External GPS receivers have become common and cheap, but an increasing number of GPS navigation systems are based on a PDA and an integrated GPS receiver. There are obvious advantages, like reducing the size of the overall package, being able to use it outside the car (no cigarette plug required). This is nice, but the most important aspect of having an integrated GPS is to control the user experience. That’s exactly what Pharos is doing with the Pharos 525 all-in-one GPS navigation system.
The Pharos GPS 525 is built on a PocketPC Platform. This means that it’s a full-fledged PDA with all the goodness such as integrated Wifi and Bluetooth. When I opened the box, I was surprised too see that the Pharos GPS 525 was much smaller than I thought (109.7mm x 59.4mm x 17.6mm). It’s a very elegant PDA that’s smaller and lighter than my Treo 700w. The only downside is quite obvious: the screen is rather small (2.8”) and depending on where on the dashboard the GPS is, reading the street names might be difficult.
Like many recent GPS receiver, the Pharos uses the SiRFstarIII, which is considered by many as the best consumer-level GPS chipset. This new chip should do better in difficult GPS environments such as cities with tall buildings or forests with high trees. It also helps reducing the “time to first fix” (time to get a 3D position) compared to older models. The complete feature list is at the bottom of this page, but the highlights are WiFi+Bluetooth connectivity, 300Mhz CPU, 64MB of user memory, SDIO and a 320×240 screen.
The WiFi Connectivity lets user download maps on the internet, thanks to Pharos’ Smart Map Server. Pharos also has a real-time traffic service called Smart Traffic that could be accessed via a Bluetooth phone (by using the phone as a communication device). Our unit came also with a pre-loaded 512MB SD Card that contains the top 50 metropolitan areas of the U.S.
Now that you get the idea of what the Pharos GPS 525 is, it’s time to do a road trip and see how well it performs. First, we need to mount the unit in the vehicle. Strangely enough, there’s no vent mounting system, only a windshield mount (suction-based) is included in the box. I was a bit worried that the suction base would obstruct the view, but it turns out that it doesn’t. Obviously, this depends largely on your car.
Power on, launch Ostia and go
Setup: This is where having an integrated GPS really pays. It is much easier to setup and use, because the manufacturer knows exactly what’s in there and can control the user experience. There’s no need to connect a Bluetooth device or setup a COM port, it’s all pre-configured for you. At a minimum, any user should be able to power up the unit, enable the GPS and quickly see where on the map he or she is.
Software: After launching Ostia, the GPS software, it takes anywhere between 5 and 45 seconds to get a fix on your location. This is much better than previous generation GPS system that I played with.
Once that’s done, you should see your precise position from the map, and it is possible to select 3D view (bird’s eye) or a 2D view (map-style). I really prefer the 2D view as it is much easier to see what’s coming. I think that the view angle the 3D one is way too large. By nature, the perspective will shrink on the screen anything that’s ahead. I noticed that the readability of the maps have been improved from Ostia version 6.1.
Ostia has a big database with a lot of points of interest (POI) like restaurants, ATMs and more. If your destination is not in the POI database, you can choose where you want to go by address, intersection or simply by choosing a point on the map. There are a few easy steps to enter the destination information and, you’re good to go. The initial route computation will take up to 20 seconds (it will vary depending on the length of your trip).
From there, you just need to follow the route and if you do a wrong turn the 525 GPS will re-compute a route. (Depending on the destination, re-computing the route can take 10 to 20 seconds)
Nothing is perfect
It is good, but the Pharos GPS 525 is not perfect. There are a few things that could be better and thankfully they don’t involve adding expensive stuff in the device.
Routing: I usually choose the destination by address and things mostly work, but there’s one thing that I would like to see improved: if a street spans across several ZIP codes, Ostia will ask you to choose a ZIP code without a visual confirmation. The last thing that I would know about a new destination is its zip code.
Sound Quality: I really dislike using the voice turn by turn feature with any GPS, but if you want to do so, be aware that the Pharos 525 GPS speaker is not really powerful. Depending on how noisy the interior of your car is, it might be difficult to hear the instructions. Signal: The new SiRFstarIII GPS chipset does a great job at picking up the signal in adverse conditions. However, we’ve had some issues with tall buildings in downtown San Francisco (Financial District) during our tests. These problems are inherent to the GPS signal itself, as it is blocked by the buildings. An external antenna on the car might help, but we expect most handheld devices to have difficulties at these locations.
Readability: The display is good, but users should be aware of two things: it is small (2.8”) and it is possible to get a lot of refle
ctions in broad daylight. This can be alleviated by orienting the unit downwards to avoid the reflection form the windshield.
Heads Up: Display It would be nice if the names of the next (few?) crossing street was displayed somewhere.
Touch screen: PDAs screens are not always accurate when using the fingers and I think that critical User Interface components like the OK button should not be placed in a corner of the screen as it is hard to click there.
Mounting System: The mounting system worked very well. I’ve had another suction mount that fell over while I was driving before and it’s quite… surprising to say the least. This one stayed on solidly. However, the design is far from appealing. I would strongly recommend to use a mount with a holster-style design that will be much more discrete and would allow for an easier extraction of the device.
Scrolling: Video games have had smooth scrolling for the longest time, so I think that any user would be glad to enjoy smooth scrolling and rotations while driving.
The Pharos GPS 525 is a very nice and compact unit that will prove very efficient in or out of the car as it would be a great GPS device to take for a camping trip (along with a solar charger). In the car, it covers the basic very well: one-button start, easy to use, fast satellite fix and nation-wide maps. I’ve said it before: I really like the Ostia Software that I have been using for many years now. If you can get past the small screen, the Pharos 525 GPS is a great all-in-one navigation system that I have no problem recommending. Don’t forget that it is also a real PDA with WIFI, Bluetooth and Windows Mobile 5.0
What’s in the Box?
Pharos Traveler GPS 525 device
AC Adapter Battery
Windshield bracket mount
User manual and
Quick Start Guide
Getting started CD
Leather carrying case
USB SD Card Reader
512MB SD card with preloaded maps
Maps of entire U.S. on CD
• Microsoft® Windows Mobile™ version 5.0 software
• Pocket versions of Microsoft software are included (Outlook, Word, Excel, Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer for Pocket PC)
• SiRFstarIII GPS receiver
• Processor: SC32442X 300 MHz processor
• Memory: 64MB RAM/128MB ROM
• Dimensions: 109.7mm (L) x 59.4mm (W) x 17.6mm (T)
• Resolution: 240 x 320 with 65,536 colors
• Expansion: SDIO expansion slot
• Bluetooth version 1.2 802.11b with 64-128 bit WEP standard data encryption