Alpine Blackbird Portable In-Car Navigator

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The emergence of new full-featured ready-to-drive portable navigation devices is good news for consumers. Alpine debuts its Blackbird at the list price of $750, surprisingly affordable for a navigator with a pre-installed road database covering the entire U.S., let alone a built-in MP3 player, an FM transmitter and a receiver for real-time traffic updates.

A snazzy product that resembles the Magellan RoadMate series, the Blackbird also suctions to your windshield and powers itself from your 12V lighter jack. That's the only plugging you have to do in order to play — its internal GPS receiver quickly picks up your location, even if your view of the sky is partially obstructed. It contains the latest version of Navteq's map database, the same database used by Mapquest and Google.

That doesn't mean that it will always steer you in the same direction once you've punched in your destination. I found that while it was dependable at getting me where I need to go, it did on one occasion take me on a route other navigation devices would not have chosen. I can't complain too loudly about the turn-by-turn directions — they always got me where I needed to go. The graphics, however, sometimes confused the situation. Other devices now offer a driver's perspective 3D view; Alpine only provides the bird's, er, Blackbird's eye view.

The highlight of the Blackbird is its FM transmitter. Rather than rely on the internal speaker, you can choose to hear the instructions through the FM radio in your car's own sound system. Because a road trip could get pretty boring if you had to keep your radio tuned to your turn-by-turn navigator, Alpine included a rudimentary MP3 player. Take any old SD card (sold separately), fill it with MP3s or WMA files, including protected files you download from Yahoo! and other online stores, pop it into the card slot and the music player inside will find it all and blast it through your FM stations. People who use FM transmitters for their iPods will be sad to hear that there is no iPod jack, or even a simple auxiliary input jack, on the Blackbird. Fortunately, Alpine's Steve Witt tells me that the company is "studying that implementation right now," and that a version with a iPod-compatible jack could be out within a year.

The Blackbird's full talents won't be realized until June, when a major software update will be released. Customers who buy the Blackbird now will be able to download the software for free. Not only will it contain the latest map of the U.S.; it will also activate the real-time traffic receiver built into the product. (Navteq currently tracks traffic in 31 cities, and will most likely charge $60 per year for the service.)

If you're in the market for a navigation product, the Blackbird certainly holds its own against competition from Garmin, TomTom, Magellan and soon, Sony and Mio. But if you want to get your $750 worth, you had better be ready to upgrade (via Web download or CD-ROM) this summer.