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This generic yet full-featured GPS won't win design awards, but it costs only $650.

4 Min Read

There’s a point in the lifecycle of tech products where the innovative vanguard gives way to the packagers. This is not a bad thing; it means components that were once hard to come by -- and in some cases custom-built -- have become commoditized, readily available and cheap.

Commoditization has finally reached GPS devices. A manufacturer once had to build the underlying computer hardware, the maps, the software, and everything else to spec. Now it's apparently possible to get all the piece parts on the OEM market and simply integrate a product into existence. One example is the Mio C310 Portable Car Navigation System. The C310 uses Windows CE as its operating system, GPS software from Destinator Technologies, and maps from Tele Atlas. It’s all perfectly competent, and by some measures maybe a little better than that. Yet the end result is pretty generic: product, rather than innovation. Nothing wrong with product. And at a nickel less than $650 for a pretty full-featured pocket GPS unit, you may be willing to sacrifice a few more "Wows" for a few more bucks in your wallet. The Mio C310 is a touch-screen GPS unit about 4 ¼ inches wide by 3 inches high and ¾ of an inch deep. The screen itself is a little less than 3 inches high by 2 ¼ inches wide. The whole thing, including a non-replaceable LiIon battery, weighs around 6 ounces -- very much pocket sized. There are four buttons along the right edge of the unit: power, menu, and volume up and down. There’s a headphone jack and USB/power jack on the bottom edge and an SD/MMC slot on the top. A dashboard mount and bracket completes the package. Maps are held on the Mio’s 2GB of flash ROM, obviating a micro hard drive with its attendant bulk and power needs. (A DVD with the maps comes included, so the maps can be downloaded to the unit through a USB 1.1 port should they somehow corrupted or require updating.) CPU duties are handled by a Samsung ARM processor running at 400MHz. Driving with the C310 is a pretty good experience. The maps are clear and directions are given in a timely and accurate manner. The route preview function is a burdensome if all you want to do it check out just a part of the route in advance, but it’s not too bad. Tapping various parts of the screen present different useful bits of information in a reasonably logical sequence. The C310’s menus are laid out logically, but the small size of the screen requires some distracting compromises. Few settings are more than three clicks from the home menu, but too many are just a little too far from where they’re useful. A Quick Nav feature that will send you to a frequently visited place or point of interest is a not-particularly-quick four clicks from the map. Switching to Night Mode display requires three clicks from the map, and the unit does not track sundown automatically. Changing the orientation from Forward Up to North Up is similarly involved. And the menu selection for displaying live traffic information and re-routing on its basis? It’s there, but the feature isn’t implemented on this model. The base menu choices are Address; My Places; Food, Fuel, Lodging; and Map Look & Feel. Rather than the point-of-interest choice, some customizable function selection or menu might have been a better idea. Indeed, any interface customization would have been great, but none is possible. Scant screen real estate is a constant issue on the C310. Entering address information is a finicky process just because the letter targets are so small. The alternative -- scrolling through lists of states, cities, and streets -- is simply impossible because the scroll arrows are too tiny for fingertips that really ought to be resting on a steering wheel in a moving car. Two more features ought to be mentioned, one handy and one not so much. The C310 includes a CD-ROM with Microsoft ActiveSync and Mio software that imports contact information from your PC’s copy of Outlook. That could be useful. Less useful is the C310’s MP3 player, which handles song files on an SD card. The unit’s speaker is somewhat lower-fi than the AM radio in your dad’s Buick, and you’re not advised to listen through headphones while driving. For walking around town with the C310 after you’ve gotten to your destination, the player might be somewhat useful. But if you’re moving songs around on memory cards, I bet you already have an MP3 player you like -- and you might not want to waste the Mio’s five-hour battery on low-quality audio. The Mio C310 is compact, reasonably accurate, and reasonably economical. But the interface compromises required to cram all its features into such a small package makes it a second-tier player -- an OK one, but second-tier nonetheless. It’s the difference between a product designed from the ground up and one that’s assembled from other people’s technologies.

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