Two days ago, something happened. Dennis and I met with representatives from Harman Kardon to check out the Drive + Play 2, which is presently featured in a First Look on the main iLounge site. As noted there, D+P2 is a really nice car kit, and one we’re actively looking forward to fully reviewing. But what really got us talking was Guide + Play ($400), a totally separate little device that Harman’s reps happened to have in their test car at the same time.
As noted in this brief prior Backstage article, we were originally going to pass on covering Guide + Play because it’s not iPod-specific. In fact, it’s sort of an iPod alternative. Measuring 4.5” by 2.875” by 0.75”, it packs a comparatively huge screen, advanced GPS software, and the ability to play back MPEG-4 videos or MP3 music files on the go. You can even listen to music through its integrated speaker while it’s acting as a GPS system for your car. And man, is the GPS performance a knockout. Menu graphics aside, it’s as good as an Apple design from a GPS interface standpoint, and that’s really saying something.
I’m going to preface the following comments with what I told Harman’s representatives the other day: I’m really, truly frustrated with the current state of iPod car integration into GPS systems. Ideally, Guide + Play would be merged with Drive + Play 2 for one uber-car kit with GPS, iPod connectivity, hands-free Bluetooth calling, and more. But even as the owner of a car with a larger touchscreen GPS unit with iPod integration, I’m seriously considering junking that system for Guide + Play just as it is right now. Dennis is thinking the same way. It’s just that impressive. More details are at Read More, below.
Harman’s kit comes with car and wall chargers, a standard USB cable, mounting hardware for your car, and a carrying case for Guide + Play. A carrying case? Yes. As explained to us, the idea’s simple: charge the internal rechargeable battery, which lasts around 6 hours, carry the unit iPod-style onto an airplane and use it for movies and music, and then set it up on car power in your rental car to serve as a GPS unit. The unit’s iPod-like shape and size makes it a great travel companion, and its 4-inch, 480×272 touchscreen is larger than the current iPod’s for MPEG-4 format videos; maximum supported video resolution is 624 x 352 at 24fps. It also plays back WMA10 and WMV9 files, the latter at lower 320×240 resolution, too.
Multimedia content can be synced into SD cards—up to 4GB—using your computer and the included USB cable. The SD slot is up top alongside the power button, which is alongside the unit’s GPS antenna nub. GPS map data is stored in separate integrated memory, and isn’t editable; future upgrades will be sold, apparently.
On back is a speaker, perfect for hearing GPS voice instructions, and a mounting nook that fits with the included car mount hardware. Popping the unit in and out of the car mount is very easy.
The side has a headphone port for when you don’t want to use the speaker, as well as a volume knob and USB port for media synchronization or charging. There aren’t any ports on the other side, but there is a locking switch to prevent accidental button presses.
Harman’s star in this show is the GPS interface. It’s not flashy—it just works. Thanks to an Atlas II dual-core processor and some simplifying interface screens, Guide + Play manages to fly from menu to menu even with Windows CE 5.0 software under the hood. (We’ve not been impressed by the performance of Windows-based automotive interfaces in the past; this one’s an exception). You’re always presented with very clear, intuitive choices that literally anyone can figure out within seconds.
Smart predictive typing makes address entry stunningly fast. Guide + Play figures out city and street names more rapidly than any in-car interface we’ve yet seen, and helps you make trip plans within literally seconds. If you pick “go,” it plots your course and you’re on the way. Simulate will show you the entire route beforehand. And you can save any address you desire for later travels. It’s just so smart and simple.
As with other GPS units, you can change a handful of settings to avoid certain types of road conditions, as well as set up the distance units. If you’re listening to music while GPSing, the music’s details appear at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to toggle back and forth at will.
Then there’s the map. Using a cool hybrid of 2-D graphics with 3-D camera work, Guide + Play navigates you in realtime through your trip, zooming in or out and rotating the map to present you with a clear sense of the turns you’re supposed to take, streets you should be avoiding, and details about points of interest. While the map isn’t exactly video game quality in excitement, it’s highly practical and automated, with left-side translucent overlays and voice prompts for turns.
It bears mention at this point that the GPS database is incredibly up to date: unlike our car nav system, which was freshly released a year ago and shipped back then with year-old points of interest and street data, Guide + Play’s maps include stores that just opened three weeks ago, streets that didn’t exist six months ago, and so on. We were seriously impressed to find that its Tele Atlas database is locating everything we want to find without problems.
We’re going to keep playing with Guide + Play, and will add some more detailed impressions and thoughts soon. Our current feeling is that Harman has nailed portable GPS (plus media-centric features) with this device.