Review: MiTAC Magellan Premium Car Kit for iPhone or iPod touch
As excited as we are about new iPod and iPhone accessories, and as open-minded as we can be regarding in-car GPS solutions for Apple's devices, there's an elephant in the room that's impossible to ignore when considering the total cost of GPS applications and car mounting hardware: at this point in time, you're almost invariably going to be better off buying a dedicated GPS unit for your car than the software and accessory necessary to transform your iPhone or iPod touch into a turn-by-turn navigator. For that reason, although MiTAC's Magellan Premium Car Kit ($130) is a well-designed in-car mounting device with a few interesting tricks up its sleeve, and designed to be paired with the company's $80 Magellan RoadMate 2010 application, it's hard to recommend broadly to iPod touch or iPhone users -- only those who want to spend as much on a mount as they would on a complete GPS solution should consider it an option.
As the Magellan Premium Car Kit has a wider variety of features than one might initially expect just from a quick glance, we’re going to break them down individually below. Most obvious is the fact that the Kit serves as an iPhone 3G/3GS or 2008-2009 iPod touch mounting and charging solution, as MiTAC includes six primary pieces—an adjustable cradle with a Dock Connector at the bottom and a clamp at the top, a rotating and ratcheting windshield mount and ball joint system that enables you to tilt the iPod or iPhone and turn it into one of four 90-degree locked positions, a power charging cable, a screw-on piece to connect the ball joint to the cradle, an adhesive plastic piece that you can attach to a dashboard to bond with the suction cup if you don’t want to stick the mount to a car window, and a cleaning swab to prep either your windshield or dashboard for mounting.
Mounting Performance. We tested the Premium Car Kit in various positions in our car, finding the clamp- and suction-based windshield mount to be completely stable when applied to a clean, flat surface. Moreover, we liked the design of the cradle, which accommodates iPod touch and iPhone models inside or outside of cases, and uses a spring-loaded Dock Connector to make insertion and removal fairly easy for the user. A button on the right lets you adjust the height and tension of the device-holding clamp, while a switch on the back enables you to expand or contract a pad to accommodate the thickness of anything from an encased thicker iPhone to a thin, unencased iPod touch. Because of its smooth ratcheting motion, the Kit makes changes to widescreen or portrait orientation of the iPhone or iPod touch feel easy and secure.
Though we’re not huge fans of windshield mounting, and find interacting with the device’s touchscreen to be overly difficult due to the distance a short-armed mounting solution creates from one’s hand, there’s little doubt that the iPhone or iPod touch’s screen is still visible from that distance, and MiTAC’s inclusion of the dashboard-ready adhesive mounting piece will work for some users. Be aware, however, that the black power cable dangles off of one corner of the Kit at all times, hanging down in front of your car stereo, and that the Kit will not work for anything except mounting if the cable is disconnected. All of its other features require the car charger for power.
A Speaker and Bluetooth Speakerphone. Though windshield mounts for the iPod touch and iPhone can commonly be had in the $20-$30 range, MiTAC’s solution adds a number of features that are rare in competing accessories, including both a powered, bottom-firing speaker and a Bluetooth chip. Even if you don’t establish a Bluetooth connection with the Premium Car Kit, the bottom speaker performs audio from the connected iPhone or iPod touch, allowing you to manually adjust its output volume level with a knob on the cradle’s left side. Using the speaker in this way enables you to hear amplified music directly from the cradle, as well as voice prompting and sound effects from the RoadMate 2010 application.
iPhone users can go further. By going into the devices’ Bluetooth menu, a simple pairing connection enables the Premium Car Kit to operate as a powered speakerphone, automatically playing phone call audio through the speaker and using a noise-reducing microphone to pick up your voice. Callers told us that we were audible through this solution, though the Kit was picking up a fair amount of ambient road noise in the car, in part due to its mounting location far away from our mouths. While this solution isn’t ideal, and dedicated in-car Bluetooth systems do a better job, MiTAC’s solution works well enough to be considered acceptable, and certainly improves the results you’d get if relying solely upon the iPhone’s integrated speaker and microphone—the volume level is two or three times louder when using the Kit.
There’s only one notable oddity with the Car Kit’s speaker performance. MiTAC includes an auxiliary line out port immediately next to the mini-USB power port, enabling the Kit to output audio to the speakers of any car with an aux-in port, assuming you self-supply a 3.5mm-to-3.5mm audio cable and are willing to have both the power and audio cables running down from the Kit over the front of your car stereo. Unusually, the Car Kit’s speaker remains on and at the same volume even after you connect the cable, so you have to manually turn the speaker down or off with the dial if you don’t want to continue hearing it while the same audio plays through your car stereo. Some might call this a “feature;” we consider it an engineering oversight and modest inconvenience.
GPS for iPhone 3G/3GS and 2008-2009 iPod touch Models. The single most interesting feature of the Premium Car Kit is one that iPod accessory makers were talking about adding to Apple devices even before the invention of the iPhone and iPod touch—a GPS receiver. To get an obvious question out of the way quickly, the receiver doesn’t make a huge difference in performance when connected to an iPhone 3G or 3GS; both units have their own GPS hardware, and gain roughly as much from being positioned directly next to the windshield as from having another GPS receiver to play with. But with the 2008 and 2009 chrome-bezeled iPod touches, the Kit makes a big difference: install the Magellan app without the Kit and you’ll be sitting around waiting endlessly for a GPS signal to appear; plug the iPod touch into the powered Kit, and voila, Magellan will suddenly be able to find your location on a map and provide functional if not spectacular turn-by-turn GPS functionality, as well.
Whether it was due to the Magellan software or the GPS receiver, we were only semi-satisfied with the navigating performance of the iPod touch. From a big picture perspective, the fact that the touch can operate as a navigation device at all with this kit is a positive, but the software left us with the impression that the accessorized GPS performance is at least a little rough, making guesstimates rather than fast, responsive judgments about our current location and motion. At one point, we set a destination, pulled out of a parking lot, and watched as the Magellan software showed us moving backwards down a street for a minute or two, rather than rotating the map and quickly recalculating the directions. On a winding street, the application appeared to be guessing from our speed where we were in the curves rather than displaying information on our actual location. Again, it’s hard to know whether the software, the accessory, or both were to blame, but there was little doubt in our minds that a dedicated GPS unit would provide superior accuracy and recalculation.
Pricing and Conclusions. As noted in the introduction to this review, the Magellan Premium Car Kit’s single biggest issue is pricing: at press time, a 4.3” color touchscreen Garmin nuvi 260W can be had for $130 or thereabouts, with the cost of a dashboard mount adding $20 to that price—a complete, dedicated navigation solution for far less than the cost of MiTAC’s $130 hardware and $80 software. Having used one of these units last week, we can say with confidence that it provides an extremely solid and comparably affordable in-car navigation solution, freeing your iPhone or iPod touch to be used for music, calling, and other features by you or your passenger, in all cases with greater convenience than running the Magellan application and toggling between different apps on the Apple devices. For our money, there’s no question as to which we’d choose, and there are less expensive dedicated GPS options out there, as well.
That having been said, the problem isn’t so much that MiTAC has done something hugely wrong with the Magellan Premium Car Kit as that its pricing model for iPhone and iPod touch GPS software and hardware is just out of whack with competing alternatives. The Kit offers a collection of nice enough features—a sturdy mount, the speaker, the Bluetooth call enhancement, and the GPS, the latter more a boon to iPod touch than iPhone users—and in all honesty, if we were asked which features to excise in order to bring the price down, the choice of what to cut wouldn’t be simple. Some users, particularly frequent travelers and those without stereo aux-in ports, will appreciate the speaker and Bluetooth; others, especially iPod touch owners, may really like the addition of GPS hardware, and so on. Our limited recommendation-level rating reflects the quality of the Car Kit and the value of the solution for users who insist on using their iPhones and iPod touches for this purpose, while acknowledging the reality that the same dollars could buy a simpler dedicated GPS device, and achieve superior overall results.