Sunday, August 25, 2013

Editorial: The Slow Demise of the Portable Navigation Device

Image courtesy of trustedreviews.com
For all intents and purposes, the portable navigation device (PND) is on its way out, soon to be replaced entirely by in-car integrated navigation systems, or more likely, our smart phones. A lot of factors are leading to this change, key among them the sheer proliferation of smart phones in our lives and the availability of smart phone apps that, in the last few years, have sprouted all of the functionality that used to be exclusive to PNDs and many features that go far beyond. A portable device that we have on our person nearly every waking moment that is capable of providing near limitless detail, endless point of interest data, and maps that are always up to date.

In fact, just this weekend, my wife and I took a trip out to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Almost out of habit, I grabbed our 4 year old Garmin navigation device and threw it in the car with us as we hit the road. I bought the Garmin 765T years ago because it was an easy to use interface, included Bluetooth connectivity, and had traffic data with no subscription fee. At the time, Garmin did not offer a lifetime maps subscription so map updates were going to be a potentially costly maintenance fee over the years. Still, for the price paid, the device definitely worked well enough, especially in our last car, a Miata, with its small amount of windshield space.

However, having swapped regularly between using Google Maps on my smart phone and using the Garmin, the Garmin was definitely starting to show its age. Probably the biggest shortcoming is that the PND, with its older generation satellite chip, takes forever to lock onto a satellite signal and establish its current location. This often means waiting a while before being able to take off for a destination while the device is searching for satellite signal. My Samsung Galaxy S3, on the other hand, picks up the satellite in moments and can usually begin navigation sooner because it can also use the cell towards to establish its current position. Another shortcoming of the older chipset is a slower processor, which also means the PND takes forever to recalculate new routes whereas my S3 provides near instant rerouting.

The Garmin also is limited in its traffic data, which utilizes an FM based receiver that picks up traffic data that is shared through public networks and is made available to many sources, including your local radio stations. The only problem with this setup is that the amount of data available is rather limited and the data is not always available or up to date depending upon the strength of the radio signal. With Google Maps, especially the recent integration of Waze reports, traffic data is always being updated and shows current status in real time so long as you have a valid data connection.

Of course, this gets to the one shortcoming of the smart phone as a navigation device. The majority of apps utilize Google Maps as their underlying mapping tool, which requires a data connection in order to get updated maps. While some apps include full scale maps loaded to the smart phone's memory, the level of detail is usually significantly less than Google Maps can offer and this setup puts those devices in the same situation as your average PND. However, this is becoming less and less of an issue as cell coverage areas are improving nationwide and cellular network data speeds have improved dramatically.

During the trip this weekend, we still relied on the Garmin, but its slow response time, especially as we were driving through areas of thick tree cover, made me reconsider continuing to rely on it in the future. The smart phone simply offers too many advantages over the average PND and many makers of the devices are starting to hedge against the shift by offering their own paid smartphone apps. Of course, the PND is only the first of many in-car devices to be threatened by the growing popularity of smart phones. Streaming radio is quickly supplanting regular radio for many young car buyers, vehicle analytics apps are becoming available, and even the venerable car key is not safe from being replaced. All of this foreshadows further integration of smart phones into our automotive lives. In many ways, this means greater personalization and convenience for owners, but if you ever misplace your phone, you risk losing a lot more than just your favorite photos.