The Right Directions Are Not All They Seem

By Jeff Malester On Jun 20 2005 - 6:00am

When my wife said she needed a new car — and specifically wanted one that included an onboard GPS system — I knew she had tired of getting lost, rather than succumbed to the many mass-media messages that feature the latest and greatest about a new set of wheels.

The thought of what it would cost to replace a perfectly running '97 Acura was bad enough, but add an additional $2,000 for in-dash electronic maps that demand a whole new range of consumer electronics expertise to successfully navigate, and I knew I needed to formulate a defensive plan that would snuff out any further thoughts my wife had about trading up our present transportation.

At the time, only weeks before International CES, I agreed to my wife's compromise wishes, to purchase a portable GPS system — forget the installed version — while not knowing how portables worked or if their value matched the more expensive built-in auto models. All I did know, portables were cheaper.

I picked a major brand off the top of my head, though ignorant about the benefits of one maker's product over another. I promised my wife I would make a special trip to the maker's booth at CES to gain as much first-hand knowledge as I could about its GPS offerings. Most important, we needed one as simple to use as possible, specifically not wanting to download geographic information into the navigation unit from a home computer.

When I sheepishly told the first person I saw about my quest for a navigation system, the sales exec took me inside his company's booth and spent 10 minutes leading me through the newest GPS steps necessary to go from here to there, and showed me all the extra information his sample device, and eventually mine, could provide.

Most all of the GPS control concerned touch-screen commands, and the exec convinced me even novice CE consumers like my wife and myself could successfully work the maker's newest generation portable system.

Armed with the knowledge of the portable's simplicity and the prospect of more than halving the cost of a factory-installed auto unit, once home, I ordered the product, which already included enough maps to get my spouse to the nearest Bloomingdale's or down to Florida from New Jersey.

When the GPS was delivered, it was as if the stork had brought a new baby — all the expectations for a long and rewarding relationship were set in place. The GPS directions read easily, the on-dash installation was simplistic, and we were ready to roll. But the system did NOT work!

No matter what we did or how long we tried, it still told us it was “acquiring satellites.” Our GPS was “lost,” and so were we. Were we doing something wrong to get it going? Was it broken? Did it lack the preloaded software? How could we have spent many hundreds of dollars to get into this mess?

Co-workers at TWICE, who know the ins and outs of their CE beats intimately, offered numerous ideas for solving our problem, but the system remained unworkable. Just like many consumers who purchase CE products, and find they can't understand start-up or use directions, I wanted to return the GPS and get my money back.

And just as many consumers do, my last resort was to call the manufacturer's hot line to see if they could put me on the right path — tell me what the enclosed directions couldn't and justify the investment I had just made.

“The system thinks it's still in Taiwan,” said a more-than-cooperative voice at the other end of the company's help line. “It just has to be told where it is now.”

When I heard this, I remembered one of the start-up questions asked onscreen by the GPS when we first followed the new directions. It asked if I was 100 miles away from where I had last been. Not having traveled over five miles trying to get the unit going, I told the GPS “no” to its query.

“But the question is about the GPS, not the user,” the maker's hot line rep told me. “It's well over 100 miles from where it last was — in Taiwan, where it was made.”

The rep explained step-by-step exactly what we had to do to solve the start-up problem — first enter our home state, town and street address, then save this info. Then, he said, take the GPS out on the road and wait about 10 minutes for it to work. We did all this, and for a while “acquiring satellites” still appeared on the screen.

Then, suddenly “acquiring satellites” turned to “locating satellites.” Even Chris Columbus would have guessed he was on his way. Within seconds, the first maps appeared onscreen, and the rest is we-knew-it-all-the-time history.

We love our GPS. It works perfectly — just as it is marketed — and its gets my wife where she wants to go, then back again. It was well worth the cost, even the aggravation, and certainly beats the price of a factory-installed model.

But this same unit almost went back to the manufacturer — virtually unused and unappreciated.

The moral of the story is all the information the hot line gave us was already included in the product usage directions manual. But this was NOT listed specifically under how to get the system going if we were having problems. It should have been part of the initial start-up, not “buried” further along in the manual. And, it took the hot line to save the day.

Too many consumers get over their fright about making a sophisticated CE purchase — one that takes some skill to set up and use — only to be bowled over by directions that are misleading, incomplete or just difficult to understand. Not every purchaser will go the extra mile to get it right, the reason returns often pile up.

I was ready to give up. My wife wasn't. The thoughts about on-road freedom were all the push she needed.

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