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Navigating the options for navigation

March 3, 2010 1 comment
Sanyo Gorilla Navi

The Sanyo Gorilla portable navigation system

This is a story about navigation systems. But more than that, it’s a story about maps. So if you’re not in the mood for introspection, feel free to skip the first two paragraphs

I’ve always been intrigued by maps. They’re powerful things: they offer a form of vision unlimited by the context of our limited point of view. They help us conquer landscapes, divide territories and find our way in unfamiliar lands. When I was a child, I would pore over the Thomas Guides which resided in our family cars, soaking up the local geography and drawing the mental connections between what I could see peering out the back seat window and what was so orderly written and recorded in them. On road trips, I would track our progress, past each exit, for hundreds of miles, and announce our location with glee to my parents that they were hard pressed to restrain their exasperation. For me, knowing where I was, in the middle of what I took for nowhere at all, was all the power I had as a tiny kid in a great big world.

The point of this story is that in California, roads are orderly, broad affairs, with names clearly displayed. They were planned by someone, and they were the precondition for the development that followed. I could know where I was because there was a sense to the way they worked that even a seven year old could understand. Such is not the case in Japan.

Why you need it

By and large, Japan’s roads were not laid out in vast cartesian grids, carefully aligned by surveyors and cut into virgin land. They have grown organically with a country that had vast cities and trade networks when the only means of conveyance in my homeland were the feet of the people of the native tribes. They were not laid down by municipalities, but by farmers, local landowners and merchants, and as such, are as disjointed and confounding as anywhere you’ll find; thus is their charm and their curse. Combined with Japan’s weak eminent domain laws and some challenging topography, and Japan is not a country to be easily mastered by a boy with a guidebook. It takes some serious maps, and a lot more processing power than I can easily muster. It takes a navigation system.

Navi, as they’re called here, are as essential to the motoring experience as gasoline. One will get nowhere fast without one, as proven by Jeremy Clarkson in his race across the country in a GT-R. Even locals will pull down a road only to see that it goes precisely nowhere, or is blocked for seemingly no reason. The lack of names for roads in most of Japan – only the largest are named, along with major intersections – adds another dimension of challenge. Finding anything on a map from it’s address is nigh impossible, due to the unconventional system used here.

So with this in mind, you’ll be needing navi if you plan to do any motoring in these parts. There are three basic forms these take, each with tradeoffs to be considered.

What’s out there

Nissan Fuga

The 2010 Nissan Fuga with factory integrated navigation

The first option is to buy a car with factory integrated navigation. Generally found only on luxury cars, these systems are completely integrated into the vehicle’s dashboard design, often with separate mechanical controls in lieu of a touch screen. These designs have the advantage of being aesthetically more a part of the interior’s design, and they often have usability benefits from this integration, with steering wheel mounted controls, multifunction displays with climate control or vehicle notices, and improved sight lines afforded by placing the display high and out of reach.

The trade off of this integration is that the navigation is forever a part of the car. There is little potential for upgradability (other than by updating the map version), and you’ll be reinvesting in a navigation system each time you upgrade your car. The specs on these systems also often lag those of the in-dash units designed by major electronics manufacturers as well, so while you benefit from great looks, you may not have the best functionality.

Pioneer Carrozzeria Cyber Navi

The Pioneer Carrozzeria Cyber Navi AVIC-ZH9900

The next option, and traditionally the most popular, is the in dash navigation system. Most Japanese cars of the past 15 years have been designed around a 2DIN audio unit, and the majority of them will allow the simple exchange of that audio unit for the kind of in-dash navigation seen above. These systems serve as the car’s stereo receiver, with CD player, AM/FM tuner and amplifier, but even the most simple far surpass a factory stereo in media capability. Nearly all function as DVD players, using their integrated display or an external one if desired. They feature hard disk drives or internal flash memory, and can extract and store CD audio internally, and many have SD card slots to allow you to bring music and video directly from your computer. Most models also have TV tuning functionality – basic models decoding 1seg digital broadcast (as is used by mobile phones) and higher end models with full 12 segment high definition decoders. Coupled with wide VGA displays, they are fully fledged HDTVs as well. As for navigation, these systems generally have the most detailed maps and most advanced and responsive rendering capabilities. Finally, their design allows them to be removed when you choose to sell your car, and installed into the next car you buy.

As a downside, to maximize the display size (most feature 7 inch displays), touch screen controls are always used, however, and while remote controls are sometimes supplied, these must be clipped obtrusively to the steering wheel or kept in a nearby pocket. In addition, they suffer from a general lack of integration with vehicle systems, and often require bespoke accessories – a Sanyo unit will need to be equipped with a Sanyo rear camera and a Sanyo ETC unit, and so on – which can push installation prices to the astronomical, should you choose to add a number of options, by necessitating the installation of wires throughout the car. The final downside is price – these units start at over ¥100,000 and can easily push into the ¥300,000 range. Buying one is clearly a long term investment.

Sony nav-u

the Sony nav-u NV-U3C

The final option is to go portable. With the miniaturization of components and affordability of flash storage, portable navigation systems have grown in popularity immensely in the past few years, and the prices they command have fallen significantly. These devices are not designed to be permanently installed in any vehicle – by and large, they feature suction-cup feet for their cradles and internal battery power, with the option to supplement with a 12v charger when necessary. Their display sizes vary from full size 7 to 8 inch models on one hand to tiny 3.5 inch turn-by-turn designs on the other. They generally feature 4 to 8GB of internal flash memory, and have maps and databases which can be just as detailed as in in-dash units. Generally, however, the feature lower resolution displays, simplified menus and lack ETC integration.

Higher end units may retain some of the media capabilities of in-dash units, such as 1seg television and MP3/WMA/AAC playback. Also, select models feature VICS – the Japanese FM broadcast traffic data reporting system – and can reroute you to avoid traffic just as a larger system would.

The downsides to these systems are clear – they are not integrated into the vehicle at all, cluttering the dashboard, and can be difficult to access on the go. Their displays tend to be smaller and lower resolution than permanent units, making them harder to read on the go. They are also an easy target for thieves in a country where car theft is rare, but break-ins are increasingly common, and should be removed from the vehicle when parked.

The upside is of course price – many models can be purchased for as little as ¥20,000, making them barely more expensive than a collection of road atlases.

What to look for

Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering your navigation options.

How long are you going to keep the car? If you plan to sell it quickly, opt for the factory navigation or purchase a portable. Installation of an aftermarket navigation and accessories can drive down the resale value of a car, while factory navigation is generally desirable, as it’s covered under the vehicle’s warranty and provides the cleanest look. If you plan to keep your car for a long time, or if you’re purchasing used, these consequences could be outweighed by the increased feature set of a high-end in dash navigation system.

How much time are you likely to spend in your car? If visions of family road trips are dancing in your head, installing a high end aftermarket navigation system with supplementary rear display may be just the ticket. Improved legibility is a boon on long trips and the entertainment options will keep you and your family entertained for days. If you’re mostly commuting, or poking around town on familiar roads, a portable navigation would be more than adequate for your needs.

Does your new car carry factory options for park distance sensors, rear or corner cameras? These goodies are always less expensive to order from the factory than to purchase separately and install, and if they come integrated (along with the GPS antenna and ETC) with the purchase of a factory-installed navigation system, end your debate now: you can’t do better than get it all up front. When available, factory systems are usually the way to go.

Finally, be wary of dealer options. What comes from the factory is good value for money; what the dealer will sell you is generally second rate and overpriced. If you’re going for an aftermarket option, decide what you want, find a reasonably priced audio shop and have it installed – you could save tens or even hundreds of thousands.

Who makes them?

Portable systems have a fairly limited lineup. Three makers dominate the scene.

Sanyo offers their Gorilla Navi series, which in my opinion offers the best user experience, with a “just right” touch screen and lots of interesting extras. Geared primarily toward in car use, they have great readability and clear menus as well.

Sony is also a player only in the portable market, with their “nav-u” line. These tend to emphasize portability – for walking, cycling and other functions – over large displays, and their feature set is geared toward hybrid use, in the car and at your destination. Their displays are bright and clear, though the touch screens are too sensitive to minor bumps.

Panasonic also offers portable models in their Strada brand. Heavy on multimedia capabilities, they bridge the gap between in-dash and portable.

In-dash systems are available from more makers, many of whom are focused solely on automotive products.

These include Alpine and Clarion. These makers offer the best options for seamless integration of high quality audio with external amplifier control, but lag in the quality of their interface.

Big name products include Fujitsu’s Eclipse range, Sanyo’s Gorilla AV series, Panasonic’s Strada and Pioneer’s Carrozzeria.

With so many options available, multiple form factors, HDD or SSD memory, WQVGA or WVGA displays, bluetooth integration, accessory displays, SD slots and media formats, it’s best to select one by going to a large shop, playing with what’s on display, and figuring out what works for you.

My personal opinion is that the Carrozzeria Raku-Navi and Cyber-Navi are the best of what’s around in their price points, but everyone’s needs are different. So here a few things to look for:

HDD vs. SSD: An HDD offers greater storage options, but at the price of added heat, mechanical complexity and the chance of failure (and an expensive repair). If you want to store all your music in the car, it’s an option, but if you already have an iPod, or don’t mind using an SD slot to store your music, SSD systems feature faster load times, better reliability and a lower price point.

WQVGA vs. WVGA displays: With four times the resolution and a resultant increase in legibility, I wholeheartedly recommend spring for a full WVGA display. You won’t regret it if you do.

1seg vs. 地デジ (12 seg HD): If you plan to have kids in the car, or you spend a lot of time in parking lots, opting for a full digital tuner might be worth your while. I personally don’t feel that I need either…

iPod integration: Most makers offer it, so if you need it, check how much they charge for their accessory cable, and be sure it supports charging. Be careful as well if you have an iPhone, as not all systems support it.

SD slot: This ought to be a must-have for any system – it offers significant memory expandability at a minimal cost. Look for it.

Bluetooth: The capabilities and integration varies by maker, so be on the lookout, decide what you need (if anything) and buy accordingly.

VICS: Traffic data is another must have, but check the cost of accessory antennas, as some require an external beacon which can add a lot to the cost of installation. Since VICS is offered free as a public service, take advantage of it. Pioneer offers a competing service, Smart Loop, based on Willcom’s PHS service, which greatly increases the number of areas covered, but requires a monthly fee. Opting in also allows the system to obtain real-time map updates when new roads open or for temporary closures.

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