Your Nav Speaks--But Is It a Talking Moose or John Cleese?

March 10, 2008
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Today's navigation systems are unbelievably advanced pieces of technology, but when it comes down to it, it's the voice that matters to me.

We have come a long way in the decade and a half that navigation systems have become more widespread. Early setups were more pain than progress: I can remember driving a system that used dead reckoning--setting a position, then using rotational speed and direction mashed up against a map set--to determine the vehicle's place in the world. I also remember the ten CDs required to hold maps for some systems as recently as 2006.

Modern GPS, which uses satellites to determine location, isn't just simpler to use. It's far more accurate down to a dozen feet or so, thanks to military dollars that underwrote its development. And now, the latest hard-drive based navigation units, like the TomTom 920 I'm testing this week, go above and beyond simple directions to include features like Bluetooth connections, music storage, and online map updating--a Web 2.0 approach to keeping maps fresh.

But still, the important interface is the voice. It's the critical link between you and your destination--and it's the way to keep the driver focused on the road while staying on track.

Over the past few weeks I've driven a few manufacturer-installed systems, that new TomTom, and my old Garmin i3. And I've developed a real preference for the sounds of a real human voice telling me where to turn. There's the dulcet-toned speaker in Jaguar navigation systems, which sounds like a British butler--or if you prefer, a female voice that's a little more Fergielicious.

Still more advanced is the TomTom, which lets you choose from a set of voices. They can be downloaded from the TomTom Web site: everyone from Mr. T to John Cleese, not to mention the customizable sounds triggered at certain destinations, like birds chirping when you approach a park (can we get a moo for Chick-Fil-As?), porting in of Google maps destinations, and even updated local gas prices.

The other genre seems to be disappearing--those with robotic voices that also can read off street names along with directional instructions. Ford's navigation systems--which I used this week in an F-250 King Ranch pickup--sounds sort of like the early generation of video games, or the infamous "talking moose" that entertained early Mac adopters for hours. (Try typing in lyrics from Guns 'N Roses for the moose after a few Foster's oil cans. No, really.) While the Panasonic-supplied system sounds horribly dated, like a 1980s flashback, it does use its computer-generated voice for important information--street names. While some navigation systems simply tell you "in 300 feet, keep right," like my portable Garmin i3, the Ford system tells you, "turn right on North Druid Hills Road." (The Lincoln MKS and future Fords will get new systems from Xanavi.)

I'm looking forward to the day when Fergie can tell me to turn left at I-85 and where the next Starbucks is located, but for now I'm still trying to decide which voice I like best. Nav owners out there, tell us: whose voice would you want to come out of your navigation system? Let us know in a comment below.

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