“Jack of all trades and master of none” seems to be an apt cliché for this hastily put together GPS unit from budget manufacturer Nextar. The system’s feature list and low price are sure to draw plenty of attention, but its thin engineering seems to show through at every corner, producing a passable but hardly likeable multitasker.
Features and Design
Nextar has managed to sneak quite a few bells and whistles into this package for its extremely modest $260 price tag. Besides standard navigation capability, the Nextar will read off directions and street names with its text-to-speech capability, play MP3s and video, display photos, and most impressively, show a view of what’s behind you as you back up using an included camera.
In fact, opening up the box for the I4-BC feels a bit like opening some sort of kit, rather than a consumer electronics device. You’ll find the actual navigational GPS unit, a complex-looking cradle, a video receiver that’s actually separate from the screen, the backup camera and its bundle of wiring, a soft-sided carry case, a USB cable, car charger, wall charger, an adhesive mount for dashboards, and all sorts of hardware for mounting the backup camera. We found this accessory array quite generous, especially when some of the items, like the carry case or wall charger, could have been sold separately.
Now that many GPS units come similarly equipped on the inside, many manufacturers have turned to sprucing up the outside for sales. Nextar managed to make the I4-BC look passable in its white and silver trim, but we’re guessing you won’t get too many passengers complementing the look, either. On its own, the screen element sports a pretty clean design, but the clunky window mount and video receiver add quite a bit of visual clutter, making it look somewhat outdated once you have it pegged up in the window.
Ports and Connectors
Because the Nextar is part PMP (portable media player), part video display and part GPS unit, it has a few extra inputs than your average GPS unit. The strangest would be the back-up camera video receiver – a small T-shaped box that snaps onto the side and bottom of the screen using a six-pin connector. It’s relatively inconspicuous, but it’s also one more piece to lose if you make a habit of taking it on and off, and you can’t connect the GPS directly to the mount without it. The screen also has a headphone jack and power-charging jack on the right-hand side, along with USB port on the bottom for connecting it up to your computer. The power button has been handily located on the far top right of the unit, and the back even has a stylus squirreled away, which wasn’t really necessary for operation but might be nice inclusion for those with thicker fingers.
Everything is included to get going
Given the somewhat intimidating array of pieces in the box, we expected the I4-BC to be a bit of a bear to set up. We weren’t entirely mistaken.
When you’re dealing with a back-up camera, there’s no “easy” way to make it work. Although you can send video signals wirelessly to the screen, the camera needs power to function, so you’re going to need to wire it up somehow.
Nextar’s solution for the system was rather clever: the included backup camera must be wired into the 12-volt lines that power a car’s reverse lights, meaning it only gets power whenever you put the car in reverse, and the display automatically switches to backup view, no button-pressing necessary. Unfortunately, these lines aren’t exactly dangling out around your license plate, so a certain amount of installation comes with the territory.
Even if your car has nooks and crannies leading to the trunk from around the license plate holder, you’ll need to snake the camera’s 12V lighting cables through them, which can be a more complex task than it sounds, depending on how tight it is. Afterwards, you’ll need to fit the cables around the corners of your trunk and tap them into the power lines for the reverse lights, using special connectors that Nextar neglects to actually include. We’ll admit it – we fudged the installation using an alternate 12V power source rather than permanently altering a car’s wiring for our testing. But if you plan on doing the install yourself, you’ll need to have some modest skill with your hands to route the wiring, moderate electrical skills to find the right wires to tape, and quite a bit of patience. Not sure where to even look for the wires? Shell out for a pro install and save yourself the frustration.
The included backup camera
Nextar’s reputation as a budget manufacturer, and the mysteriously low price on the I4-BC, led us to expect a somewhat chintzy piece of equipment, but we found the actual display unit to be reasonably well-built. The plastics used had a cheaper feel than what we might find from a more mainstream manufacturer like TomTom, but besides the slight difference in feel, we wouldn’t say it threatened reliability or usability for the most part. The only component where cheapness really showed was in the windshield mount, which turned out to be one of the unit’s biggest downfalls.
A Miserable Mount
Manufacturers like TomTom have perfected simple ball-and-socket windshield mounts that allow drivers to painlessly twist a GPS to just the right viewing angle easily, but Nextar’s mount looks more like a piece of equipment that fell off the space station Mir. It has a clip for creating vacuum on the suction cup after placing it, one hinge for moving it up and down, a rotating ring that does absolutely nothing, and a weak, squeaky ball joint that affords the driver only about 20 degrees of rotation in any direction. On the severely sloped windshield of a late-model Honda Civic, we couldn’t get the GPS anywhere near facing the driver without some severe finagling. Worse yet, the length and poor construction of the mount seemed to magnify vibrations of the road, turning our helpless GPS into a vibrating mess at the end of it. At the end of the day, the engineering oversights made on Nextar’s sloppy mount ended up causing more headaches than even some of the dicier internal issues. Its only redeeming value: the suction cup had excellent grip.
In the field, Nextar’s GPS frustrated us to use due to a number of niggling issues with the software. Exercises that should have been quite easy turned out to be complex operations thanks to Nextar’s poorly designed interface.
For instance, finding a point of interest requires you to sift through a number of different categories and guess about the nature of where you’re headed before you can do any sort of search. Looking for the nearest Taco Bell? Rather than keying “TACO BELL” into a search box, you’ll have to specify that you’re looking for restaurant, scroll down to fast food, and find it in the alphabetical list.
Want to turn off the annoying ticking noise the unit makes every time you press a button? Turning down the volume all the way in the GPS setup menu will only kill the volume for spoken directions. You’ll have to crawl all the way back to a completely different setup menu to fix the button issue.
Windows CE also produced some fun errors for us as we attempted to explore the Nextar’s features, including an “illegal operation” that brought us back to the days of Windows 98. About the only feature we really liked was the itinerary planner, which made it relatively easy to add new stops to our trips, reorder them, and delete them.
The bottom line: our Nextar I4-BC just wasn’t easy to use. While you can adjust to its quirks and misplaced menu options with time, ultimately using it for day-to-day tasks turns into quite a chore, compared to more intelligently designed units.
The concept of a backup camera sounds like a no-brainer when you’re squeezing in and out of tight spots all day in an urban environment, but unfortunately, we didn’t find it to be quite as useful as expected. Because the camera offers very little vision past 10 feet behind you, or side to side, and eliminates depth perception, it’s really only good for seeing whether or not you will tap another car’s bumper when parallel parking. You’ll still need to look over your shoulder for a majority of the maneuvering, still need to eyeball the position of the tires relative to the curb, and still need to guess whether low-hanging pieces of your car like hitches or body panels will scrape against the curb when backing into one. These aren’t criticisms of Nextar’s implementation, only reasons to rethink whether you really need a backup camera. It’s a very limited tool.
Nextar’s camera offers fairly low but usable video quality, and a refresh rate that’s acceptable for the slow application. As for protecting children, the view the camera offers isn’t quite wide enough to account for the whole rear of the car, so we’re not sure it would pick up misplaced tots in every scenario, though it would certainly help. Be warned, though: it’s quite conspicuous on a license plate, so the possibility for theft or vandalism definitely exists.
The media functions on the I4-BC felt like a complete afterthought, and treaded the border between barely functional and completely useless. The music player included almost none of the features we’ve come to expect from even the most basic models. It will pick up songs loaded onto a (not included) SD card, but offers no option for rearranging them, removing them, or even creating your own playlist. Whatever’s on the card is what’s playing. This is the kind of limited functionality we would expect from a $20 kid’s player from Toys ‘R Us, not a legitimate $260 device. While it technically works, all but the most easily impressed users will find it so limited as to be virtually useless.
The picture viewer fairs a little better – but hardly. Besides taking about five seconds to load every single 4.1-megapixel test photo we loaded on, it scaled them very poorly, making the shrunken images appear pixilated and grainy, the way an image might look when zoomed out on in Photoshop (as opposed to actually resized in Photoshop.) Fortunately, zooming in fixes this problem, but of course, forces you to view only sections of your photos, and pan around them using a clumsy and inaccurate finger sliding motion. While the full-screen view made good use of screen real estate, Nextar offers no shortcut for getting out of it, meaning you must wait five seconds for it automatically pop back to the menu mode. And if you’re trying to show someone a photo with it, you’ll have to continually reenter full-screen mode to show off the photos in full.
All in all, we were extremely disappointed with the Nextar’s media player functionality, and couldn’t imagine using it in day-to-day life. Playing music and showing photos is a luxury – but without the luxury interface to make it enjoyable and easy, not many people will find it worthwhile.
While the 4.3-inch touch screen was easily navigable with finger presses and gave a decent bird’s eye view of the road, reading text while driving strained our eyes and driving skills to the max. Nextar engineers seem to have prioritized map area over space for text, so vital data, like which road to take next and how much time is left on the drive, ends up squashed into tiny horizontal bars at the top and bottom of the screen, which display text no larger than the average 12-point font on your computer screen. After mounting the unit several feet away on a windshield, reading the next road feels like taking an eye test. Not exactly what you want to be dealing with when you’re moving 70 miles per hour.
Image Courtesy of Nextar
Points of Interest
Finding destinations with the Nextar’s preloaded points of interest felt a lot like trying to find them in a phonebook with half the pages ripped out. When looking for a spot to grab lunch, we breezed past dozens of eateries on a crowded boulevard without spotting them on the Nextar’s list of close restaurants. In the end, we actually gave up on using it and picked a spot the old fashioned way. Why the dismal results? Although the preinstalled Navteq data includes 1.6 million points of interest, which sounds like a lot, it actually doesn’t stack up to much in the world of GPS units. For instance, even Mio’s budget C220 unit has over 3.5 million POIs, and the higher end C520 has 6 million. By comparison, it’s no surprise than a unit with 1.6 million has trouble turning up destinations.
Despite lacking in some other departments, the I4-BC’s GPS capabilities were definitely up to par with what we’ve encountered in more expensive models. Our receiver got a fix in under a minute every time, performed well when not directly in the window, and seemed to peg our location quite accurately. When measured against a car’s digital speedometer, the GPS’ speed reading was consistently dead on, and even the estimated time of arrival was accurate.
For a device that advertises its text-to-speech and media-playing capabilities so boldly, the audio quality on the Nextar sounds quite atrocious. Listening to this device read out directions at full volume is like running your eardrums against a cheese grater. The speaker sounds crackly and overdriven at full volume, but turning it down makes it too hard to hear in most noisy car environments. We were tempted to simply turn it off, but of course, with directions printed so poorly on the screen, that wasn’t much of an option either. A headphone jack provides some possibility of feeding the audio through your car’s speakers instead, but unless you have a line-in somewhere on your car radio, that won’t be happening, either.
Ease of use, an abominable windshield mount, and blisteringly bad audio were all sore spots for this system. For $260, the I4-BC would seem to offer a lot of bang for the buck, but unless you have a definite need for all the little extras Nextar has packed on board, you’re probably much better off paying the same price for a higher quality GPS without them.
• Affordable price
• Accurate GPS
• Functional backup camera
• Generous accessory bundle
• Barely functional media player
• Cheap, overdriven internal speaker
• Confusing interface
• Difficult-to-adjust mount
• Complex backup camera installation