SCREEN Readability Comparisons for some Popular GPS Car Navigators
by Joe Mehaffey
Release 2, June 28, 2005

Readers frequently ask us to "compare" this or that GPS and pick out the best one for them.  This request is impossible in the general case for us to answer properly.  What I like in a GPS, you may not.  Therefore, in general, we just try to give you the facts and let you decide what is best for you.  

I got to thinking that there were a few other bits of information we should pass on.  One Question that should be on everyone's mind when they pick a GPS is "How readable is the screen under various light conditions?".  In this review, we will try to provide some comparative information for half a dozen of the better known GPS units.  We placed all these instruments on our car dash at one time so they were approximately in the position they would be in normal operation as far as exterior light is concerned.  We made tests in bright sunlight, on a cloudy day and at night.  Below are the comparison photographs.  

The units examined for this evaluation were, Left to Right:  Lowrance iWay 500, Garmin c320, TomTom Go,  Magellan Roadmate 300,  Garmin StreetPilot 2610, and the Cobra NavOne 3000.    In the descriptions below, I give readability ranking as 1,2,3,4,etc. If two units have the same rank, that means there were about equally easy to read in the given ambient light.

This is an overview of our arrangement with all of the units in view on a cloudy day.  In this light, I would say that the most readable were in descending order:  (1) iWay 500, (1) StreetPilot 2610, (1) Cobra NavOne,  (2) Magellan RM300, (3) Garmin c320, (4) TomTom Go.

It is getting on toward dusk and the iWay 500 is very readable and the c320 is  more difficult to see.  ALL instruments are set to maximum brightness.

Again, more toward dusk and the c320 is "OK", TomTom Go almost impossible to see and the Magellan a bit brighter than the other two.  This photo is in a glare situation that makes all three look a bit worse than your eyeball would see.

Here we see that the RoadMate 300, StreetPilot 2610, and the Cobra NavOne are all easy to read in the cloudy/overcast time.

Another photo shows the TomTom Go still difficult to read, Magellan RM300 quite readable and the SP2610 with its usual good contrast.

Another picture of the c320, Go, RM300, and SP2610.  There was a lot of  glare on the c320 in this photo.  Notice the XM Radio is ON, but the screen is not readable at all.  Makes the GPS gear look a bit better.

Photo showing the iWay 500, c320, Go, and RM300 

As it gets on toward dusk in cloudy weather, the Go, RM300, SP2610 and Cobra NavOne are seen.

Near dusk, the iWay 500 has a bright crisp readable display.  Same under all lighting conditions. User must manually reduce brightness at night as the intensity is not automatically adjusted for night vs day.

The readability of the display on the Garmin c320 is a bit disappointing.

The GO is difficult to read, and the Magellan RM300 shows a quite readable display.  The GO kept zooming in on its own so it was impossible to zoom out and take a picture before it automatically zoomed back in.

A view of the TomTom GO, Magellan RM300, and Garmin SP2610

Garmin StreetPilot 2610 and Cobra NavOne.  Both have excellent screen viewability.

This view in bright sunlight shows the GO, RM300 and StreetPilot 2610.  The GO is almost unreadable.

Another view of the GO, RM300, and StreetPilot 2610

c320 and GO

iWay 500 and the c320

Night view of the iWay 500 and the Garmin c320.  The iWay is way too bright and the c320 way too dim.  You must turn the iWay brightness down manually at night.

A "shaky" photo of the SP2610 and the Cobra NavOne.  (Joe accidently turned off the "anti-shake" gyro in the camera.. Sorry.)  You can tell that both units have good visibility in the dark.  In fact, the Cobra is overly bright but can be manually adjusted to the right brightness at night.  

Another shaky picture.. Showing the GO screen, the RM300 and the SP2610.  All have good brightness for night use.

Night image of the Cobra Nav One.  This is at middle zoom and the brightness is fine, even too bright, but it is adjustable.  Note that this is only TWO zoom steps from the maximum zoom out level for the Cobra NavOne.  This prevents ever seeing "the big picture" on the GPS screen.  This is a major missing feature on the Cobra NavOne.

The iWay 500 display gives a superior presentation night and day.  The only problem was the lack of an automatic brightness control which means you must manually adjust the brightness for night/day use.
In brightest sunshine, the iWay, c320, GO, SP2610, RM300, and Cobra NavOne show what they can do.  The iWay, SP2610, and NavOne had the best readability in the bright sun with the RM300 real close behind then the c320 with the GO giving the poorest showing.

Bright sun comparison of the iWay and the c320.  Note that only the major roads show through on the c320 but are clear on the iWay.  The  c320 design purposefully reduces contrast on roads other than the most major roads and your intended route.  We consider this a "bug" because it eliminates data that you need when driving.

The c320 display is more readable than the GO in bright sunlight but both have less readability in bright sunlight than we think you will want.

The GO display in bright sun compared with the SP2610 on the right.  The 2610 had a consistently clear and easy to read display under all lighting conditions.

The SP2610 on left with the Magellan RoadMate 300 in bright sunlight.  Both have very readable displays.

Another closer view of the RM300 in bright sunlight.

The NavOne  was hard to beat for clarity of view in the brightest sunlight.  At night you MUST manually turn the display brightness down as the day setting is much too bright for night time.This view is on #3 of 5 (total) zoom steps.

Bright sunlight comparison of RM300 and the Cobra NavOne screens.


Bright sunlight view of the Garmin SP2610 and the Magellan RoadMate 300

Bright sunlight view of the Lowrance iWay 500 , the Garmin c320, and the TomTom GO in bright sunlight

The TomTom GO and the Garmin StreetPilot 2610 in bright sunlight.

The Garmin SP2610 and the Magellan RoadMate 300 in bright sunlight

Another Magellan RoadMate 300 and Cobra NavOne Bright sunlight a bit later

So much for our screen comparisons.  The quality of the viewed display is a very important consideration for selection of a GPS but it is not the only one.  Each of these GPS products has features and advantages and disadvantages that the others do not have.  Some of the things you should consider when selecting a GPS are:
1) Quality, size and readability of the display in both daytime and at night.
2) Quality, time to process, directness of the route and any "quirkiness" of the routing system.  There is still a lot of variation here.
3) Size and weight of the unit and particularly if you plan to move it from car to car.
4) Quality and readability of the map presentation both as just a map and when the unit is performing guidance.  Some units still perform pretty poorly here.
5) Quality of the map data, routing data and of the routes actually generated.  There is still a lot of performance variation here between brands and even between different models of the same vendor.
6) How easy is it to load maps into the unit?  Do you have to manually switch between maps as you move about the country or is this automatically done? Does the unit already have all the maps you will need already loaded?  Does the unit offer the option of enough map memory to store all the maps you want/need at a time?
7) There was a concern at one time about the quality of the voice and voice directions in GPS units.  Now this seems to be OK in all the units we have tested.

Questions?  Suggestions? Corrections?  Email Joe or Email Jack