Finding a smart GPS phone

In the past, each time you had to meet someone in an obscure corner of Jakarta, you would ask him for a map.

He would then draw a map to show you how to proceed from the nearest point that you were still familiar with. You would study the map and, subconsciously, create a mental image of the roads.

You would begin to feel less confident. You would stop, get out of your car and ask the people for directions.

The people would either say they were not sure or would simply give you the wrong directions. Three minutes later, you would have stopped three more times and still find you were in the middle of

Then you would approach a group of ojek (motorcycle taxis). You ask them for directions, and they would tell you, “It’s not far, but it’s difficult for me to explain. Why don’t you pay me and I’ll lead you there”.

Then, after some negotiation over the “fare”, you would start again with him riding right in front of you. You arrived 40 minutes late.

You know what? You should have done it the moment you saw a group of ojek drivers. Often, they are the most effective GPS.

Still, it may not always work. What if you are out in the wee hours of the morning and there is simply no ojek in sight? What if you stray into an area rife with criminals, and the last thing you should do is stop and get out of your car? This is where a GPS can be a lifesaver.

Absolutely, a GPS device is not a groundbreaking innovation. For many years we have had Garmin, Tomtom, Magellan and others. Most smartphones from Nokia, RIM and Apple also have fairly sophisticated GPS functionality already built in.

Increasingly, GPS handhelds come from Taiwan, too. Among others, we have Mio, which is one of my favorites. What about an alliance between East and West?

Recently, I found out that Garmin, one of the top leaders in GPS, had joined forces with ASUSTek Computer from Taiwan to make Nuvifone GPS/GSM phones.

Announced in February last year, I think the alliance is a great mutual symbiosis. ASUS has not been able to grab a significant market share now crowded by those from mainland China. By hooking up with Garmin, it now has a better chance to grab a bigger share of the smartphone markets in Asia and the United States.

Courtesy of ASUS Indonesia, I was able to casually test-drive a Nuvifone G60. Interestingly, although it is not made in Germany, the “u” in the name is with an umlaut. It supports HSDPA and has both
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, so it has a complete connectivity arsenal.

The first time I lay my hand on it, I was pleased to see how solid it felt. I liked the rather rectangular shape. The user interface is quite simple and intuitive.

Too bad there is no hardware keypad; in my case, that was a turn-off because I always make mistakes when entering characters using the screen keyboard. Sending text messages can be a challenge for people with fat fingers like mine. On the other hand, I like the return, menu and scroll icons along the bottom of some screens.

On the home screen, there is a primary button for making calls, another for searching points of interest (POIs), favorites, nearest intersections, contacts, addresses etc. The third main button will let us view the map.

On the same screen we have four smaller shortcut icons for looking up our contact list, sending text messages, composing email and loading the Web browser.

The strength of the collaboration between Garmin and ASUS seems to concentrate on the GPS side, for which Garmin has a lot of expertise. We can send our location in terms of longitude and latitude. So, if we are stranded on a desert island, we can easily tell others where we are. This is actually what makes a GPS/smartphone combination such a great idea. The problem, of course, is that on a desert island it is unlikely we will have GSM coverage.

In their attempt to preserve battery power, the engineers must have made the screen go blank after a few seconds, while the device continues to give voice directions. I found it a bit disconcerting at first, but later on I realized that we do not really have to see the map all the time to stay on track.

I found that the device took some time to get the information from the satellites. Once it is locked in, it works fine. This Nuvifone is also a Location-Based Service (LBS) device. It has the ability to keep track of its own whereabouts. Not surprisingly, we can send our exact location to a friend using SMS.
An application called Ciao! lets us find out the location of a friend and then navigate to where he is.

We can also insert the location information, called geo-tag, into photos that we take with this GPS smartphone.

The camera is just a 3 MP version. It cannot capture video and it does not have a flash, which might be considered a bit too limited by today’s standards. In addition, I managed to make the operating system hang up a couple of times, although after a while it would start up again on its own. I am sure the two companies are working hard to solve the problem.

More seriously, this GPS and GSM device has an Achilles heel in the most important area of a smartphone, which is the battery.

I could not tell whether it was because my demo unit had passed through a number of reviewers’ hands, but the battery life seemed to be quite short.

With the GPS function actively telling me where to go turn-by-turn, the battery juice seemed to last only around four hours. We need to have the bundled cigarette-lighter charger in the car if we plan to use it on a day trip.

This makes the G60 clearly a Portable Navigation Device (PND) first and a smartphone second. If you are looking for an intelligent smartphone, I guess you had better look elsewhere.