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5/31/2005
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Review: A Pocketsize Backseat Driver

The MIO 168RS is both a GPS gadget and a full-featured PDA. It's powered by an Intel XScale 300MHz CPU with 64MB of SDRAM memory, and runs Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition. It has a 3.5-inch TFT Active Matrix LCD display with 240x320 resolution in 64K colors as well as a tiny speaker and microphone.

You're driving 60 miles per hour. Ahead there's a fork in the road. Do you go left or right? If you move to the left lane, just in case, can you get back into the right lane if you've made the wrong choice? Maybe you should have asked directions when you got gas? There'll be signs, no? That's when you hear an assertive female voice next to you say, "Stay right." It's not your mother, wife, girlfriend, sister, or daughter. It's Mitac's MIO 168RS and it helps you without guilt or recriminations.

The MIO 168RS is actually a dual-use appliance. It's both a Pocket PC and a GPS device. It's powered by an Intel XScale 300MHz CPU with 64MB of SDRAM memory, and runs Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition. It has a 3.5-inch TFT Active Matrix LCD display with 240x320 resolution in 64K colors as well as a tiny speaker and microphone. There's no Bluetooth or WiFi. The 168RS attaches to your PC via a USB connection and has an SD memory slot. Conceptually, it's the computer you owned back in 1997 except now it weighs just 5.2 ounces, fits in your hand or in the portable cradle you can install in your car, and comes with the usual list of Pocket PC on-the-go mobile applications.

It's voice, however, comes from the GPS side of its brain. Mitac touts the MIO 168RS as being ready to go on the road right out of the box. That's a bit of hyperbole. Mitac probably means that the setup is simple and there are no forms to fill out or subscription fees to be paid. In fact, the only frightening thing about your introduction to the MIO 168RS will probably be its USB cable "which branches off into a USB connector for your computer and a power brick that plugs into a wall outlet. The reasoning is simple: The MIO 168RS needs to be charged. Rather than perforate the case with yet another hole, both AC electrical and USB data lines are contained in the same hybrid connector that tucks in at the bottom of the unit.

You'll also need an available USB port for the SD card reader supplied with the MIO 168RS. Technically, the 32MB SD storage card Mitac gives is for general-purpose data storage. More specifically, it holds the mapping data and even though Mitac has divided the country up into digestible segments, there's not much left of that 32MB when you've loaded one. If you're going to use the MIO 168RS predominately as a Pocket PC that's also GPS enabled, a larger capacity SD card is an immediate need. On the other hand, it's worked fine as a GPS device with occasional Pocket PC duties using the 32MB card.

Doing GPS work, the MIO 168RS suffers from the same malady as similar units -its trip algorithm will point you to the safest route it knows. Forget about back roads and shortcuts. You're heading for the highway unless the trip is so ridiculously short that you shouldn't have used the MIO 168RS in the first place. How bothersome can that be? A 15-minute jaunt to the local consumer warehouse turned into a 40-minute expedition, sometimes in the opposite direction. On the bright side, the MIO 168RS has been accurate to about 30 yards when announcing, "You've arrived at your destination."

When you disregard any of its instructions, the MIO 168RS auto-corrects its trip plan within a second or two and then suggests new directions to get you back on its track.

Although there are several possible map views available (2D, 3D, day, and night), it's not advisable to watch the continually updated tracking on the LCD screen as you drive along. While the MIO 168RS does display local landmarks (parks, cemeteries, etc.), it knows nothing about the car in front of you that might suddenly hit its brakes. If you happen to miss the verbal instructions, a quick glance at the screen should suffice. A large red arrow indicates your next direction. Even then, don't panic. You'll receive several verbal alerts beginning long before you need to take action "in some cases as far as five miles before anything should be done.

You will need to print out the User Manual, a PDF file on the installation CD. The MIO 168RS will automatically recognize where you are as soon as you flip up the GPS antenna. But tell it where you want to go, setting waypoints if you're stopping anywhere in between, saving a route, or accessing a previously stored route, all require a set of instructions that aren't quite intuitive until you've used them a few times. Other than that, the MIO 168RS is a stellar performer. And with retail pricing as much as 20 percent below MSRP, it's among the least expensive trip insurance plans you can buy.

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