Navigate a New Way

The Navigon Pocket Loox N100, while not infallible, is still one of the best personal electronic guides available.
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Navigation snobs rejoice: The nav wars are upon us.

Like the Spartans brawling the Persians, a la 300 the movie, the cozy personal navigation world is being overrun by a horde of new, fabulously outfitted nav tools.

The battle will almost certainly be ugly for vendors. Margins and market share will be squeezed.

But consumers? We will love it.

We, our families and those we employ will never get lost as easily again.

Personal navigation is about to get fabulous.

Map Quest

Personal navigation is rare in consumer electronics: It's a piece of popular techno gear that is not an iPod. Established navigation companies such as Magellan,

Garmin

(GRMN) - Get Report

and TomTom NV command top-selling spots in the gadgetsphere. Just check out Amazon.com's

top-selling electronics. There, usually in the top five, is a Garmin Nuvi Pocket 350 personal navigator -- my current favorite of the portable navigation devices -- right next to a slew of

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

products. Heady company indeed.

Most other established electronics makers are pushing hard for their piece of the growing nav pie. Pioneer, LG, Clarion, Eclipse Car Audio and others are building navigation into their in-car systems. And start-ups, such as Pharos Science and Applications, are making hay in the market with bolt-on GPS units such as the iGPS-500. And let's not forget the cell operators:

Verizon Wireless

(VZ) - Get Report

,

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

and

Sprint

(S) - Get Report

are all showing nice results with their turn-by-turn

navigation tools.

"The sector has finally solved the issues of global positioning: maps, processors and displays," says Blake Bowen, program manager of

Navigon USA, the Chicago-based personal navigation company. "And with the money in the market, it's attracting everyone's attention."

The news this spring is the horde of navigation products and companies flooding the space with new features, better designs and lower prices. I like what I am seeing from companies such as

Dash Express,

Directed Electronics, dMedia and, in particular, Navigon.

For the past few months I have been testing a prerelease Navigon unit, the Pocket Loox N100 ($499). The Loox came to market in mid-March. And all I can say is, I wish the rest of the consumer tech world were this innovative.

The Pocket Loox -- which has been available in Europe for roughly a year and is a co-venture with Fujitsu-Siemens -- wins major style points.

The unit is about the size and weight of a can of imported anchovies. And it is done in a fine, matte silver and white, with a simple 2 ¾-inch diagonal screen, a memory card slot, two small control buttons, a power input and a mini-universal serial bus connector. It's that simple.

The Navigon boots up to a very clean interface that gives you a choice of navigation, music, content and unit settings. Right away it's clear that Navigon is serious about maximizing the user experience.

The unit comes complete with the entire street-by-street atlas of North America, so getting around is out-of-the-box easy. Information is displayed in a nice, not-too-cluttered layout. I liked the 2-D and 3-D modes, the excellent archives of points of interest, and the smart indexing system that minimizes the time needed to find a location.

Getting the route from my house to Larchmont Yacht Club, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Las Vegas or the midcoast of Maine was just a few clicks away.

Although I confused the Navigon a few times in tough 3-D terrain such as the overpass to the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx, navigation quality was excellent in general, as was satellite clarity and speed of access. The unit even offers a legitimate latitude and longitude fix, so it can be used with a real paper map.

The unit is not without its limits.

If you decide to upgrade your memory, you will need to reinstall the maps with the DVD supplied, which is a pain.

There is also no method as of now to get fully updated maps (road maps change slightly about every six months).

Navigon says, however, that a service that allows for updating the system is coming online soon.

I was also disappointed with the quality of the unit when walking, particularly in parks and open spaces. Don't take the Navigon camping.

And I maxed out the processing power and cut down on the company's claimed battery life of five hours by trying to navigate, find a new location and listen to music at the same time.

Driving to a my radio show, attempting to get back home and playing my

Best of Tribe Called Quest

mash-up slowed the unit to a halt a few times and burned the battery in just a few hours.

Speaking of music, don't expect the content features to compete with your iPod. That's not the Navigon.

I wonder if this device will survive the inevitable day when Apple adds navigation to its product line. But if you're looking for a state-of-the-art navigation aid that will work very well, right now, consider the Navigon.

Take it from the navigeek: With all the options for finding where you are these days, only losers get lost.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.