Review: A month and a half with the Pioneer AVIC-F500BT GPS Navigation System (Verdict: Exceedingly Okay)


The Pioneer AVICF500BT—we'll call it "AVIC"—does nearly everything you could ask of a dash-board navigation system: route you around via GPS; integrate with your iPod to add touchscreen controls; even control your phone via Bluetooth. And if it excelled at any of those functions, it'd be a steal (I picked it up for $200, shipped).

But it doesn't. It is the definition of good enough, but in a market crowded with inexpensive GPS units, the AVIC overreaches. And with modern phones able to handle all the duties of the AVIC—even the iPhone will get turn-by-turn navigation options by the middle of this year—it's a tough product to recommend.

Still, I like mine, even with its jumble of wires stringing off of my dashboard. One for power from the cigarette lighter. (Essential, as the AVIC's tiny rechargeable battery powers it for maybe half an hour before conking out.) One for the optional $35 USB cord that connects to the iPod. (In my case, an iPhone 3G.) One for the line-out to connect to my stereo. It's square-cornered and well-built. It feels like a quality bit of car-tech, not a bubble-shaped toy. And its best feature, a bright, nearly 6-inch touchscreen, is pleasant to touch and even more pleasant to view while driving.

I used the AVIC on my cross-country drive from Brooklyn to Oregon. After learning how to balance the music level with the navigation voiceover, it stayed on the entire time. In its permanent place in my car now, however, I just plug the iPhone directly into my stereo; the AVIC's built-in speaker is loud enough to project the voice directions and it saves me the trouble of waiting the 30-60 seconds the AVIC needs to slurp up the iPhone's music database every time I plug it in. (Something that works surprisingly well, all said, although it's nowhere as easy to use or as fluid in animation as the iPhone itself.)

It fails a lot, though, especially when booting up. There are times when I have to turn it off completely a couple of times to get it to recognize the GPS satellites. Or at least I presume that's what the snag is. It'll often just hang for a couple of irritating minutes with no real-time update of where I actually am on its maps.

And it feels underpowered, especially—and I know this makes no real sense—considering how large the screen is. It's disconcerting to have something that looks so high-tech labor to animate a rotating 3D map faster than a few frames a second.

For a while I considered buying the optional $90 amplifier, ripping out my cheap car stereo head unit, and using the AVIC as the exclusive controls of my car. But I can already see its days are numbered. As soon as the iPhone gets a solid turn-by-turn option, one that will likely integrate seamlessly with the iPhone's music and phone functions, I'll probably be putting the AVIC on Craigslist and watching it recede into the distance along with other low-end gadgets that were subsumed by functions that my phone can increasingly perform well enough.

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