Makers of portable global-positioning systems are caught in a squeeze.
Once a luxury item, in-dash navigation is showing up in cheaper cars, while smartphone apps such as Google Maps and Apple Maps are adding more nav-system-like features, such as spoken turn-by-turn directions.
Mitac International, the maker of the Magellan line of GPS devices, is taking the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach. Its new $249 SmartGPS takes advantage of the Cloud and social media in an effort to co-exist with smartphones rather than compete with them.
The SmartGPS has a 5-inch screen. One half of the screen works like a typical GPS that can link to a phone via Bluetooth.
The other half of the screen is taken up by boxes that contain traffic and safety alerts, fuel prices and constantly changing, location-aware windows that present you with information and offers from stores, restaurants and other places of interest.
These are downloaded and stored on the device whenever you're parked within range of a Wi-Fi network. There's even a crude Web browser available when you have a Wi-Fi connection.
When you tap one of the squares, it expands to display information and reviews culled from Yelp and Foursquare, along with any available deals nearby.
If all of this sounds distracting, it can be. On the other hand, I liked some of the audio cues, such as the warning when I approached a stoplight equipped with a camera to catch red-light runners.
The other "smart" aspect of the SmartGPS is its ability to connect with free Magellan companion apps. Using the apps, you can map an address, route or point of interest, tap "Send to SmartGPS" and upload it via Bluetooth whenever the phone and nav system are within range of each other. It can be a lot easier and safer to enter a destination ahead of time than to try doing it while driving.
As demand for standalone systems wanes, navigation will increasingly be handled by the Cloud, connected devices and perhaps dedicated smart phone apps such as Magellan's $50 RoadMate. In the meantime, the SmartGPS provides a useful bridge between past and future.