed, the return to Manchester) I had not the slightest difficulty reading its map or following its spoken directions. The Hertz unit was mounted near the passenger's left knee. It might have annoyed a passenger slightly but it worked fine for me. It was a little like playing Mario Kart DS, with the moving map below the view forward.

And it was great that the NeverLost worked so well and was so easy to use because it rained the whole way and most of the trip was in the dark. The rain varied between heavy and ridiculously heavy for almost all of the trip. I had the car's windshield wipers at their highest setting pretty well all the time and I occasionally wished for a higher setting. People were driving 45 MPH on highways posted for 65 and some of the roads in my buddy's town were flooded.

In circumstances like those, turning on the car's dome light to read a map or directions would have been pretty unsafe. And the limited amount of information I would have managed to gather doing that under those circumstances combined with the very limited visibility outside would certainly have resulted in my making several wrong turns and often having a suspicion that I had gone wrong even when I hadn't.

But the NeverLost's bright moving-map and voice instructions took me directly to where I was going. The noise of the rain on the windshield was often loud enough that I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to hear the voice prompts, but at the loudest setting it shouted comfortably over the racket. I was thoroughly glad to be done driving when it said in its synthesized voice, "You have arrived", but I would have been there considerably later and considerably more tired without it. As it was, the trip was very annoying. Without the NeverLost, it would have been a nightmare.

When I returned the car at the Hertz facility in Manchester, I told the person who was taking down the car's mileage and printing my receipt that I didn't know just what they had charged me for the GPS unit but, whatever it was, that it had been worth ten times the price. And so I returned home willing to go to the trouble of finding which portable GPS would be best.

A bunch of research suggested that the 2200T would probably be best and I suspect that it is. Other than the NeverLost which is similar, the only other car GPS I've used is one that was built into a buddy's car and so I can't give any very useful comparisons, but I can tell you why I like the 2200T.

I like it chiefly because, like the NeverLost, it does its job in an unremarkable way. The thing is most valuable in difficult conditions and the last thing you need then is a confusing display or an elaborate user interface. On the 2200T, both are admirably simple and clear. A geek should need ten or fifteen minutes and a glance or two at the manual in order to get familiar with the unit. A more normal person might take a little longer, but shouldn't take very long.

(I may be able to save you even brief trips to the manual, which is currently only available as a PDF to download, by telling you that "Enhanced POIs" are locations you enter using Magellan's PC software and the "Trip Planner" is for multi-stop trips. Magellan's software is Windows-only but you don't need it to use the normal functions of the unit. Also, many areas of the moving map screen that aren't obviously buttons respond to tapping on them.)

To use the 2200T, you begin by picking a destination. Actually, you don't have to do that. It will be happy to show you a moving map of your vicinity at any of various scales. But the screen is sufficiently small that it can't show an area more than a few miles across in any significant detail, so it's not all that useful for orienting yourself in an unfamiliar area. The same would be true of any map that's slightly smaller than a file card.

So you begin by selecting a destination. That can be a street address, an intersection, a "point of interest", an address that you've previously entered in your addressbook, or a place picked of the map. You pick a place on the map by zooming out, dragging the map around with your finger, zooming back in again, ensuring that where you want to go is at the center of the map, and tapping there. It's not very convenient, but it works and you're unlikely to need to use it much. "Points of interest" is GPS-speak for a sort of telephone book of locations. If you want to go to the nearest gas station or a particular restaurant or shopping mall, you can query the unit's database and pick where you want to go. GPS manufacturers differentiate their units in part by how many zillions of POIs are in their databases. The 2200T has a database of 1.5m POIs, which is small by current standards. Still, it seems to have everything in it that I can think of and it's been useful in a couple of real-world situations. Naturally, a database like that will eventually become out of date, but I'm sure that Magellan will offer updates.

Once you've picked a destination, the unit will display "Calculating route" for a few seconds or a little longer and then will display your route as a magenta line on the moving map. Just start driving along the line. The unit will display the map with your route ahead of you (assuming that you've configured it to show ahead as up). You'll be able to see your route easily because the screen is a wonder. It is perfectly readable in everything from complete darkness to bright sunlight. The map changes scale automatically using what seems to be a pretty intelligent algorithm to determine how much detail you'll want at what time. You can also change the scale yourself.

The unit displays the name of the road you're on, the name of the road you'll turn onto next, the distance to the next turn, the distance remaining for the trip, and the sort of turn you'll make next. (You can vary that a little, but that's the essence of it.) If you've configured it to (and you should, it's useful) the display will change to a split-screen shortly before a turn. Half of the screen displays the moving map and the other half displays a 3-D rendering of the turn to be made. That may not sound especially useful. How interesting is a picture of a left turn? The answer is that it can help to know what to look for if the turn is something other than a plain 90-degree turn. A picture of a right turn at a shallow angle followed by a sharp left turn over a bridge across the road is quite helpful.

But much better than just a moving map, the unit gives you voice prompts. Its synthesized voice informs you about upcoming turns well in advance, repeats the information closer to the turn, and then plays a chime just before you'll be turning the steering wheel. The software also pronounces the name of the road you'll be turning onto. GPS geeks call that "text to speech". Inevitably, there are some slightly odd pronunciations, but I haven't yet run into one that was incomprehensible, and that includes Wayzata Blvd. The virtue of the voice prompts is of course that you don't have to look at the thing much. It may be desirable to glance at it occasionally, but you can take your eyes off the road a lot less often than you would if you were using an ordinary map or directions.

The 2200T has a couple of other small advantages: The battery life seems pretty good. Mine ran about eight hours from a full charge before switching itself off. I strongly suspect that battery life is affected by how much work the unit is doing and since I wasn't asking it to do much that was very hard during those eight hours, I'd suggest taking that as an upper limit. Still, I'm pretty impressed.

The unit feels solidly built and it appears to be sealed against weather pretty well. I wouldn't advise you to take it swimming with you, but I doubt that a little rain would harm it.

The downside to its being pretty well sealed is that the battery isn't user-replaceable. Making a watertight lid for a battery compartment would be hard. That means that when the battery no longer holds a useful charge, you'll need to send it in for service. But you'll probably run it mostly from its cigarette-lighter power cord and so a battery replacement may be pretty far in the future.

I don't have a lot to compare it to, but the unit's reception of GPS signals seems quite good. It works just fine in my apartment as long as I stay pretty close to the windows. In a car, the unit doesn't have to be stuck to the windshield to get a good signal. Oriented randomly in a bag in the back seat seems to work fine.

There are a few other compromises and imperfections.

There are a couple of small problems with the user interface. One is that there's no simple way to change the volume when you're looking at the map screen. There's a mute button that you can tap on that screen to silence the unit, and that's probably a useful thing. But the button should really pop up a volume control. If it starts raining hard enough to make a racket, you're not going to want to go digging through various screens looking for the volume control.

It would also be useful if there were an audio indication of when the split-screen view of the upcoming turn is available. Since the screen returns to the usual map display just before the turn, you pretty much have to guess when to look at it if the unit isn't mounted in your line of sight. We're not supposed to mount things to our windshields here in Minnesota.

There's another small imperfection that's a bit more subtle: When you've specified a route, you can simulate driving it. In a preferences page, you can tell the 2200T that you want it to offer you the option of simulating driving a route after it has calculated it. You can also specify some options for the simulation, such as doing the simulated driving faster than you'd actually drive the route. I can imagine that that's a potentially useful feature. I might like to preview an unusual or complicated route before driving it so as to see what I'd shortly be doing or to have a look at the route to decide if I liked the one that the unit had chosen. (Within limits, you can influence the route that the unit picks.)

But there is a minor problem with the feature. If you have the option to preview a route turned on, it gives you that option even when the unit computes a new route because you've departed from the original one. If you've departed from the route that the 2200T has chosen, it's probably because of bad traffic or to detour around a road that's closed. No one is going to want to preview the new route then. They're driving. It's a relatively minor thing to tap a No button to say that you don't want the preview, but it's a distraction. And the 2200T is good because it almost always doesn't distract you.

If your route has you continuing on the same road for more than a few minutes, the 2200T occasionally speaks, telling you that you'll be continuing on the road. That may not sound like a very useful feature. But the NeverLost didn't have it and, on a stretch of highway that I was on for about an hour, I wished that it would talk to me once in a while. Was the volume set loud enough that I could still hear it? Was it still working correctly? An occasional spoken status message would have spared me a few glances at the NeverLost and a few unnecessary clicks of the volume-up button. The 2200T says "Continue on the current road" every few miles and I think that's a small but valuable feature. It would be even better in my opinion if it incorporated some useful information into the message, such as the number of miles remaining on the current road.

The underlying database of road information that the 2200T uses is licensed from NAVTEQ. It seems that they don't have a lot of competition for the US and Canada. Garmin's GPSs also use their data and so do the map websites of Google, Yahoo, and MapQuest. The database is good but it's not perfect. For example, it doesn't know that in Minneapolis, where I live, 1st Avenue South is two-way between Franklin and 28th St.

The road database knows about the reversible lanes on I-394 near downtown Minneapolis, but it doesn't know all the ways they're connected to the rest of the highway. It correctly identified that it was traveling on them, but at the point where they were about to rejoin the rest of the highway going west, it requested a turn that, while safe, wasn't in the right direction. Proceeding in the right direction on the highway, the unit requested a u-turn, cautioning that it should be a safe and legal one. Still proceeding in the right direction, the unit gave a "You can't get there from here" message and I needed to re-enter the destination. (Happily, I was a passenger at the time and could do that without any fuss.)

In addition, here in Minneapolis, streets and avenues are generally labeled as being North or South or Northeast or Southeast, depending on their position with respect to the Mississippi River and Hennepin Avenue downtown. But we're a bit sloppy about whether we say "First Avenue South" or "South First Avenue". Also, some streets exist only in one of the four divisions. According to the post office, those streets shouldn't have a direction marking since they don't need to be distinguished from different versions.

Entering a street address in the 2200T is admirably simple and hard to do wrong. You begin by spelling the street name on an on-screen keyboard. Letters that can't come next disappear, making it easier to find the ones you want. When you've entered enough letters that there are only a few possibilities for what you're spelling, the unit shows you a list and you pick the street from it. Minneapolitans' casual attitudes to where they put their souths and norths is mirrored in the database. For example, in the database "S. Bryant Ave" has house numbers from 1600 to 3599 and "Bryant Ave South" has house numbers from 1600 to 9399. Holmes Avenue, which exists only in the south section of the city, is listed as "Holmes Ave", "Holmes Ave S.", and "South Holmes Ave". The house numbers listed for the first one don't actually exist.

None of those imperfections particularly surprises me. The 2200T contains a database of all the roads in the United States and Canada. In my experience, a database of that size pretty much can't be perfect. But it's worth remembering that when you're using the unit. Apart from the issue with the reversible lanes, none of the errors would cause any significant trouble, and the unit hadn't recommended taking the reversible lanes.

Once you've specified an address, you can satisfy yourself that you picked the place you meant by tapping a bulls-eye icon. That will show you a map centered on your destination. A text button saying something like, oh, "Show on Map" would have been a little more obvious, but once you know what the little bulls-eye does it's easy enough.

The routes that I've seen 2200T choose have always been good but, in cases in which there are a large number of very similar routes, such as traveling diagonally through a grid of city streets, the routes it has picked haven't always absolutely optimal. That's hardly surprising. It would require information about every stop sign and traffic light in the US and Canada in order to pick the optimal route from dozens or hundreds that are very similar in distance and time. The unit seems to have a preference for broad and one-way streets. That's probably a good preference to have since it's likely to be guiding you on unfamiliar roads.

When you're asking it to calculate a route, you can tell it to pick a route with a minimum use of freeways. That's often handy at rush hour around here. It will also notice that you're in slow traffic on a freeway and indicate that it's willing to find you a different route. There's also an optional traffic receiver (not available yet and probably requiring a paid subscription) which ought to enable it to choose better routes when traffic is heavy.

I mentioned earlier that GPS manufacturers often leave things that you're going to want out of the package so as to make additional sales from accessories. The 2200T is just missing a case and an AC adaptor. That's actually pretty good as these things go. And you may not really need an AC adaptor since you'll probably use the unit in a car almost all the time and it comes with a cigarette-lighter adaptor. Still, I knew that I'd want to learn how to use it at home rather than sitting in my car and I may possibly want to use it on my motorcycle so I wanted a AC adaptor. At the time I ordered the unit, Magellan's website didn't show an AC adaptor as an accessory available for the 2200T. It did show them for other similar units and I supposed that they were the same. Still, I wasn't sure enough to place my order on the website, so I placed the order by telephone, specifying that I wanted an AC adaptor for the 2200T. A few days later the adaptor arrived, but without any prongs to plug it into the wall. Magellan sells their GPS units in the United States and also in Europe. Cleverly, they've designed a universal power supply that just needs to have prongs appropriate to the local outlets clipped to it. So I literally had an AC adaptor, just not a useful one. I called the same number and explained the situation and the nice person who took the call sent me the right prongs without charge. I think that's pretty good. Anyone can make a mistake, but Magellan fixed that one quickly and pretty painlessly.

Magellan still doesn't have a case available for the 2200T. I'm using this, which is a sort of fluffy padded napkin with the hook side of velcro (er, hook-and-loop fastening material) at the corners. You wrap it around something, forming s sort of envelope and then open one corner to slip the thing out and back in. It works as advertised, but the result is a bit bulkier than I'd like.

The unit has an MP3 player and a picture viewer built in. Since I have no idea why anyone would want to use those features, I have nothing else to say about them.

I'm very impressed with the 2200T. It's not the sort of thing I need every day because I travel on familiar routes most of the time. But if it guides me on another trip or two like the one from New Hampshire into Maine and saves me a bit of fuss on an occasional trip to the wilds of St. Paul, it will have been worth the price.

Posted: Thu - December 21, 2006 at 06:27 PM   Main   Category: