The Magellan Meridian GOLD
GPS Traveler Value Pack
By SeaJay Bayne

August 5, 2004
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The Magellan Gold Traveler Value Pack is a kit including a Meridian GOLD GPS receiver and Magellan’s new MapSend  DirectRoute Automatic Car Navigation and Road Mapping system.  This new mapping system provides fully automatic route calculation capability for the Magellan Gold (and the Platinum and Sportrack Pro).  This brings the GOLD/Platinum/Sportrak into direct competition with the Garmin G-60C/G76C/Vista COLOR/Legend COLOR  which also offer automatic car navigation capability.  In addition, the GOLD (and Platinum/Sportrak and Garmin units listed) offer the usual array of GPS features for hiking, geocaching, and limited marine navigation ability. 

For the past five weeks I’ve used the Magellan GOLD GPS as the manufacturer intended; as a “do all”  handheld GPS.  The unit has been fantastic – it’s performed amazingly well, and exceeded my expectations.

Rather than give a detailed description of the exact features that the GOLD has (that’s already been covered here), I will focus on the practical functionality of the unit and the features of the DirectRoute Car Navigation mapping system – truly impressive stuff for such a small and affordable package.  

I am no stranger to working with a GPS – I personally own two older eTrex handhelds – one that I use as a backup on my boat (mostly for offshore), and another that I use in my car for driving in unknown territory.  I also have a full-color Garmin 188C on my boat, and I regularly use the same model when I captain our local Marine Rescue Squadron’s 17 foot Key West.  In addition, I own a copy of Delorme’s Topo USA, one of the best-known mapping softwares available.  

Doubtful that I’d find anything “new” about yet another GPS, I was pleasantly surprised by the Magellan GOLD and the features it came with – not to mention the accessory package that makes up the “Traveler Value Pack.”  

The Value Pack comes with the GPS unit itself, a 64 megabyte “SD” memory card, a cigarette lighter adapter, a serial port for connecting directly to a PC (the latter two in a sort of “harness,” combined presumably to make wire routing easier), a rather impressively-designed windshield mount, and Magellan’s version of MapSend DirectRoute software.   

I spent the first few days simply using the unit while on foot.  This gave me a clear understanding of the overall basic functions of the handheld GPS, and allowed me to become acquainted with the differences between the GOLD and what I’d been using.  In effect, I compared the unit to my eTrex yellow and blues.  Since I was trail hiking, as expected, the unit simply showed me my route to and from a destination.  It was here that I experienced the difference that WAAS can make in a handheld – my route was simply more accurate with the GOLD than it was with either eTrex.  I also found the adjustable tracklog time intervals to be useful.  These two, combined, tracked my trail much more accurately than did either of my eTrex machines.  With them, I was able to much more precisely track where I’d been and how to get back to those exact locations.  Joe goes into the specifics of these differences here.  The Magellan GOLD seemed to out perform both of my eTrex (non  WAAS) machines in terms of accuracy.  

…But what was even more impressive, from a practical standpoint, was some of the lesser-mentioned features:  The GOLD had a larger display which provided more detail, and was easier to decipher.  The GOLD's clear acrylic screen was “countersunk,” providing some protection from scratches and damage.  The backlight feature, for use at night, had two positions – one brighter than the other.  This made the screen easier to read in all light conditions, while simultaneously providing some ability to choose between a bright screen or a battery-saving ½ brightness screen.  

Menus were easier to understand, and the buttons more functional on the GOLD than on my eTrex machines, too.  The GOLD had a simple, well-labeled set of buttons at its base (which were backlit at night) and included a center toggle button that allowed  manipulation of the screen options  with ease.  Zoom features were labeled simply “IN” and “OUT.”  Feature operation seemed intuitive, and without complex menus and  side buttons, my learning curve was dramatically reduced.  

All of these new features did come at a price, however…  In all fairness, my eTrex machines were significantly smaller, although more awkward to use, due to button placement.  Also, as per the Magellan reputation, satellite signal took longer to acquire than it did on my Garmin machines.  During bootup, not only did I have to repetitively press the “ENTER” key to “agree” to certain use of the GPS, but the unit would simply take longer to figure out where it was.  Admittedly, though, the GOLD did tend to keep its signal better with more accuracy.  

Only mildly excited about the GOLD (it was, after all, more than twice the price), I brought it home to connect to my computer.  I installed the Magellan MapSend DirectRoute software on my desktop, and used the supplied serial cable to connect the GOLD to my PC.  

The MapSend DirectRoute software proved simpler and more intuitive than my Topo USA software, and consequently receives kudos from me in regards to user functionality.  Happily, both my Delorme Topo USA and the MapSend software communicated with the GOLD – which was great, because I had a lot of waypoints already on several Topo profiles.  These downloaded into the GOLD without a hiccup.  

Using the DirectRoute software, the GOLD did an amazing thing; it allowed me to upload a “detailed” version of my local road map onto the unit’s (furnished with kit) 64 megabyte “SD” memory card.  That’s when the GOLD really began to shine.  

Joe had tested the GOLD before and had remarked that previous versions were unable to commit detailed map information to the memory card’s full capacity.  Specifically, a user had to upload a series of selected maps (each no larger than 16 megs) in order to utilize the full 64 megs of memory.  I am happy to report that with this version (5.09), I was able to select one large detail area of my MapSend software and upload the entire thing to the full capacity of the SD memory card.  In layman’s terms, I was able to select an area from just north of Atlanta, Georgia then to the east coast of the U.S., and upload everything from that line south…  Including much of South Carolina and Georgia, and all of Florida and the Florida Keys.  In essence, every street name and corner in that area was now loaded into the GOLD.  Impressive stuff indeed!  

A moment about this process:  64 megabytes of information takes forever to upload into this machine through a serial port!  I think it took close to an hour and a half – Magellan – if you’re listening – the GOLD had enough memory to warrant a USB port!  I can’t imagine how long it would take to fill the optional 128 meg card!  To be fair, Magellan does offer a solution for this problem.  Magellan makes available the optional SD Card loader (both PCMCIA and USB versions are available), but does not come with the GPS Traveler Value Pack, and is sold separately.   

The detailed map is nothing shy of impressive.  Many users of $1500 automotive GPS systems would consider the feature standard – the ability to select an address of any street in a large regional area and be routed directly to it.  However, for a handheld (especially one at this price point), this is truly amazing.  Like the handheld mobile phone did to the “in-car” cellular phone, I suspect that handheld GPS’s with the capacity to give street routes (right down to the “turn here” arrows) will compete successfully against the much more expensive optional navigational systems offered by automobile manufacturers.  Travelers will now be able to take a GOLD with them on their trip and route themselves with ease, even when moving to a rental car not equipped with a navigational system.  

I utilized the GOLD’s ability to plug into a cigarette lighter and power itself from the car’s electrical system.  Good thing, too, since I’d used a good bit of battery life with the screen’s backlight feature the night prior.  For reference, Magellan says that the pair of AA batteries that power the handheld last 17 hours, but like Joe on his previous test, I got closer to 12 hours before needing replacement.  Using the backlight feature cut that number by more than half, even on the “low” setting.  

A word about the backlight feature:  The backlight feature has a manual “on” and an automatic “off” at four minutes – which is a user-definable parameter.  I could make the backlight automatically turn off after a variety of times, but I found that four minutes seemed to work well.  It could also be turned off manually, but to do so I had to scroll through “low” then “bright” then “off.”  This design could be improved (more than once I inadvertently turned the unit off), although I found it much better than the relatively short backlight feature of my other handhelds.  Again, the screen was larger, too, so I was able to get more information in a shorter span with the GOLD.  In terms of usability, the GOLD has one of the best designs I’ve seen – but could still stand improvement in terms of simplicity and intuitiveness.  

A word about batteries:  Like most modern handheld GPS receivers, the GOLD uses two AA Cells, alkaline or NiMH preferred.  The GOLD would benefit from the feature of a built in rechargable in place NiMH battery, similar to a wireless phone.  Given that the cost of regular battery replacement on a well-used GOLD could be significant, I would recommend that Magellan consider this.  Of course, the user can install NiMH or NiCAD batteries into the GOLD,  but the batteries would need to be removed for charging.  

Despite the “wow” factor of a handheld GPS on its impressive-looking mount on the dash of my truck, I found the suction-cupped device somewhat annoying.  The device was large and ungainly, and although I found a place on my windshield where it would not interfere with my line of sight, it was still obtrusive, due to the chore of having to hold a relatively weighty GOLD.  The screen, which seemed large and optimal as a handheld, was too small to be seen with any detail when it was placed far ahead of eyesight on the dash of my Ford F-150.  Frankly, the GOLD made a much better handheld – and as such was used in-hand even while riding in the car.  With the unit’s ability to track up to 12 satellites simultaneously, lock with the GPS satellites was generally not a problem, even with a truck roof overhead and without an external antenna.  I did find exceptions to this, however, in heavy tree cover and especially with wet trees blocking the signals.  (Note:  Rain, snow, fog, etc., have no effect on GPS signals but wet tree leaves do.)  For the most part, though, after the long period of synching up with the proper satellites, continuous contact wasn’t really a problem (at least here on the flat East Coast of the U.S.)  Thus, I found myself using the GOLD as a handheld, even while in the car, despite the fact that the unit DOES work best when it has a clear sky view.  

The serial port/power supply harness thing that’s equipped with the GOLD in the Traveler Value Pack seemed to miss the mark slightly, too…  Magellan would do better to keep the serial port and the cigarette lighter power supply separate instead of on a harness together.  After all, with the GOLD hooked up into the power supply, I had a long cord and a serial connector that proved awkward.  This certainly would not have been the case if I’d been plugged into a laptop inside the car (running the DirectRoute software), but for use as a stand-alone GPS, the “double harness” really wasn’t a “clean” installation.   Still, the triple connector harness worked fine.

Speaking of clean installations:  The Magellan GOLD matched the interior of my truck!  Yeah, I know…  Who cares, right?  Well…  I do.  The tan/graphite color on the unit matched the leather of my F-150, and would likely match the interior of most vehicles equipped with tan or graphite leather.  This made the unit look “right at home” inside my vehicle and since has become a permanent fixture.  

Using the GOLD inside a moving vehicle was a really cool experience – GPS units like the GOLD are becoming so user-friendly and functional that the original intended use is now becoming a reality.  I could put something like, “10 Main Street” into the GPS, tell it to map me there by streets, and it simply took me, play-by-play, directly to my selected location.  The input method for doing this was quite methodical, intuitive, and effective (the GOLD has a data entry system similar to a virtual keyboard).  By far, this was my favorite feature of the unit, and really what set it apart from its competitors in the marketplace.  Other GPS units that can do this too, but Magellan’s system works better and is much more through and intuitive than any other system found in a handheld.  

Here’s how the MapSend DirectRoute Car Navigation System works:  After a user has uploaded the detailed map using the MapSend DirectRoute software (necessary so that the GOLD can route over all roads and by address), they press the “GOTO” button and select whether to route Point-to-Point (“as the crow flies” – useful for marine and aircraft navigation) or by Street Route.  It’s the Street Route function that makes this handheld something very unique.  A virtual keyboard appears, and using the arrow keys, a user can select letters…  Spelling the name of a street, road, or highway.  Once that’s been found (the unit finds the correct name automatically, then asks you to select which one if multiple streets are found with the same name) the GOLD asks you to select the number portion of the address…  Such as the “10” in “10 Main Street.”  To me this seemed a bit backwards, and took some getting used to.  Once the complete address has been selected (and you’ve chosen which one if multiple addresses are possible – there might be a “10 Main Street” in both Orlando and Savannah, for example), then it spends a few seconds calculating the best route for you to take.  What constitutes “best” is not a user-definable parameter – that is, you can not tell the GOLD to stay on the highway as long as possible or take the shortest route regardless of the size of the street.  Thus, navigating around town with the GOLD can sometimes produce routes that are not what you know to be fastest due to the number of lights, stop signs, etc.  Other destinations besides addresses are available too, such as “waypoints” or ”previous destinations,” but I’ve found the unit to be most useful in routing me to places that I’ve never been – and the easiest way to find those places is to simply key in the address.  The GOLD then automatically selects a zoom level (which can be overridden either permanently or temporarily) and the route bolded on the map.  It also shows two fields – “Distance” and “Total Distance.”  “Distance” is the distance in miles (or kilometers) to the next turn, and “Total Distance” is distance to your selected destination.  These two fields are user-definable…  A user can optionally select preferred information to display, such as Bearing, Distance, Speed, Heading, ETA, and the like.  Optionally, the two fields can be disabled, although they return the next time a Street Route is selected.  

One thing I found to be a “bug” in the GOLD’s Street Routing software was that I could select to customize these fields – for example, instruct the unit to show me “Heading” and “ETA,” but these settings were forgotten the next time I did a Street Route.  The fields always defaulted to “Distance” and “Total Distance.”  

While moving toward a destination, the GOLD mapped the route nicely – I simply followed the bold line.  When I approached an intersection where I was to turn, the unit warned me with an audible alarm (which was nice at first, but really annoying after a while) and by flashing a large arrow and the new street name on the screen – not necessarily a good thing!  After all, as the arrow “splashed” up on the screen, the map was obscured for several critical moments.  The audible alarm got to be irritating as well, and I ended up disabling it.  The GOLD definitely could use some work in this area.  Pressing the “ESC” button on the GOLD sometimes made the “splash” arrow move out of the way of the map, but sometimes I found myself inadvertently scrolling through the menu of the GOLD.  There seems to be no functional way of telling the GOLD, “Okay, I’ll make this turn. – you can stop beeping at me now – and give me back my map view…”  

Inevitably, a driver makes a wrong turn despite the clear instructions of the GPS…  Happily, the GOLD makes “re-routing” an almost instantaneous and painless affair.  Simply hit “GOTO” and then “ENTER,” and the unit recalculates from your current position.  

Arriving at a destination was similar to arriving at a turn – the splash screen would come up on the screen, obscuring the map which was needed, and a big stop sign would be displayed.  Prior to disabling the audible alarm, the GOLD beeped incessantly at the destination, until I pressed a button or until it timed out – which seemed like a really long time.  Without the audible alarm, the GOLD was less annoying, but I still had to interact with the unit to try to get the splash screens to go away every time so that I could see where I was.  This definitely needs to be improved.  

Nonetheless, this street routing feature combined with a detailed map has never before been featured on a Magellan handheld…  It’s an impressive feature, exceedingly useful, and I foresee a move in the marketplace towards handheld GPS units that have this ability.  What the GOLD may lack in terms of functional refinement it makes up for in ground-breaking features that make other GPS units obsolete.   

On the water, the GOLD did equally well.  While it was missing the advanced functions of my marine GPS units that I regularly use, it definitely made for a great backup GPS unit and in some ways had advantages over them.  

The missing advanced features were not surprising; my marine GPS units go into great detail on the water in terms of markers, buoys, soundings, and land masses.  The GOLD, not specifically designed as a marine GPS (it is available as an “upgrade”), was missing this level of specificity.  The unit also showed where land was at mean low tide, meaning that sometimes I could be in the river with my boat at high tide, look at my GOLD, and it would report that I was on land!  Of course, at low tide I WOULD have been on land – so it’s not really the fault of the GOLD.  My expensive marine GPS units dealt with this by showing soundings (expected depths) and by “fuzzying” land masses, generally showing with some accuracy bottom profile and what to expect in terms of water depths.  In all fairness, this is a consistent problem for the boaters in this area; the tide rises and falls an average of almost nine feet, twice daily.  Often what was clear sailing at one time during the day can be dry land a few hours later.  Thus, any GPS is inaccurate to say that there’s water in a certain area or land in a certain area, during any time of day.  

The priciest GPS’s today are utilizing real-time tidal information provided by NOAA to resolve the exact problem above.  However, the massive tidal flow locally also produces an annually changing bottom profile, so the issue becomes further complicated.  My point is, however, that my $1500 Marine specific GPS dealt with the issue better, but the GOLD still exceeded my expectations, especially for a handheld.  

I have used the unit in the worst of seas, at night, and during torrential downpours.  I have had no problems whatsoever with the GOLD, and have found it waterproof (and buoyant – don’t ask me how I know this), durable, and trustworthy.  

…Which brings me to my last point about the practicality of having a handheld or “backup” GPS on the boat:  I have found it at times to be an exceedingly useful tool, despite the abbreviated marine features available on a handheld GPS unit.  During rough seas, a dash-mounted GPS unit can be difficult to read and understand due to all of the boat movement.  This is not a problem with a handheld, and I have found myself utilizing the GOLD offshore even when my expensive dash-mount is available.  Additionally, a handheld allows you to hand the entire GPS off to another individual so that they can navigate using a tool which is within arm’s length.  No longer will people fight the captain for space while they try to help navigate.  Lastly – and perhaps most importantly – the handheld can easily be taken off the boat, hooked up to your desktop computer, and made to function in such a manner that allows you to upload information such as user waypoints, map detail, firmware updates, and the like.  Not only does this serve to create a theft deterrent, but adds some ease of functionality not generally provided in many marine GPS units.  

The verdict on the GOLD is “two thumbs up.”  The unit has proven to be durable and functional, and exceedingly accurate.  Especially impressive is the mix of features which makes this a great choice no matter what you need your GPS to do for you.  Mine now lives in my truck, probably due to my favorite “street routing” capability – but this handheld is equally at home on the trail or on the water as well.  Therein lies its strength – in its ability to be a “jack of all trades” by offering so much, especially at this price point.  Magellan has truly “raised the bar” on handhelds with the Magellan GOLD.  

Questions?  Comments?  Errors? Omissions?>  Contact SeaJay Bayne

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