Updated: While the models listed here are still good inexpensive choices, a full list of the most popular GPS models updated each week is available here.
Summary: The Magellan offers a GPS with route highlighting, touch-screen and speech for a price that makes you wonder how they can possibly build, market and ship it while still making a profit. The Nuvi is a feature-rich GPS which speaks street names, plays mp3s and has an excellent interface, for about an extra hundred dollars.
Ah, the fundamental questions. Why are we here? What am I doing with my life? Where the heck am I? At least the last question can be answered by the Magellan Maestro 3210 GPS. This budget GPS recently went on sale and I decided to pick one up – After a few days my experiences are already mixed.
Upon arrival I unpacked the box and was immediately surprised with how small it looks. My parents have a Garmin Nuvi 360 (which my dad researched heavily before buying) which is basically the best feature-loaded GPS at the sub $300 price point, and the one I was originally holding out for…before I saw the Magellan on sale. I’ve used the Nuvi 360 heavily, including installing new maps (relatively painless) and exploring new cities with it – it always performed admirably, so the question in my mind was: Could the Magellan compete?
The Nuvi is slightly thicker and wider than the 3210, but the 3210 is slightly taller.The 3210 only comes with a car-charger in the box, and while a house charger is nice, it didn’t particularly bother me as it will be in the car 99% of the time anyway. Also in the box is a mounting bracket that simply snaps on to the GPS unit and then attaches to either a suction-based window mount (which seems quite sturdy and didn’t fall off during some aggressive driving) or to a sticky dash mount. Apart from that, there is a manual and CD, however no cable to attach the unit to the computer (a standard USB to mini-USB cable works).
Startup is fast, and after tapping ok to the “I promise not to drive while playing with the GPS” screen you’re presented with the menu screen where you can select an address, location, user options or just go to the map. Something I noticed about the 3210 which was nice is the inclusion of a “home” icon at the bottom, which allows you to set your home address and from then on it’s just a matter of a few taps to get directions home from anywhere.
The next thing that differs in this Garmin vs Magellan standoff is text-to-speech. The Maestro 3210 doesn’t have text-to-speech, so instead of hearing “turn left on main street” as you would with the Nuvi 360, you hear “turn left in 200 meters”. This isn’t a big deal for me, however my wife commented that it would’ve been nice to have, so it likely depends on your preference. So far, one of the downsides I’ve experienced has been in the verification of addresses in the system. We were searching for the nearest Wal-Mart when the Maestro suggested there was one just a few Km’s away. We had no idea where it could be referring to, but it’s a growing city so we went with it. It brought us to an intersection of two busy roads, at which point it proudly proclaimed that we had arrived at our destination. Stunned, we quickly figured out that it had the street name, with no address number, so it took us to an arbitrary point on that street. After a bit of scratching my head I figured out that the location it was referring to was another 10 minutes down the road, but in another city I would have been frustrated and lost. It found several other locations we entered without incident mind you, so this may have been an exception but it was worth mentioning.
The only other irritant so far, and this hasn’t affected operation in any way, but is interesting to note is that the time will sometimes change to show a random time, just for a second, and then back to the correct time. I’m guessing it is due to the fact that the time is set via the satellites and once in a while the signal is weak or there is interference somehow, and Magellan didn’t bother to put logic in that says “hey, wait a minute, time doesn’t just jump forward and back randomly.” Really it’s more funny than anything.
Apart from that, the operation has been great. The speech is unobtrusive and does not feel the need to repeat directions every 5 seconds, but instead prefers to announce the next turn about 1 minute before, then play a chime when it’s time to turn on your turn signal. We joked that there is probably some sort of Pavlovian conditioning taking place and that the chime will now forever illicit a downward movement with our left hands.
On the map screen, the path to drive (when being directed somewhere) is highlighted in green, so it’s easy to zoom in and out to see where you will eventually be turning. By default as you approach any intersection that isn’t a simple corner, the screen splits and it shows you the type of intersection. Personally, I found that annoying and turned it off in the options, but it’s available if that sounds helpful to you. There’s also automatic night adjustment, which inverts the color scheme so the background is black whenever the light sensor on the front detects that it’s dark enough to warrant it. Personally, I prefer the approach of dimming the screen (perhaps in combination with the dark background) but screen brightness can be adjusted manually, so for long trips I can stop whining and do it myself.
At loud volume the speech is loud enough to hear over moderate to loud music, and while “make a legal u-turn” sounds awfully close to “make illegal u-turn” (probably not a defense in court to say the GPS told you to) the speech is generally quite understandable.
All in all, I’m still not sure if I would opt for the Nuvi 360 next time, or buy the cheaper 3210 again. For the price, the Magellan Maestro 3210 is an amazing deal and does the job of a GPS quite well. The Garmin Nuvi 360 is a feature-rich GPS and has several other features to enhance the experience, if you don’t mind paying a bit more than the 3210. Either way, knowing where you are at all times leaves you with one less fundamental question to answer.