When faced with a buying decision, conventional wisdom says that a more expensive product is a better product.
But how much better?
And as you look at the wildly varied prices of tech gadgets, that question gets very complicated: what is 802.11N and is it worth $30 more than 802.11G? Is GPS real-time traffic worth $200? Is 12X zoom worth $1,000 in my camcorder?
To answer these questions we asked two Los Angeles professionals to try out a series of gadgets and share their experiences. Matt Margus is a realtor and Mieke Ter Poorten is a talent agent and mother of two. Both are tech-savvy, but neither considers themselves a gadget expert.
We start by asking them to test an expensive and a budget GPS device. Matt gets the expensive Garmin Nuvi 1690 which we found online for $375. The Nuvi has 4.3-inch diagonal screen, speaks street names (eg "turn left on Buena Vista Boulevard"), and it comes with a subscription service that provides lots of extra data that is wirelessly delivered to your device. First and foremost it has real-time traffic reporting in major cities. The idea is that when a blockage is reported, the device can reroute you to avoid major delays; you'd never have to listen to radio traffic alerts again. Other extras included in the device are Google local search, real-time gas prices, current weather, movie times, even arrival times for incoming and outbound flights.
Mieke was given the TomTom 130S which we found for $75. It has a 3.5 inch screen and also says street names out loud (text-to-speech) to you (which is new for entry-level GPS devices; in the past they would just say "turn left in 500 yards," not text-to-speech directions "turn left on Elm street"). The TomTom does not come standard with the wireless search, fuel data, and traffic information that the Garmin Nuvi has. When Mieke tried to look for a well-known Los Angeles restaurant, the TomTom device did not have any record of it in its database of local businesses.
Despite the differences in add-on features, the navigation tools seemed fairly similar in both devices.
To test the cheap verses expensive GPS we asked Mieke and Matt to get from downtown Los Angeles to the Santa Monica Pier during rush hour. The starting routes spit out by the GPS devices were very similar, but about 15 minutes into the trip, Matt was rerouted when his GPS was alerted to a traffic jam ahead. The Garmin took him off the freeway and onto side streets. Mieke had none of the real-time traffic data to alert her to the jam and continued blithely along on the freeway.
Given this set of events you would think that Matt would have arrived at the pier first, but we were all surprised when Mieke turned up 20 minutes ahead of Matt. Matt was frustrated because the Garmin GPS didn't seem to take into account that the side streets were equally congested and slow.
We contacted Garmin to ask them about the difference in arrival times and they explained that traffic rerouting is only as good as the data being fed to it. They said that if the traffic data coming into the device mistakenly saw the side streets as being uncongested, it would mistakenly reroute the driver. They said they are working to improve the traffic response and services for their GPS device and that they stand by the enhanced point of interest searches, real-time fuel prices and other wireless data services their GPS device provides.