Dial M for Map
Audio snob. Video snob.

And now -- get ready, world -- navigation snob.

I have spent the past month or so testing Verizon's (VZ) latest VZ Navigator personal navigator tool.

My verdict? Yes, it works. Even nicely, at times. It's not expensive -- you can't beat $9.95 a month. And it's handy, built right into your cell phone.

But -- sorry, Verizon -- the Navigator is poorly designed, it's hard to use, and sometimes it's flat-out wrong.

I was ready to love the VZ Navigator. My friends call me (lovingly, of course) the navigeek. I have four different global-positioning units, depending on need, including two wristwatch GPSs from Suunto, as well as access to the best in-car systems from Pioneer and others. I enjoy using a sextant, watch, planetary log and the stars to find my position on this lovely Earth.

So I have been thrilled to witness the birth of personal navigation as a bona fide trend.

Not only are traditional nav makers making great portable positioning units, such as Garmin International's ( GRMN) Nuvi ($645), but portable computer makers such as Dell ( DELL) now can use excellent navigation add-ons, such as the BT-20 ($169) from DeLorme, due out later this year.

I love the tidal wave of new in-car navigation tools from Alpine Electronics, TomTom, Delphi and others. And let's not forget the cell-phone products from other wireless carriers such as Cingular, Sprint and Disney Mobile. Plus, with Apple set to release the iPhone, how long can it be before it, too, offers directions?

But like digital cameras before it, there is a new problem facing the red-hot nav market: shoe-horning navigation tools into everything from cell phones to cars is pushing the engineering limits of portable navigation.

Global-positioning systems require separate electronics and chips that eat up space and power. They require a big screen for maps, digital storage to hold those maps and points of interest, and an easy-to-use interface -- all of which are dear on smaller gadgets such as cell phones.

Take the VZ Navigator.

Cell-phone navigation is so tricky that Verizon wisely teamed up with another company, Networks in Motion, to create VZ Navigator. And the two deserve some major kudos for making their nav system work as well as it does.

The global-positioning electronics fit nicely in the Razr phone I tested; there was no difference between a VZ Navigator-enabled Razr phone and a plain one.

And at first blush -- and under optimum conditions -- the little naviphone worked just fine.

VZ Navigator has a very clever cell-phone-network-assisted system that uses the position of the cell towers to guide the nav phone to the proper tracking satellite.

The system wakes up and figures out its location faster, probably, than any unit I have ever used.

VZ Navigator calculated a course to my radio studio on 45th Street in Manhattan in a reasonable period. It also comes very nicely finished with solid turn-by-turn voice instructions and some limited mapping. I got a kick out of the "get ready to turn right in .4 miles" instructions I got as I drove south on FDR Drive. I never missed an exit, and when I knew my way, the unit performed well.

But in some real-world testing, it was not so pretty.

All the navigational calculating cut my battery life by about half.

And since the Razr has limited digital storage, all the navigation calculations -- including mapping, instruction and points of interest -- must be fed in live over Verizon's digital network.

The system works acceptably well when you are within range of Verizon's fast evolution data-optimized (EV-DO) network.

But travel beyond the fast network coverage area -- say, where I was over the holidays in upper Michigan or in Nevada's Red Rock Canyon -- and the unit essentially stops working, albeit with some basic limp-home modes.

There were some significant mapping gaffes in my tests.

On the entrance to the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx, for example, and at the turnoff for Interstate 80 near Toledo, Ohio, the unit gave me flatly incorrect results. If I did not know my way, I would have spent a day joyriding around the South Bronx or central Toledo -- not so fun.

And since the phone is not a native nav tool, the interface can be very clunky to use. On a trip from downtown Las Vegas to Red Rock Canyon, I entered the visitors center's information instead of a street name.

Only after I went up and down the same stretch of road three times and completed three hair-raising, midtraffic U-turns did I suss out my error.

Since driving and reprogramming this phone is so dang overwhelming, in this instance, the VZ Navigator left me a confused GPS refugee.

Networks in Motion counters that this unit is not designed to work in such remote areas or to be the primary navigation unit in a moving car.

The company also says it and Verizon are working hard to upgrade the coverage area for VZ Navigator so there will be fewer gaps.

And both Verizon and Networks in Motion plan to offer more tools, such as predictive traffic, to improve voyaging efficiency.

"This system is really designed to work where a cell phone works," says Steve Andler, vice president of marketing for Networks in Motion. "Where the average business traveler is spending their time, it works very well."

My advice? As a free-standing navigation tool, I simply cannot recommend VZ Navigator. It's not worth the hassle.

But for a handy backup for everyday use in noncritical situations -- such as business travel, where you have maps and other guidance -- the VZ Navigator is handy tool worth considering.

It's probably one of the better cell-phone-based navigation products on the market.

But for now, anyway, that's not saying much.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

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.

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