(Editor's Note: Like today's cell phones, navigation system manufacturers frequently update their model lines. The editors of Car Audio magazine compiled a thoroughly researched list of their top picks; however, model changes may have occurred since that time. To your benefit, deals are found on previous-generation units when model line updates happen. Crutchfield, among others, is a credible source for competitive pricing on new and old stock.)
There is a glut of navigation products on the market-and we're not even talking about all the portables produced by companies that you thought had nothing to do with navigation. If you're looking for a quick, cost-effective option, you can certainly buy a PND (personal navigation device) as an adequate solution. But nothing in this world is free.
There's a reason why you pay only a few hundred dollars for something that you have to stick onto your windshield. Never mind that attaching any device to your car's window is aesthetically abominable (and illegal in some states). The real problem here is that portables just don't measure up in terms of performance. Satellite-acquisitioning times on a portable can take forever. For general consumers, buying a consumer electronics product is a lot less scary than a head unit that requires going to a specialty shop. Certainly we recommend getting products installed professionally (if for nothing else than the warranty), but people shouldn't feel inhibited by any fear related to installing in-dash navigation units.
Installing a navigation unit is far less complicated than it appears on the surface. Any patient DIYer brandishing the proper install tools should be capable of connecting one. The word "patient" is employed because you won't find the extra connections needed to complete your installation at the factory radio wire harness-you might have to dig through a few additional harnesses to find the correct wires. These extra connections generally consist of a parking brake, backup light and speed pulse wires. The latter two connections help a Nav system perform accurately, while the first ensures certain functions are performed safely (at a stop) without distraction, thus keeping the manufacturer's legal team out of court. Fortunately for the DIYer, most manufacturers keep a thorough database of vehicle wire color combinations and a location to find them in your specific vehicle, making the hunt a little less painful.
Besides these three wires, a navigation system requires a GPS antenna. While it's best to locate the antenna in an uninhibited area outside the vehicle, most will work well behind the windshield atop the dash.
The question of bypassing the safety measures so that all of the navigation functions are available while the vehicle is in motion is a thorny issue, one that manufacturers have thought seriously about. Can it be done? The answer to that is yes and no. Over the years, navigation systems have become more sophisticated and now rely heavily on the speed pulse wire and GPS to indicate movement, shutting off key functions of the Nav when sensed. So what about the "yes" portion of this answer? Glad you asked. By bypassing, or grounding, the parking brake wire, newer, car-specific navigation units don't suspend these functions until the vehicle reaches a certain speed (typically limited to less than 5 mph) or the vehicle moves over a certain distance-a foolproof design that keeps lawyers happy. Ultimately, bypassing the safety guard is really a worthless measure.
The following reviews of navigation products from the major aftermarket manufacturers include some DVD-based Nav units and others that have hard drives for storage of map data. Rather than simply focusing on the navigation element of these head units, we looked at the overall package with a focus on how well the products worked for navigation. While there are significant differences between the various units (DVD vs. HDD, differences in menu setups, ease of use, etc.), we feel that consumers will want to consider the products as a whole.
Clarion MAX675VD & NAX970HD
Of all the major electronics manufacturers, Clarion may be the most underrated. Other companies may be more recognizable for head units, but that probably has more to do with marketing than product quality. Passengers in our test vehicle were surprised at how attractive and easy to use the NAX970HD and MAX675VD were.
We ran into a snag at the beginning during the install when we discovered the Nav system wasn't compatible with Clarion's older 5.1 decoder, which we happened to have in the vehicle, but once we upgraded to the new DVH940N, we were able to get the voice prompts that we were missing. After that, the Clarion Nav combo worked nearly flawlessly, and it was so intuitive that the only time we needed the manual was when we had to verify various things for this review.
Some redundancy of function controls can be a great convenience to consumers. Clarion's double-DIN head unit has just the right balance between virtual and real buttons. On the panel, you'll find access to Source, Map, Menu, Band, an individual button for quick access to iPod and one for audio adjustments. On-screen, while in Navigation mode, you have two simple buttons, "Navi" and "AV." It doesn't get much simpler than that.
By hitting the Navi button on the current location map, you can call up the navigation shortcut menu. From there, you can input a destination, go over route options and search nearby POIs. It's all very well thought out. The Destination menu is less so. We would've preferred having a single screen for destination options rather than having to hit "Next" to access previous destinations, for instance. The main menu page for destinations provides access to direct address input, address book, points of interest, a separate key for nearby POI, home and phone number.
Around town, the NAX970HD always kept us on course. There were no major routing issues, and rerouting was very quick. The map itself is attractive and, partially due to that, easy to read, even in 3-D view mode. While trying to find anything through the POI database could be frustrating depending on what we were looking for, it was no more so than on most other navigation systems. The problem is probably more attributable to changing POIs and the difficulty associated with keeping them up to date than anything else-just ask the map data companies.
The NAX970HD is also compatible with the VRX775VD (which retails for the same as the double-DIN we used), but we preferred the more factory look provided by the MAX675VD. It's an excellent multimedia source, and when used in conjunction with the DVH940N for a surround-sound setup, you can truly maximize the capabilities of the unit. We loved the ability to set individual speaker gain level, set crossover points for the different speakers and adjust the delay on the center channel and surround speakers. Basically you need to go through only a couple of windows to make these adjustments. And overall, that was the high point for the combined products we reviewed. In a car you want to be able to quickly make changes on your Nav/audio system, and Clarion made it easy to keep your eyes on the road instead of searching for items on the screen.
Best Pricing - $499-$699
What we like - Ease of use, excellent graphic interface, HDD-based Nav, responsive touch screen.
What we don't like - Separate brain for Nav, latest 5.1 decoder necessary in surround-sound setup for voice prompts, pricey for source and Nav HDD.
NAV features - 30GB hard drive, 9 million POIs, maps of U.S. and Canada.
Audio features - 50x4 max power, Ce.NET with balanced audio line transmission and dynamic noise-canceling, 24 radio presets.
Extras - DVD/video CD/CD player, MP3 and WMA capability, two-zone function, full-feature remote control.
What to connect to it - iPod and iPod video with optional cable, backup camera input, optional XM and Sirius satellite radio, 5.1 surround decoder, TV tuner.
We can thank Eclipse in large part for helping to accelerate the popularity of aftermarket double-DIN Nav/source units. Their highly successful AVN (for audio, video and navigation) line has practically made an all-in-one solution the gold standard for double-DIN head units.
The only drawback with the AVN products with HDD navigation, at least for some consumers, was the price. Which explains why Eclipse is now offering the AVN6610 (and 5510)-in addition to the AVN2210p, which is perhaps a better mainstream product than something for car audio enthusiasts. Now you can get the quality offered by a market leader at a significantly lower price.
Unfortunately, there are other manufacturers with HDD Nav at a similar price point. So the question then becomes, is DVD navigation slower than HDD? If you could do a side-by-side, you would notice that during rerouting, a DVD-based system can be a little slower. Not so that you would miss a turn, but slower nonetheless.
The other question then is whether or not you have to sacrifice disc playback while routing. Thanks to the dual slot, that isn't a concern. Use the dual-zone capability to play a DVD through a monitor in the back while you navigate to your desired destination. In terms of "wake up" time, the Eclipse is almost immediately ready for navigation functions as soon as you start your car's engine. And scrolling across the map was as fast as some of the HDD-based Nav units we've evaluated.
Punch in a destination via the touch screen and choose from three routes supplied. Everything worked as it should, and the 6610 was excellent for overall Nav. Driving around Los Angeles and Orange County, California, we didn't experience any routing anomalies as we set destinations and even added routes along the way with ease. The drawbacks had more to do with user interface than with map data. We wished for more options for accessing various menu items. It's minor, but with the map already showing, we would've preferred to be able to input a destination from the touch screen instead of hitting the Menu button to get to the Dest key. Overall, the 6610 was slightly less intuitive for both Nav and audio functions. But once you get used to the system-which won't take long-you'll be rewarded with a full array of capabilities. One new feature is the City Map view display. In dense metropolitan areas such as LA, Chicago or Manhattan (check Eclipse's website for a list of covered cities), you can hit the icon (which looks like a street intersection) for a close view of an area with the buildings in outline. It's a bit like looking at a Google map.
On the audio side, you have DSP presets and a seven-band EQ. The Harmonizer feature helps improve the sound quality of your MP3/WMA music files. In addition to optimizing sound for different seating positions in your vehicle, you also have full control over your subwoofer. Set phase, cutoff frequency and slope. All in all, this is a true AVN. It may be missing a couple of features on the 5495, but then they've added other features (as well as a bigger screen), and of course the price is a lot more attractive. However, is it low enough? You can do some comparison shopping, but there's no doubt you definitely get your money's worth with the 6610.
Best Pricing -$850-$869
What we like - All-in-one unit, dual slot, one for separate CD/DVD playback, good graphics.
What we don't like - Average menu setup, remote control not included.
Nav features - 7-inch touch screen, monitor (as opposed to the 6.5-inch screen on the higher-end AVN), 8.5 million POIs, City Map view, option for Sirius traffic.
Audio features - 5-volt pre-amp output, 50x4 max power, seven-band EQ, listening position selector, circle surround II, 24 radio presets.
Extras - DVD/CD player with MP3/WMA playback, dual-zone capability.
What to connect to it - iPod with optional cable, Parrot Bluetooth for hands-free phone use, HD radio with adapter, Sirius radio and traffic information, TV tuner, rearview camera.
In a market crowded with flip-out monitors and double-DIN-based platforms, the JVC KD-NX5000 navigation source unit makes for an interesting review. Rather than conforming to a conventional, large-format screen, JVC stuffed a 3.5-inch widescreen TFT monitor into its removable faceplate. This seems a rather bold move in a competitive arena where ergonomics and visibility is key.
The KD-NX5000 uses two multiposition buttons to control adjustments for everything from volume and track to menu and navigation selections, with additional direct-
KD-NX5000 uses two multiposition buttons to control adjustments for
everything from volume and track to menu and navigation selections,
with additional direct-command buttons surrounding. Accessing the overabundant menus through these buttons is as easy as one could manage without resorting to a touch screen. Commonly used menu choices are generally accessible with a single touch of the "Menu" button on the faceplate, while pressing this same button two or three times will get you to supplemental choices.
Input selection for both audio and navigation takes place entirely through the multiposition button to the right of the screen or the similarly styled button on the remote. The menu system is among the most intuitive I've encountered and is very direct in its approach. For example, selecting from the POI menu required choosing the vicinity search, typing in a city and selecting from the submenus. If you know your destination, you have the option of typing in the name of your interest instead.
The KD-NX5000 is the first unit I've encountered that includes options for hearing turn-by-turn navigation instructions. Audio interrupt is selectable between the left or right channel and a combination of the two, also allowing any coexisting media to be fully muted, attenuated or played normally by the rear channels. Voice prompts are clear and easy to understand with a rather lifelike tone. Commands come well in advance and quickly, allowing the next turn to be rattled off with ample time for driver reaction. I only wish that JVC provided street name prompts so that the user is not required to view this information via the small monitor. Intentionally miss your turn, and the voice prompts quickly become an irritation. The Nav quickly commands a U-turn, even when a more direct solution could be straight ahead. This can occur several times before the system calculates its new route.
I found the RDS-TMC traffic tuner (subscription required) an option worth exploring. It works almost too well (read: it takes drastic measures) in guiding you around congestion, and more than once I turned off the guidance reroute and used it as a simple traffic information source (viewable in text form).
Viewing the monitor can be trying. While fine at night, during the light of day, much is compromised by the highly reflective faceplate. To that effect, the screen size does nothing to make viewing it any less aggravating. Quick glances at the unit for navigation info required squinting like a naked mole rat gazing into the sunny sky.
Aside from the access limitations when recording tracks from a music CD to the 24GB music server (you can't use any other source concurrently, including Nav), the audio/video section proved very worthy. Users are privy to a seven-band EQ, crossovers, complete subwoofer control and a host of other features, making it a nominee for content champion. And to sweeten the deal, JVC allows connectivity for a surprising amount of goodies, such as Bluetooth and iPod interface, to name a couple.
I like the unit for its complete feature content, connectivity and unique approach to otherwise standardized functions. Unfortunately, I was a bit put off by its small screen and navigation routing. If your needs weigh more heavily on the former, place this unit on your "check out" list.
Best Pricing - $650-$999
What we like - Expandability feature set, easy-to-use remote, FM tuner.
What we don't like - Small screen with reflective, high-gloss finish, access limitations when recording to music server.
Nav features - 40GB HDD, 13 million POIs, RDS-TMC traffic information tuner (subscription required), 2-D/3-D map views.
Audio features - 24GB HDD music server, seven-band EQ with three-user settings and nine presets, highpass/lowpass crossovers, subwoofer level/phase controls, (built-in) amplifier defeat, CEA rated 20 watts x 4.
Extras - Remote control, plays most audio media (excluding SACD/DVD-audio), WAV/JPEG/MPEG-compatible, built-in Dolby digital/dts decoders, 5.1 optical (digital) output, video input and output.
What to connect to it - Bluetooth adapter, XM or Sirius satrad receiver, iPod interface, backup camera, steering wheel remote adapter.
The Kenwood DNX7100 is one of the least-expensive, double-DIN, all-in-one multimedia source units with HDD navigation on the market. You might be tempted to think they've skimped on something here, but in fact the DNX7100 is a fairly complete package. It plays DVDs, CDs, covers about the same file formats as most of the other products reviewed here, and the 2 gigs of map data contain information on the U.S. as well as Canada.
Perhaps where Kenwood saved some money was on the graphics. The icons on the right side of the screen, which make up the main menu items, are a bit mystifying. Once you figure out what they represent-no problem. Overall, the graphics aren't quite at the same level as that of some other products, but from a utility standpoint, they serve the user well enough. That seems to be Kenwood's focus here: to make a head unit that is full-featured yet uncomplicated. There they have succeeded.
The navigation windows work very intuitively, pretty much the way you would imagine. In split-screen mode, you have the map on the left and a bar on the right with a street name. Hit the bar on the touch screen, and you get directions to your destination in text form, turn by turn. Touch the map, and you can go full screen. And if you want to access audio controls while navigating, just press the function button on the front panel.
We've used Garmin's StreetPilot, one of the better portables on the market, and the DNX7100 performed like its genetic twin. It even indicated the location of the editorial office, a place often left unidentified by most Nav units. Adding destinations, changing type of routes and canceling them were as easy as on the Clarion system-but at a significantly lower price point. Moreover, the touch screen was just as responsive as that found on the other Nav systems.
The only shortcoming was that the 7100 doesn't have a lot of depth in terms of tweaking ability on the audio side. You have the preset EQs-Natural, Rock, Pop, Easy, Top 40 and Jazz-and you can manage the subwoofer output. As well, you have the ability to adjust tone and your bass, mid and treble frequencies. For some people, that will probably do just fine, but other audio geeks may want finer tuning.
In the end, the Kenwood DNX7100 is a great overall value. It may not be the best-presented system with its somewhat outdated-looking graphics, but given its ease of use and all of its features combined with a brilliant price tag, this isn't a product to overlook as a navigation system and media source.
Best Pricing - $849-$899
What we like - All-in-one, ease of use, full remote control.
What we don't like - Lackluster graphics.
Nav features - Garmin navigation, map of U.S. and Canada, 6 million POIs,
option for TMC traffic or XM NavTraffic.
option for TMC traffic or XM NavTraffic.
Audio features - 50x4 max power, DVD, video CD, CD playback, three preouts with 2.0v preout level, 24 radio presets.
Extras - USB 2.0 direct connection, remote control, plays DivX format DVDs, MP3/WMA/AAC playback, zone control, SD card slot for map updates.
What to connect to it - iPod video with interface, optional adapter for Bluetooth, XM satellite radio.
To an inexperienced consumer, all navigation products probably look the same. After all, they all look like a computerized map on an LCD screen. Those of us who have experience with different navigation systems know that they are far from being created equally, despite their similar appearances. Accuracy, speed and ease of use are three of the main criteria that differentiate the entry-level products from the serious players, and the Panasonic Strada CN-NVD905U is a serious player. Although Panasonic is relatively new to navigation in the U.S., they own a large portion of the market share for navigation in Japan.
The CN-NVD905U impressed me right out of the box with its quick "wake up" time (the time it takes from the moment the unit receives power to the time it's ready to take commands)-taking only about half the time it takes other units I've tested and installed.
The design of the user interface and ease of use is a strong point of this unit, along with its responsiveness to touch-screen commands. Vehicle position accuracy and route calculation times were very good, likely due to the fact that its 30GB internal hard drive is dedicated solely to navigation.
One of the features that I appreciated was the CN-NVD905U's ability to input additional destinations, even if you've already entered your final destination. For example, if you've already entered an address for a business meeting and decide to swing by and pick up some Starbucks beforehand, you can search for the nearest Starbucks and add it to your route without having to cancel the original destination.
The very natural-sounding voice prompts of the CN-NVD905U are as good as any system on the market, and I felt that the timing and detail of the voice prompting was better than other units, giving you more time to safely make maneuvers such as changing lanes at freeway interchanges. With all of the construction that takes place in Southern California, I liked the CN-NVD905U's ability to register and store up to 10 "areas to avoid" so that the route guidance system can stay clear of known traffic hurdles. The addition of Sirius real-time traffic data should make the navigation experience even better but wasn't available at the time of this test.
As an audio unit, the CN-NVD905U has a lot of features and expandability. One key feature these days is iPod compatibility, and when connected to the optional Panasonic CA-DC300U iPod adapter, control and speed are very good.
Another cool feature is the "Traffic" button that allows quick and easy access to a preset XM or Sirius traffic station from any audio/visual screen. The lack of a "mute" button and a remote control interface was a bit disappointing. The Bluetooth hands-free cell phone interface put a ding in the CA-NVD905U's armor, lacking on-screen controls and only allowing outbound calls to be placed to the last number received. Despite a few shortcomings, the Strada CN-NVD905U is a very solid performer in the competitive double-DIN navigation category.
Best Pricing $797-$1,700
What we like - Navigation speed/performance and intuitive user interface.
What we don't like - Limited Bluetooth capability and system features.
Nav features - 30GB
hard drive disk, Sirius traffic-data ready, 12 million POIs, voice
guidance in English, Spanish and French, coverage includes Hawaii,
Canada and Puerto Rico.
Audio features - 18
watts rms/50 watts peak x 4 internal power, three sets of 2-volt RCA
outputs, seven-band graphic equalizer, speaker level and time
correction, SRS CS auto sound processing, MP3/WMA playback.
Extras - DVD video playback, one A/V input and one video output.
What to connect to it - iPod, XM, Sirius, TV tuner and Bluetooth modules (requires additional expansion module for two or more), rear-seat entertainment system and rearview camera.
The highly anticipated D3 brings a Nav unit from a major player into a more affordable price range. It comes from the same gene pool as Pioneer's higher-priced offerings but doesn't provide the same fancy features, such as adaptive routing and voice command capability. Nonetheless, the unit impresses with quick routing and rerouting, not to mention copious and easy-to-find POIs.
The D3's GUI is intuitive, with multiple soft keys on an accurate touch screen. They've done good work on the map detail, and all of the menus are easy to understand. You can choose from five map views and customize up to five soft shortcut keys for your most commonly accessed features. For instance, we chose a route overview button that came in handy. Why did it come in handy? Because of the D3's often-quirky routing.
Although the unit would always get us where we wanted to go, the routes it chose weren't always the most efficient. For instance, even though we chose "fastest route" in the preferences, the D3 would often take us on a slower path. Upon taking the known quicker route, the unit would reroute and actually adjust its projected arrival time to an earlier one. It basically acknowledged its mistake. This quirk happened quite frequently in our dense metropolitan area, but in a less crowded area with fewer options, it probably wouldn't cause much consternation.
On the upside, we love the POIs. The intelligent search software will find your request in any part of an entry. You can search by city or do a vicinity search. For instance, if you type "library" for a particular city, you'll find all entries with that word in them as opposed to having to think of the exact name of the library. The database is current, and there are many useful categories. Another plus is that most entries have a listed phone number that appears in a clickable scrolling bar. Despite the great POIs, they aren't infallible. At least one entry had the wrong address entirely, and another had the location on the wrong side of the road.
The prompts are generally on time, but sometimes they aren't. Rerouting can also be slow, but this isn't due to processing. Instead, both problems stem from the GPS receiver, which isn't pinpoint accurate. It can find you several hundred feet from where you actually are.
The D3 has many multimedia features. Unfortunately, most of them are add-ons, which increases the overall cost. In addition to AM/FM, your primary source out of the box will be the DVD/CD player. But since this unit relies on DVD-ROM navigation, you have no open drive to stick your disc in. Once you start navigating, you can remove the DVD-ROM and play a CD, but you need to put it back in to go somewhere else. CD playback is simple, and it plays multiple file formats.
If you primarily listen to AM/FM or an MP3 player through the mini auxiliary input, the AVIC-D3 is a satisfactory solution out the box. However, if you want to listen to anything else, you'll want to purchase several hundred dollars' worth of add-ons, defeating the purpose of a low-cost, in-dash navigation unit.
Best Pricing - $689-$899
What we like - Incredible price point, great POIs (points of interest).
What we don't like - DVD-based navigation monopolizes single disc drive, quirky routing.
Nav features - Touch screen, 12 million POIs with 271 categories, NavTraffic-ready.
Audio features - 50x4 max power, EEQ settings, three-pair RCA preouts, front auxiliary input, 24 radio presets.
Extras - DVD/CD player with DivX, AAC, MP3 and WMA capability, vehicle dynamics display, emergency mode display.
What to connect to it - Optional cable for iPod and iPod video, backup camera input, optional.