It was sometime after six in the morning and I was making my weekly early-morning run from Eastern Long Island to Manhattan. I was somewhere on the Long Island Expressway in Suffolk County when I heard it.
Over the weekend I had installed a Garmin (GRMN) StreetPilot c550 navigation system in my car, and as navigation systems do, it was tracking my drive to Manhattan, when it spoke. This in itself is not so unusual. In-car navigation systems have given voice instructions for years. But it was what the reassuring female voice said that caught my attention: Traffic ahead.
How did it know that? Sure enough, the further west I drove along the LIE, the traffic did indeed increase. And as I looked on the c550's screen, a yellow line appeared on the map screen showing my route.
FAST AND DIRECT.
I have to admit, it had been a few years since I've tried any of the new GPS-based navigation systems from companies such as Garmin, TomTom, and Magellan. But I figured that I had seen about the extent of their abilities. Locking onto signals from the U.S. government-funded constellation of Global Positioning System satellites, they track your precise coordinates and then represent your position on a dynamic map as you move.
Competition among the vendors, I thought, was coming down to which company had the best interface, the most accurate turn-by-turn directions and map, and ultimately price.
GPS satellites don't track traffic or watch anything from space. They are, in fact, huge, precise orbiting clocks that blanket the entire surface of the Earth with a signal saying what time it is, which receivers like this Garmin StreetPilot use to determine their position.
So imagine my surprise when without any obvious new features, this receiver seemed to pipe up with information about traffic conditions nearby. I later learned that within its power cable, which plugged into the dashboard cigarette lighter, was a receiver designed to pick up FM TMC. TMC stands for the traffic message channel, which broadcasts data about traffic conditions.
And as it happens, Suffolk County is one of the areas that has FM TMC service, which in this case was supplied by Clear Channel (CCU). Traffic service comes free on the device for the first three months you have it, and costs $60 a year after that.
This service turned out to be an interesting enhancement to an already excellent navigation unit. The c550 is smaller and lighter than the systems I remember, and it mounts easily on the dashboard. Over the weekend, while parked in the driveway, I touched the screen and the unit asked me whether I wanted to save the current location as a favorite. I said yes and named it "home."
TALK TO ME.
Later, while driving around, I touched the menu button and selected the friendly "where to?" option, and then touched another friendly button labeled "go home." Sure enough it navigated me right back to the driveway, not that I really needed the help.
These navigation systems have come a long way as technology has generally gotten better. Touch-sensitive screens such as this one make it much easier and safer to interact with the unit while you're driving—not that you should. The voices that give directions are also clearer and easier to understand.
The point of view of the map display, which on old units was flat and only marginally useful, is now three-dimensional and makes more sense as you drive. Instead of staring straight down, the map screen looks as if you were hovering above and behind your car as it's moving, so the streets and other features on the screen correspond more closely with what you actually see ahead of you.
They also work faster, taking less time to get a satellite fix. Partial credit for that probably goes to the GPS chipset inside the unit from chipmaker Sirf (SIRF). It also takes less time to calculate your route, including any changes along the way.
If traffic gets heavy, you can ask for a detour. Press the menu button while moving and then press an orange "detour" button. It takes only five seconds or so for new directions to appear on the screen.
The c550 is also much smaller than the Garmin units I remember. The last one I tried was the brick-sized StreetPilot 2620. The c550 is about the size of five cassette tapes stacked together, and it sits comfortably on the dashboard.But one thing hasn't changed, and that's the price. You wouldn't be alone in expecting a device like this to sell for less than $500. After seeing it, impressive features and all, you'd be surprised to see that Garmin's suggested retail price is $857. However, I did see it listed on Amazon (AMZN) for $100 less than that. That may still seem a little steep, but consider the time you'll save dodging traffic tie-ups.