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Handheld GPS, long a niche market for outdoor enthusiasts, is slowly expanding as the lines of distinction between handheld GPS, PDAs and automotive navigation are blurring.
Several portable GPS systems are currently being offered by suppliers that double as car navigation units and handhelds. They can sit on the dash and provide turn-by-turn directions, or fit into the palm of the hand and offer waypoint access. Most of these products have originated in the past 12 months.
One reason for the trend is that the portable automotive GPS market is booming, with up to 50 percent growth expected this year and next, according to Garmin. It is enticing handheld suppliers to offer combo units and to beef up their in-car navigation selection. As a result, the otherwise flat, stable handheld GPS market is expected to see 10 percent growth this year, said Dan Bartel, Garmin's consumer sales director.
In addition, as handhelds offer better quality screens and increased performance, even those not intended for use in a vehicle are finding their way into a car. “Well over 50 percent of handheld GPS owners tend to use them in a vehicle,” said a spokeswoman for Thales Navigation, maker of the Magellan GPS brand. “What we see is that the value of GPS for daily usage is increasing drastically, as products become more accurate and as we move to built-in mapping. People are not just leaving their GPS receiver in the drawer until they go hiking on the weekend.”
Tony Mirabelli, Cobra's senior VP marketing and sales, concurred. “I don't think there's any doubt. People who can't afford to spend $1,000 for an in-car navigation system are using them in the car,” he said.
This accounts for the trend toward higher-end handhelds, seen at Seattle-based Car Toys. “The public is embracing handheld GPS, but primarily at the high end of the category,” said Jim Warren, senior merchandising VP. “Sales are up in the high double digits and it has become a significant category for us.” He added, “I would say that virtually all of the high-end units are used in mobile application. Only the very low-end are used by hikers/outdoors,” Warren added.
Traditionally aimed at sportsmen such as hikers, mountain climbers, hunters and fishermen, handheld GPS comprises a 1.5 million-unit market in North America and Europe, with 40 percent of the sales in North America, according to Nick Maire, Navman's new business development and global strategy VP. PDAs with built-in navigation, such as the Garmin's iQue 3200 and the Navman PiN 100, number about 150,000 worldwide, with 40 percent of the Navman model sold in North America, said Maire.
Recent technological improvements in LCD displays and memory are also furthering the merger of handhelds and automotive GPS.
“Before, we had to have low resolution to keep prices down on handhelds. Now we can give the same quality screen on a handheld [as an in-car navigation unit]," noted Bartel,
Lower cost memory is creating a boom in the market, as handhelds now include basic or “background maps” of the entire United States, and more expensive in-car navigation units, starting at $1,299, can offer full street-level U.S. mapping built directly into the unit.
Magellan claims its new eXplorist 300, which ships this month, is the first handheld GPS to offer a nationwide background map of roads, parks, waterways and airports, plus barometer, altimeter and electronic compass, for under $200.
For the in-car market, the trend is even more pronounced. “Built-in maps, with full coverage, have been the biggest driver in the past year. It's like buying a radio. People can take it out and turn it on and it operates immediately. It's easier to use,” Bartel said.
Garmin says the in-car portable StreetPilot 20, with built-in detailed maps is outselling a nearly identical model that is $300 cheaper, the StreetPilot 10, by a five-to-one ratio at CE stores. The only difference is the StreetPilot 10 does not have the built-in maps, said the company.
Dan Jeancola, mobile electronics VP for Tweeter Home Entertainment, based in Canton, Mass., said the chain is in the process of expanding its GPS product assortments “because of the amount of excitement we've had with it, now that most of the good systems have coast-to-coast mapping.”
Demand for these systems has skyrocketed to the point that Garmin said it is in back-order on a number of StreetPilot models. The company believes prices for units with built-in detailed maps should fall below $1,000 by next year.
But as detailed maps require 4GB of storage, according to Magellan, current handhelds or hybrid handhelds still only offer maps with major roads and highways.
One of the newest hybrid products is Garmin's Quest, which the company calls a “true blend of both portability and in-car use.” The Quest is about the size of a TV remote and offers turn-by-turn directions with voice prompts and dynamic rerouting. It can also find waypoints for outdoorsmen when used as a handheld. The model has 115MB of memory and rechargeable batteries at a suggested retail price of $599.
Garmin also claims its new 60 series and eTrex Legend C handhelds are suitable for the car. These offer “audible alerts” to indicate an upcoming turn, rather than voice guidance, said a spokesman. The Legend C carries a list price of $374.99.
Late last year, Magellan released DirectRoute software that can convert many of its handhelds to turn-by-turn units. The software also provides “beep” alerts to warn drivers of an upcoming turn. Magellan is bundling the software with some of the handhelds to create a combo pack. An example is the Meridian Color GPS Traveler Value pack, which includes a Meridian Color handheld GPS, DirectRoute CD-ROM, vehicle mounting bracket and cigarette lighter adapter, at $499.99.
Other new products in the GPS arena include the Magellan RoadMate 300 and Cobra's GPS 3000.
Shipping next month, the RoadMate 300, at $699, is an in-car portable GPS with voice guided turn-by-turn navigation, touch color screen and which allows multiple destination addresses.w It has a built-in base map but ships with CDs for the street-level maps of the United States including Hawaii, and Canada and Puerto Rico.
Cobra just began shipping an in-car portable GPS with built in U.S. street-level map, called the NAVONE 3000. Users can beam an address from a Palm or PocketPC directly into the unit. It offers turn-by-turn navigation with voice prompts and comes with a 5.2-inch high-resolution screen at a suggested retail price of $1,299.
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