For my birthday last week, Beth got me a Garmin i2 SatNav system. Before anybody starts reading anything into that, about Beth not wanting to navigate whilst I’m driving, I did actually ask for one! Although I don’t go out on the road for work often, it is useful to have a compact, reliable satnav system to find customer sites and the like. I didn’t want anything fancy, so the i2, with it’s simple black and white screen, and only about the size of a tennis ball is perfect. Coupled with that, all the reviews I’d seen of the i-series systems were positively glowing with the units beating many of the more expensive and flashy models in terms of reliability and accuracy.
Anyway, yesterday we went off to a family gathering at my uncles house in Little Chalfont, so I thought I’d give the unit a test run on a route that I knew. The first hiccup we came across is that whilst it can pretty well direct you into our drive with no trouble, it had problems with my uncles street where all the houses have names rather than numbers. In the end it gave me three waypoints at various points in the street, and I took a guess at what was roughly the right one. That solved, off we set.
The first disagreement I had with it’s choice of route was getting to the motorway. It looked to be trying to take us to the M4 at Winnersh, however I tend to go on at the next junction along at Reading, because thanks to the waits at several sets of traffic lights going round through Winnersh it seems to work out as a better route. At the point I diverged from the route, the unit just recalculated the route. Initially it tried to make me go all the way around the next roundabout (I had already set it up not to do any U-turns), but after that it flipped over and followed the same route I’d use to get to the motorway.
Once on the motorway, there really wasn’t much choice about the route, just along the M4, and then onto the M25. On the M25 we got probably the most amusing moment, which was thanks to the speed camera warning database I had loaded in. Essentially this means that that unit will issue a warning as you approach a speed camera location, and then raise an alarm if your speed is above what is recorded as the speed limit at the camera. Whilst with the variable speed limit on the M25 it isn’t possible to raise the speed alarm, it does include which gantries on the motorway actually have real cameras on them. What was amusing was as we were driving along the motorway the variable speed limit was on, and at the precise moment that our unit beeped to alert us to the upcoming camera, another four or five cars in various of the other lanes close by suddenly put their brakes on, all in unison – showing up all the other people who were using the database!
Anyway, coming up to junction seventeen we had another example where the satnav was no substitute for local knowledge. The unit indicated that we should go off at junction seventeen, and then looked to be directing us up the back roads through Heronsgate. Whilst on paper that route appears quicker, I know that all the roads up that way are pretty narrow, and that it is a lot quicker to go the mile or so to the next junction, and head along the A404. So I drove on past the A412 juntion, and the unit dutifully recalculated, and agreed on the route as far as the edge of Little Chalfont. However at the edge of the village, it again told me to turn off down one of the lanes, despite the fact that it was a lot easier to drive on into the centre of the village and turn straight into the other end of their street. Again I ignored it, and once past that point it recalculated to the route I would expect.
On the way home I thought we’d go the scenic route, and take the A404 as far as Amersham, and then back through Beaconsfield, and down into the Thames Valley. From there we headed along the north side of the river through Marlow, eventually heading south at Henley. Initially it stopped trying to get me to head back in the other direction quite quickly, before we’d even got to Amersham, however that was only because it had found another route from Beaconsfield down to Maidenhead. Once I turned away from it’s route in Beaconsfield it kept coming up with requests to go around roundabouts, and even at one point driving in a loop around a triangular junction just outside Marlow in order to try and get back to the A404. However, once we’d got about halfway between Marlow and Henley it eventually opted for a route through Henley. However, that wasn’t the last time it tried to go another way. Within a mile of our house, it strangely decided it would be quicker to drive past the turn, and then go round the village bypass, including two roundabouts, and in the other end, rather than take the much quicker route through the estate. I assume that the reason for that is that since the bypass is an A road, the algorithm believes that it will be a quicker road, without factoring in the time it would take at each roundabout.
So the conclusion of the test run is that whilst it always knows where you are, and always recalculates the route without complaint (unlike a human navigator), it really does come up with some weird routes. As another example, nobody could understand last week why the coach driver took us to the M4 straight through the middle of Wokingham on a busy Saturday morning. However, put a route to or from almost anywhere to the east of Reading on the M4 and Finchampstead, into a route planner and almost always they’ll route via the Bracknell end of the A329M through the centre of Wokingham, because all the roads through the town centre are classed as A-roads. Definitely shows that a current satnav system is no substitute for local knowledge.
Having said that, I’m still really pleased with my new little Garmin. It’s got a simple to use interface (no messing about with a stylus), has a decent GPS, which includes WAAS support and can take maps from the standard Garmin ranges. The lack of a colour screen is no loss, and of course makes it cheaper, so for a little over Â£100 you get an address level navigator, that is small enough to remove from the car and hide away when not in use, just the kind of thing I was looking for.