When we asked Navman to put up a satnav for our three-way test against the TomTom Go 920 T and Garmin nuvi 770, the Navman S90i was its obvious answer - all three products are the flagship models of their respective brands. And the home-grown Navman has some neat aces up its sleeve.
The most obvious of these, of course, is the Navman S90i’s built-in 2-megapixel digital still camera, a feature both of its rivals lack. That’s because Navman is keen to tout NavPix - a unique photo sharing site that enables Navman satnav users to see real pictures of potential destinations that have been uploaded by other members.
While we’re sceptical about the real value of some add-ons for satnavs (MP3 playback, for example), sharing pictures of places you’ve visited does make some sense. Imagine being able to match the building, street or landmark you can see through the windscreen in front of you, with photos of that location downloaded from NavPix to your Navman - it should reassure you that you’ve arrived in the right place.
It has other obvious benefits too - relatives can send you pictures of their new homes so you can go to visit them, and you’ll be able snap pictures of hazards like low bridges, fords, etc that you can share with other drivers.
You can, of course, view pictures on many other satnav systems - including those from TomTom and Garmin - but Navman has really made this feature its own.
Another benefit is geo-tagging. Every picture you take automatically has GPS reference information added to its metadata - enabling you and others to drive directly to that destination. Navman gives the example of tourist destinations like the Eiffel Tower or the Tower Of London - everyone knows what they look like, but geo-tagged photos will actually help you drive there. Navman is ahead of the curve in this respect.
The rest of the Navman S90i’s features are more prosaic. Like its rivals, the S90i features UK and European maps supplied by TeleAtlas, built-in Traffic Message Channel data (with a free subscription for the lifetime of the product), Points Of Interest (POI) data and Bluetooth for use with mobile phones and so on.
Navman bulks up
We’re not sure whether the built-in camera is to blame, but the Navman S90i is considerably chunkier than either the TomTom Go 920 T or the Garmin Nuvi 770. It has a much wider bezel around its 4.3-inch widescreen display than either of its rivals and is also considerably thicker than both.
On the top sit the power and camera buttons, the left side has sockets for an external aerial, microphone and headphones, while the bottom houses the USB / power socket and an SD card slot.
The camera lens can be found on the back - along with S90i’s built-in speaker - where it's protected by a sliding cover that you can easily flick open and close with a thumb. The problem is it’s almost too effortless, making it easy to fire the camera when you don’t want it to - like when you’re trying to get the Navman S90i on to its widescreen mount, for example.
Using the S90i
This in turn reveals another problem. The widescreen mount is fiddly to use - you have to slide the mount into a groove on the back of the Navman S90i, but not without first securely slotting the USB power cord into its own grooves on the windscreen mount. It took us a couple of goes to get this right - we only realised first time when the power on the unit suddenly gave out on our test route, the S90i gave us no indication that it was running only on batteries until it was too late.
Even when you do make sure everything is hooked up properly, getting the Navman on to its windscreen mount is still a faff to do. Both Garmin and TomTom have much more elegant solutions, but at least the Navman stays glued to the screen once it’s setup - the widescreen mount is better than the one used by TomTom in this respect.
Fire it up for the first time and the Navman S90i immediately kicks you into street map view where it plots your current location. To set up your preferences you simply hit the slightly cryptic icon on the left of the menu bar. From then on you’re presented with three sub-menus / pages of icon buttons, enabling you to setup and access your favourite destinations, search for location by address or postcode, access your NavPix etc.
The way the menus have been structured is a little strange though - the first page makes sense, the second page is headed up by NavPix with virtual buttons for finding your nearest petrol station or parking, and the third has buttons for SOS (local hospitals, police stations, etc), cash points and food.
Now we know NavPix is a crucial part of Navman’s worldview but you don’t really want to have to sail past that before you get to sub-menu three and the SOS button, surely? ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t stop you from bleeding to death, but I have taken some nice pictures of the gaping wound in your chest.’ OK, we’ve exaggerated a bit, but you get the point.
Although the main menu system is simple enough, a couple of other things grate - it’s all very grey and bland with some fairly hideous icons. Other bits are cumbersome to navigate: having to select a country every time you want to find a POI gets old pretty quickly, as does the resulting long and very grey list which you scroll through using icky up/down menu buttons.
The Points Of Interest test
The Navman S90i also failed our Points Of Interest test. We wanted to find a very popular tourist landmark (a city zoo) deep in the heart of Bristol, but it didn't exist on Navman’s maps. It’s not even listed as having a car park. Compare that to its rivals: the Garmin nuvi 770 found the zoo at the first attempt; the TomTom Go at least managed the car park. It could be an anomaly, but you expect it to be there. You almost start to wonder how good Navman's maps are likely to be.
On the road though it looks like we needn’t have worried. The Navman got us around our test route with nary a glitch, even if some of the slightly barking voice commands did get a bit wearing after a while. At least like the Garmin nuvi 770, the Navman S90i has the decency to tell us which roads to turn into - eg ‘turn left into Smith Street’ rather than the more generic commands served up by TomTom.
It also appears to present a more detailed view of the road ahead a la Garmin - or it could be that its largely grey presentation seems just a tad more ovewhelming than either the Garmin nuvi 770 or TomTom Go 920 T.
The Navman S90i is also the only one of the three systems we looked at that is resolutely Windows only when it comes fetching updates from a Mac or PC. The software is easy to use. However we think Navman could do with expanding its horizons a bit here.
We think you can see what conclusion we’re coming to. There are certainly some things we like about the Navman S90i - it's easy to use and it does a decent job of getting you from A to B, and it's cheap compared to its rivals, but it is competent, rather than awe-inspiring. What it lacks - aside from NavPix - is any real flair or leap of imagination over its rivals. For many the benefit of a built-in camera or even NavPix functionality per se - won't be enough to convince them otherwise.