Sony Nav-U NV-U70 Portable In-Car Navigator

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Last week, I reviewed the frill-laden Alpine Blackbird navigator, a $750 product that has all sorts of features, including an FM transmitter to hear instructions (and music) through the car stereo, as well as built-in hardware to receive traffic updates, once the service launches in June. This week, I look at Sonyís entry into portable navigation, the remarkably priced and exceptionally stylish Nav-U.

In launching a navigation product in the US, Sony decided to be conservative, pouring its resources into making a product that works well, looks good, and is easy to use. There is no realtime traffic feature, nor is there an MP3 player, or the infrared or Bluetooth connectivity found in other products. Itís just a compact dashboard device with a full map of the US, ready to give you turn by turn instructions.

As someone who has tested many portable navigators, I first noticed the clarity and crispness of the screen — not just the LCD panel but the graphics that appeared on it. Sony appears to have paid a higher degree of attention to the graphical user interface than any of its competitors. Given a few minutes to acclimate myself with the device, I soon learned how to input destinations or find points of interest. I especially liked the fact that I could search by zip code as well — you donít have to know a zip code, but if you do, you can identify your destination very quickly. Thereís nothing raggedy about the visuals. Not only is text exceptionally readable, but features like forests and rivers appear clearly on the map as you drive. Like some other navigators (but not all), a twilight sensor built into the device adjusts brightness levels and screen colors for day and night.

The audio, too, was a surprise. Who would have thought that a digital womanís voice, set at a reasonable volume, could so clearly cut through the music blaring from my car stereo? Alpineís Blackbird may have an FM transmitter for broadcasting commands through the car radio, but Sonyís Nav-U doesnít seem to need one.

As pleased as I was with the product, there were some things that rubbed me the wrong way. Every other portable navigator that I have tested shuts off when I turn off the ignition of my car. Even those that run on batteries offer to stay on but automatically shutting down if I donít answer. The Nav-U stays on unless you manually turn it off; several times during my test I forgot to shut it down, and ended up draining the battery.

Another funny thing was that when you set the screen view to the 3D driverís perspective, the names of roads donít appear. Sony personnel acknowledged this, but didnít seem to realize how useful it can be to read the names of roads, even when youíre not actively seeking turn-by-turn directions.

Overall, itís a great product, one that Sony says is the first of a line. By Christmas, models richer in features should appear, but I say why wait? If what you want is reliable turn-by-turn navigation in an attractive package, this little toy totally does the trick.