Pros: Very accurate maps and GPS location. Great in bad weather. Large clear screen.
Cons: Very poor documentation. Bluetooth leaves much to be desired. A bit too chatty.
Sony Nav-U, NV-U94T Car GPS Receiver
**** See 07-29-09 Long Trip Update ****
First let it be said that I have been a "Garmin Guy" for years, ever since I plugged in my Bulky but useful Street Pilot 3 a long time ago. So when the Garmin was finely kicking its last leg (screen is going) I of course wanted a Garmin to replace it. Guess what I was wrong. Enter the Sony Nav-U AKA NV-U94T
I was lucky enough to have the time to play around with the Garmin nuvi 250W before committing to a new GPS and soon found it was simply not up to my expectations. Im not reviewing it so I wont detail my issues but it simply did not "WOW" me at all.
On line was not much help this time around as it seems that the GPS systems are coming out faster than the reviewers can get to them. Hopefully this review of the Sony Nav-U will help rectify that a little. As always I try to stay away from the "tech talk" and focus on real life usage. So on with the review.
First the bad. Documentation! It is as if Sony has a shortage of paper or something. The NV-U94T comes with only a "Quick Start Guide" that is wholly inadequate for doing any detailed work. For instance, how to change your home location is omitted from the quick start guide and therefore if you make a mistake in the first few moments you have the NV-U94T you may find yourself stuck. To further this issue The "full" manual is located on Sony's website but is difficult to find because of poor search functions, sloppy site linking and worse still they keep moving things around. However once found its still not the full detailed instructions I would have liked to see. It is more a general manual covering multiple models and with only the briefest instructions on the main functions. Maybe Sony will pull together a far more detailed "Unit Specific" manual in the future but I doubt it.
For reference here is all the documentation I could find for those who don't want to slog through Sony's site. (As of 4/1/09) http://esupport.sony.com/US/perl/model-home.pl?mdl=NVU94T
A related complaint is that the software to allow you to connect the NV-U94T to your PC is not included in the box and as far as I can tell nowhere in the documentation does it tell you where to get it. I did eventually find it on Sony's site through the above link. Was it really that much of an expense to include a bit more detailed documentation and the actual software in the box?
The direct link to the PC application is here: (As of 4/1/09) http://esupport.sony.com/US/perl/swu-download.pl?mdl=NVU94T&upd_id=4067&os_id=99
The next negative is that the NV-U94T is a bit too chatty. Here is the issue I have. While navigating to your destination it continuously tells you which exits NOT to get off at. Now for many trips this is no issue at all but for some highways where there is an exit every 3 miles or so the NV-U94T just will not shut up about all the exits you are not supposed to be taking. This may in fact be bad enough that some people may not want to buy the NV-U94T just because of this. Granted there may be a way to stop it from doing this but the scant documentation has been no help, including the "full" Manual that I downloaded from Sony's site. Searching the internet has not turned up a solution either, so for now I just have to learn how to tune out the superfluous information and keep an ear open for the real directions.
Last complaint. The Bluetooth may not be as great as advertized. I say "may not" because I only have one phone I am able to test with so I cant conclusively say it's the GPS unit and not my phone but my Bluetooth wireless headset works fine with my phone.
Bluetooth pairing with my cell phone (LG enV VX9900) did work and was relatively simple to set up. However the use of the hands free speaker phone through the U94T is limited. Answering the phone is great. When the phone rings the NV-U94T begins ringing and switches to the phone function right away. It gives the option to ignore the call or answer it with big easy to press buttons on the screen. Making calls is about the same and using the address book function makes dialing pre set numbers a breeze. Just a few large size button presses and your dialing. But that is where it all starts to fall apart.
Voice quality on my end is choppy and makes a sort of buzzing sounding as if you were listening through a blown speaker. I can hear well enough and rarely loose the caller so much that I cant tell what they are saying but Its not a pleasant ear pleasing tone. The complaints I have from the other side are a lot worse. After some extensive testing I have found that you must talk directly at the NV-U94T in order for anything you are saying to be heard by the person on the other end. If the unit is mounted directly in front of you that's fine but mine is about 1.5 feet to the right of directly in front of me and if I don't turn my head to face it head on then the only reply I ever hear from the person on the other end of the call is "What?" They report that my voice is very choppy and muffled when not facing directly at the unit. Given that many people may mount these in various positions around the car I feel this is a significant flaw in the NV-U94Ts design. A better omni-directional microphone would be in order I suspect. I rarely even bother trying to use it because of this issue and rely on my Bluetooth headset rather than the Nav-U speaker phone function.
Supposedly it will also pair with a compatible car radio and play music through the radio but I don't even know anyone with a Bluetooth radio so I will have to leave that to the tech heads to report on in other reviews.
All that aside Im out of complaints now, so on to the positive. Other than the above mentioned shortage of documentation this was a breeze to set up and start using. Right from startup I was able to set my home address quickly. It recognized my address and pinpointed it on the map exactly. Something Google Maps has never been able to do correctly. I programmed in my three work locations just as easily into the "My Places". This allows me to very easily set it to take me to one of my regular stops. Just three clicks of the touch screen. Basically you can save up to four favorite locations and a fifth "home" location for what amounts to instant navigation to those locations. And the touch screens responsiveness makes it easy to get the unit navigating with very little work on your part. A nice feature when trying to get somewhere while driving. (OK I know you are not supposed to operate any GPS while driving but this two button access really makes it a lot easer and safer to do if you're so inclined.)
In fact the U94T is well laid out for all of the menu screens. Most functions can be reached with little more than 2 to 3 button presses and I have yet to touch one button and get a different or no response. The screen itself feels sturdy so even the heavy fingered should not have any worries. One cold day I even wore my gloves and was stunned to find out I did not have to take them off to operate the touch screen. I cant even get my banks ATM touch screen to work with my gloves on. For the record I was wearing leather driving gloves with "Thinsulate" lining. I don't own any puffy snow gloves so I don't know how it would react but I suspect with their puffy fingers hitting the right button would be mostly guesswork anyhow.
The larger screen than its competitors may well be its number one selling point. It allows for bigger fuller map views and larger on screen buttons which probably accounts greatly for why I have not had any button misses. The maps themselves are well defined, bright and very easy to read. Its definitely utilitarian in design. Your car is represented by a clear triangle and the various points of interest (gas stations, hotels, hospitals, exct.) are just simple small icons. I have seen other brands of GPS units that resemble early 1990's video games more than a navigation tool but not the U94T. It looks like what it is and nothing more. If you want cute icons and a color programmable car to represent you then you will have to look elsewhere. The NV-U94T is a GPS navigation system not a toy. Or is it? More in a moment. But now on to the all important navigation capabilities.
Truly this is where Im most satisfied. The Sony Nav-U is spot on accurate. In almost all cases it not only gets me to my destination with accurate directions but it also seems to take the most logical route over what may be the more direct or "fastest" routes. All of us who have used a GPS in the past have found ourselves ignoring the directions it gave us because we "know" a better way to get there. So far all of my "better" ways are the one the U94T has chosen to take. Making it even better on the navigation front is that the extra large screen allows for a lot more information to be presented on the screen including a lane by lane picture of where you should be in order to most safely take the next direction.
What happens is that as you are coming up on your next direction the left side of the screen shows a real time image in a sort of "first person" view of what you need to do including which lane you should be in and a clear arrow directing you through the next move. On the right is the more general view of the overall route and your place in it. This coincides with the clear to understand voice instructions.
In practice this is an example of how it worked for me today. I was in the second from the left hand lane on a section of highway with 8 lanes total. Then several miles before my next direction I was audibly informed to "Stay right." Then the screen split. On the left side showing the 6 lanes on the left of the highway not highlighted or "grayed out." The two lanes on the right were highlighted in yellow indicating I should be in one of those two lanes as soon as possible. I merged over to the right and awaited the next instructions. Meanwhile on the more overhead view on the right half of the screen I could see clearly where I needed to be going in 3.5 miles. All this has the end result of me being in the right lane at the right time so no missed exits or "kamikaze" lane changes at the last minute.
Even if you miss the exit its quick to sort you out. Just to see how it handled an "Off Route" issue I decided to ignore the exit it had instructed me to take knowing that in two exits I would have another chance to get back on course. (NOTE: The exit it chose is the better choice. I just knew a back route that is not too much more of a hassle.) It recognized my error about 2 seconds after I past the last point on the exit that I could have gotten off and within about 5 seconds had rerouted me to the exit I was now planning to take.
This surprised me because some "fiddling" about on the back roads is required but the GPS took me down the exact same series of roads I would have taken on my own with only one insignificant difference. (A left turn one block further down than I would have. No time or difficulty difference that I could calculate.) Mostly I was surprised at how rapidly it recalculated my route.
No GPS is any good if you cant get a signal lock. The U94T seems to have no issues with the heavy clouds at all. Heavy rain will give it a bit of trouble at first start up locking onto a signal but once locked it seems to stay locked. I even take the parkway home where at many parts all or most of the road has very tall trees on either side covering above as well. Still no loss of signal. In fact the only place I have had an issue at all is downtown Arlington VA where tall buildings combined with their skywalks has had a noticeable effect on the length of time it takes to lock onto my position. However once locked I don't loose signal again. It just takes longer for the initial lock on. (About 3 minutes as opposed to 1 or less normally).
I still have not had a chance to find out how it handles short loss of signal yet simply because I have yet to loose my signal. Supposedly it is very good at guessing your speed and direction for short distances like through a tunnel or past some other signal blocking obstacle. My non tech understanding is it uses some sort of accelerometer or something but I will have to leave that to a tech head to explain in one of there reviews. Other than a very short tunnel, which it had no time to even tell me it lost lock, I just don't have any place to test it in. (Note the tunnel takes me about 1 minute to get through at most.)
So rain or shine it will get you there and knowing where there is has always been an issue for other GPS units I have seen. Especially here in the Washington DC area where it seems that a new neighborhood springs up ever other day many map programs have some degree of trouble keeping up. The Sony Nav-U has yet to let me down. I don't know where their map info comes from but it appears to be remarkably up to date and very accurate. When I stop at an intersection the icon for my car stops right at the exact spot Im in. I have never received a direction after the intersection had passed and I never have it telling me to turn into a building or open field thinking there is a road there. Accuracy counts and the U94T has been very accurate for me so far. As I mentioned Google maps still has my home listed about 2 blocks off from reality but the Sony map has me spot on exactly on target.
None of us want to scar up our dashboard so we need a way to stick this thing in the car without killing our resale value. The mounting bracket that comes with the Nav-U is very sturdy feeling although a bit bulky in my assessment. The suction/sticky cup is holding very nicely on my slightly textured hard plastic dashboard but if you have a soft or highly textured dashboard there is a self sticking disc that can be applied to allow the mount to stick to it. I have not had to use it so I don't know how well it works. I may test it later just to be able to report back on that. I have been tugging on the mounting bracket and I have come to the conclusion that it would break before the suction cup released from my dashboard so no worries about the thing just plopping off while driving one day.
The GPS mounts firmly yet effortlessly onto the mounting bracket. On the back of the GPS is a little "trap door" style mount that flicks out with a press of a button on the bottom of the U94T and that slides in with a easy click. Once in its stays in. Short of unreasonable force being used on it the U94T will not just fall out on its own. It is easy to remove as well but because the button to release it is on the bottom of the GPS if you have the mount set at its lowest position with the base of the GPS near to the dash you will have to lift the GPS to get to the button.
The mount itself has a port for the DC power and the TMC (Traffic Message Channel) Antenna but I would have liked to see an External GPS antenna port as well. As it is there is only the one on the GPS unit hidden behind one of the rubber dots on the back of the unit. As for the TMC I have used the free trial and find that although useful to find out why you are stuck in traffic it has not aided me in navigation as of yet so I will not renew when the free trial is over. However this is mostly because I live in an area where the only driving options are usually on a single main highway with few if not no back routs to take as an alternate route. If your area has many routs from point A to point C that you could take maybe you will find it more useful. It is very accurate and up to date as far as I can tell but given that I have only one highway to cross the river on I have yet to see the TMC function reroute me around a big traffic jam.
So that about wraps it up for my thoughts on the GPS but then there is the "fun" factor to think about. In an era where your phone is also an mp3 player and your computer is also a phone, one has to ask, "What else can the Sony Nav-U U94T do for me?"
Watching Movies? Yep it will do that.
Playing MP3s? It can do that too.
Use it as a photo frame? It does that too. Slide show and all.
But to do all this it needs a Sony specific memory card purchased separately which sorta bugged me at first. I have a lot of SD and SDHC cards laying around and would have liked the Sony Nav-U to have been able to use one of them but it wont. In the end I had to buy the Sony brand "Memory Stick Duo" in order to take advantage of the "fun" functions that the U94T has to offer. Are they fun?
Starting with the Video. Only about 6 out of the 20 or so videos I have loaded on it will play at all. The others do everything from freeze up to just not play at all. Not to mention that the screen size is set up for a wide screen video format but none of the wide screen videos I have loaded will play. Im sure I have some issue with bit rates or some such tech thing but the bottom line is I don't want to have to reformat my .mpg files just to be able to watch them on the GPS unit. Those few I was able to watch came out clear enough but the U94T speaker which is fine for the GPS instructions really fails to bring any life to movie audio. Using a good set of headphones can solve that but I feel that if I have to start caring around too much stuff it starts to be not worth the effort.
Music (mp3 only) has much the same issues with the sound quality but at least all my mp3s have worked on the unit so far. As I said the Nav-U can Bluetooth into a car stereo but I simply have no way to test that. Using the headphone jack on the bottom of the U94T does produce very good audio but then so does an iPod at about 1/10th the size and weight. So again I have to say not worth it for me to bother.
Picture viewing is a bit of a different story however. This I have found useful but with a bit of work to make it so. Here is the problem. The Sony Nav-U will show photos taken ONLY with a Sony camera. At least right out of the box it will only read Sony camera pictures. A little searching on the internet did produce some directions on how to view non-Sony jpgs but until I get permission from the author I will not reproduce them here. I will however say that if you want to try it just google "Sony U94T will not play pictures." The first results I got are for a GPS forum and the instructions that were presented there did work for me. Good luck.
Its is worth it too if you want a big clear screen to show pictures on. The image quality is very good and because you will probably have the U94T everywhere you drive to, you can show off your pictures any time anywhere. Letting it run on batteries playing a slideshow will drain it out in about 4 hours so buying the A/C adapter might be a good idea if you want to use the Nav-U as a desk digital photo player at work or something.
If you have a Sony camera that uses the memory Stick Duo then you can just take the pictures with the camera, put the card directly into the Nav-U and you instantly can watch the shots in a nice big clear screen. You can even rotate them so if you took the picture sideways you will be able to right them up on the U94T.
So that about wraps it up for the Sony Nav-U U94T GPS Navigation system. Overall one of the best I have seen even if it does not have cute graphics and downloadable celebrity voices. But then I wanted directions not a video game so I hope the U94T will last for another 10 years just like my old trusty Garmin may it rest in pieces.
**** UPDATED 07-29-09 ****
One trip to New York and Im Still Happy.
My family and I recently took a trip from Washington DC up to my Aunts place in Upstate New York. Everyone knew how to get there and ordinarily we would bypass New York City but we had a little special circumstance. One of our passengers had never seen NY City before and wanted at least a glimpse of the towering sights. The Sony Nav-U came through for her and us.
Using the ability to plan a route we set our sights on some sightseeing. Our path now took us through the tangled web of New York City highways that surround the Towering Isle. To be honest I have no idea what roads we were on. We did pass through Brooklyn at one point and of course had a view of Manhattan and at one point the Statue of Liberty even. Suffice it to say our country passenger was thrilled and Im glad we had a rental because the roads were disastrous.
All throughout our little side trip the Sony U94T chattered and directed away like a tour guide fixated on highway exits. Not once did we ever loose our way, not even in the spider web of NY Cities outskirts that seemed to be being built as we drove on them.
And I finely got to test out that loss of signal ability it claimed to have. Yes as we went through the tunnel it stayed on track all the way through. As we emerged into the light on the other end and the Sony regained signal the location of our car icon on the map only needed to make a very slight adjustment. As a rough guess I think it had us about 50 feet behind our actual position. Not bad at all.
Lastly was a complaint from my brother. He wanted to be able to download a sexy woman's voice to navigate for us like one of his friend's GPS can. I explained that this was a GPS Tool not a X rated toy but still he said he would rather have a GPS that did not work as well rather than one that did not have downloadable voices. To each their own. At least he will be happy when he is lost.