Be warned or simply get up and go

Road Angel Evo
269+ Digiwalker

In-car GPS systems are this year’s iPod — it seems everyone’s getting one or wants one. The race between manufacturers is starting to look a lot like the mobile phone market. Just like making calls is the core function in a mobile phone toolkit, GPS systems show you the way to go. With little else to offer, it’s in the design of the device and the range of extras (or lack of them) where vendors hope to sway you.

The Road Angel Evo is a no-nonsense warning system designed to let you know what to watch out for on the road. It draws data from RoadSense, claimed by manufacturer Sentinel Geo Systems to be ‘Australia’s only constantly updated national database of road safety hazards’. Instead of directing you, it merely sounds alarms warning you of traffic hazards like level crossings and school zones. It’s also a little customisable with hazard areas and rest stop reminders you can program yourself.

The unobtrusive unit is just over 10 centimetres wide and attaches to the windscreen by a suction pad. The pleasant-looking blue LCD displays your speed as well as the time and when it receives an alert, it emits a tone (depending on the message), the screen turns orange and a voice speaks the warning as well. The voice is either that of racing legend Peter Brock, who’s lent his talking head to Road Angel products extensively, or ‘Jenny’, a female safety assistant.

The theory is that you get advance warning of road hazards. The practice can be summed up on the Evo’s maiden voyage during testing. On a trip north along the Tonkin Highway and west along Guildford Road, it sounded constantly, ‘Jenny’ warning that it was in a safety speed patrol area — apparently related to the fact that speed camera are used in metropolitan Perth. After a single trip the thought of plugging it in for another assault of the same repeated (and useless) warning was unthinkable.

Much more useful is the Mio Digiwalker 269+, a more traditional GPS unit. Apart from some deeply buried tweaks, using the machine is deceptively easy. You assign regular addresses for home, office or wherever you go regularly. The 2.5Gb hard disk contains the entire Australian road map courtesy of Sensis, and after plugging it in for the first time, the satellite had identified our position within seconds and we were ready to go.

Selecting your address on a virtual keypad with the stylus was simple. Select ‘Osborne Park’ and every letter a street in Osborne Park doesn’t start with greys out, funnelling you efficiently through the myriad of data to your goal. Hit the ‘Go’ button and the device does everything but drive the car, telling you how far until your next turn, what lane to be in and which way to go. If you ignore the instructions it regroups and works out the route from your new position.

From your teenage daughter dropping a friend home in a strange suburb to the road warrior sales rep, the market for GPS is very broad, and Mio have thrown an audio and video player in which they hope will sweeten the deal. It probably sounded like a great idea during development of the product, but far more could have been done in the execution if the manufacturer seriously wants to woo customers away from their competition with it.

The single miniscule speaker is like that of a transistor radio and no matter how bad your stereo is, it couldn’t be much worse unless it’s broken and you’re desperate. The sound through a set of headphones is much better, but that won’t do you any good if you’re driving.

The video player is also a good idea for bored kids on long drives apart from two things. The first is that in this day and age they’re just as likely to have a Playstation portable or laptop PC to play movies on rather than resorting to a four-inch wide screen. Secondly, a movie file appeared to transfer to the device normally, but the player only relayed the sound but no picture, so getting it to work seamlessly will be harder than the packaging and manual leads you to believe.

For half the asking price the Road Angel Evo gives you a lot less than half the features of the Digiwalker, and while it’s true the setbacks of both machines are unfortunate, the philosophy behind them is part of the bigger picture of media convergence. The universal device of science fiction that can take phone calls, tell you where you are, play videos and music is within sight and the Digiwalker is one of the first stumbling steps.

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