- Superb wide-format screen
- Excellent Fuzzy Search
- Bluetooth handsfree and music playback
- Bulky to carry around
- Some aspects of the non-navigation features need attention
- More detail required about the areas of Europe covered
Last year the RAC made a first tentative step into the world of satnav with a low key launch of a single product. The experience must have been a positive one, because the motoring organisation has now launched three more. The entry-level RAC Satnav 200 has a recommended price of £139.99 (inc. VAT), the mid-range RAC Satnav 210 is a more costly £189.99, and our review model, the RAC Satnav 220, comes in at £299.99.
The first thing that strikes you when the RAC Satnav 220 emerges from its box is its size compared to other sat-nav products. This is thanks to its huge display, which measures 5in. from corner to corner. That's bigger than the screen on any handheld we’ve seen barring T-Mobile’s mini-laptop-style Ameo; it's also bigger than the 4.5in. screen on Sony's VAIO VGN-UX1XN, which is a fully fledged Windows Vista ultra-mobile PC.
You'll need plenty of room in your car to stow this sat-nav when it's not in use, and it's certainly not a system you'll want to carry in a pocket for long. At 520g it's remarkably heavy, and at 148mm by 85mm by 35mm it's also too large for many pockets. If you do carry it, the device has a pedestrian routing mode as well fastest and shortest modes for cars and lorries, the latter avoiding roads with width and height restrictions.
There is a column of buttons to the left of the screen, the topmost of which is a Menu button. Although the display is touch sensitive, tapping this button will take you to the top-level menu, whatever screen you happen to be looking at .
Beneath this is a button that activates Bluetooth connectivity, of which more later. Underneath this is a button to select the AV-in feature (again, more later). There is also a light sensor on this panel, which can be used to automatically adjust screen brightness, and beneath this a microphone.
The back of the device has a flip-out section which contains the antenna for the GPS receiver. You need to pull this out from its housing flush to the back of the casing in order to activate the receiver for navigation.
Various ports and connectors are scattered around the edges of the device: USB, AV-in, SD card slot, power connector and headphone jack/FM antenna (for live traffic updates). There is also a volume wheel.
The Satnav 220 is supplied with vehicle mount, vehicle and mains power chargers, FM antenna, USB cable and AV connectors. A CD contains backup software. You also get a drawstring carrying case that accommodates the main unit but none of the extras, along with a somewhat minimal printed manual.
The vehicle mount is a stubby windscreen connector. The overall size of the Satnav 220 may mean this is not the most ergonomic of systems, and you may hanker for a longer swan-neck which would allow the device more play when attached to the windscreen.
Features and performance
We have hinted already that the RAC Satnav 220 does more than just navigate you from A to B. This device follows the current trend for adding features to a sat-nav, and goes a step further than anything we’ve seen before with one of them.
We mentioned that AV cables are supplied and that there's an AV-in slot on the device. You can use these to watch video from an external source. The manual suggests you can use a DVD player or a set-top box for this purpose, although we can’t see why one would be lurking around without a TV attached to it. Nor are we sure the screen of the RAC Satnav 220, for all its 5in. size, will do justice to many videos.
The RAC Satnav 220 also plays music, although it's only compatible with MP3 files, which are stored on an SD card. You can swap cards into the slot on the edge of the device, or connect the RAC Satnav 220 to your PC for file transfer. The latter method requires you to install a driver first.
Either way, storage space is an issue. The provided SD card is full of software and map data and has practically no free space, so you’ll need a second card for music. Unfortunately the sat-nav functions don’t work when you remove the provided card.
The Bluetooth module means the RAC Satnav 220 can be used with a Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone for handsfree voice calling. This is actually a very good feature of the device. We found it worked perfectly well during testing. The large screen is a real benefit here as there's plenty of room for tappable on-screen buttons.
However more attention needs to be paid to this area of the RAC Satnav 220's functionality. The use of buttons marked ‘yes’ and ‘no’ rather than ‘call’ and ‘end’ is a little confusing at first; the positioning of dial buttons in two columns to the left and right of an in-call display screen rather than in the more usual number pad format takes a bit of getting used to; and the inability of the device to synchronise with a contacts database on a PC is irritating
The navigation element of the RAC Satnav 220 is far more polished, providing some pleasant surprises and a few irritations. TMC traffic alert information is included as part of the package, and you get the requisite FM antenna.
Mapping data is provided by Navteq and includes maps of the UK, Eire, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Finland, Sweden and Norway. The first ten countries are 100 percent mapped to street level. The remainder are not fully mapped, although coverage is 80-100 percent with the more sparsely populated areas less well mapped. There is also some coverage of the Baltic Sates and Greece (except the Athens region), but there is no street level data in these regions.
The RAC is pretty cagey about the mapping information. Neither the device packaging nor the web site provide anywhere near the detail listed above. The former simply states ‘seamless European maps’, the latter that the RAC Satnav 220 covers ‘Europe’. We got the detail from the product manager, which is not an avenue open to most people, and would advise the RAC to make it more visible.
The wide-format screen is a definite plus point. We're not sure it actually shows any more information than a narrower screen (it just seems to stretch maps to fit the larger display area), but nonetheless it offers greater clarity when you are glancing at it. A column to the right of the main map display shows information such as direction of and distance to next turn, distance to destination and estimated time of arrival.
Tap this area and you get a full-screen display showing information like duration of trip, maximum and average speeds and, unusually, sunrise and sunset times. Tap the map display and you're into the navigation main menu, where you can perform functions like accessing viewing and other options, and setting up trips.
The RAC makes much of the fact that a benefit of the big screen is large tappable icons. This is certainly the case some of the time. On the main map screen, for example, it is true. But the icons get smaller when you move into the navigation software menu (and they are also quite small in the MP3 playing and Bluetooth screens too). We also found that icons need a fair pressure to register a tap. The lightest of touches are ignored. This is something you get used to fairly quickly, but it's irritating at first.
The navigation software is provided by Route 66, which we have seen as standalone software on a number of occasions in the past and found to be competent.
When driving on a motorway, junction numbers are overlain on the map, and when you're taking an exit a box pops up on the map screen showing a facsimile of what you can expect to see on the road sign ahead. Neither element is startling on its own, but they do show a pleasing level of attention to detail, and should provide reassurance to the nervous driver.
An element we particularly like is the Fuzzy Search. When finding a place to enter into a route you only need to give the software part of its name and it will offer you matches. For example, one of our test drives was to Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent. We entered ‘kno sev’ and the system came up with various places including these two strings of letters, one of which was our desired destination. It worked time after time for us during testing. Coupled with full seven-digit postcode searching, this makes the RAC Satnav 220 the easiest device we’ve ever used as far as destination-finding is concerned.
Spoken instructions are loud and clear — in fact, we had to turn the volume down from its maximum on some occasions. You can tap the area showing the next turn direction for a repeat of the instruction that applies at that turn. On a long stretch of straight road you are told to ‘follow the course of the road until further instructions’ which is reassuring — just what the driver requires at that point.
The RAC Satnav 220 is a large piece of kit compared to most sat-navs and stowing it when it's not in use may be an issue for some. The wide-format screen is a real boon, although there must come a limit to screen size before the driver's view is imparied.
The extras on this system are a mixed bag. Some will find the Bluetooth a suitable substitute for a handsfree mobile phone system, although a little more work on the user interface is required. We're not convinced about the AV-in option though.
The Fuzzy Search tool is wonderful, and the inclusion of TMC data makes the RAC Satnav 220 a nicely rounded product. The RAC needs to redesign its box to include more detail on the maps provided with the device though.