Feature: Motorcycle navigation systems

Date 12.5.2014

Presented by
  • Motorcycle Trader

blog-img

Motorcycle Navigation systems

Remember when we didn’t spend half our lives staring at tiny screens? Adding SAT-NAV to your list of devices ain’t exactly cheap, so we investigate whether it’s worth the money…

LOST & FOUND

Do you remember when satellite navigation was introduced? It really was magic in a box. Not only would this lumpy-looking gadget show you where you were, but it could map out a route and actually tell you when to make a turn! No more maps, no more arguments with your partner on why native cunning got you lost, again, just blissful deliverance to your next destination in life. Well, that was the promise…

As with a lot of new technology, there were some ridiculous stuff-ups. Such as the English village which begged to, if necessary, be removed altogether from the mapping databases. Truck drivers were being told it was a shortcut and were trucks were literally getting stuck, taking hours to be rescued. Lots of people got a nasty fright thanks to out-dated mapping, too. Such as when that ‘shortcut’ turned out to be a washed-out bridge that disappeared years ago.

Many, including me, resisted at first. Why the hell can’t you read a map, like everyone lse did for the first 100 years of motoring? Gradually, though, you fall victim to its attractions. There really is something to be said for not having your blood pressure raised to vaporisation point when trying to find Happy Daze, Aunt Nellie’s new nursing home. And I’ve become quite fond of its ability to show you the shape of the road ahead – quite handy in some circumstances.

Some makers, initially BMW and quickly followed by Honda with its Goldwing, have integrated sat-nav into their top-line tourers to good effect. Something you might want to consider when buying used is whether the built-in unit can be updated – not all can – which may limit its usefulness.

Regardless, you’ll no doubt have a look at some sort of map before you go. Sat-navs come into play sometimes because it’s nice to have the reassurance you’re on the right track along the way. Where they become invaluable, is finding that mate’s place, or hotel, at the end of a long day in an unfamiliar town.

When it comes to stand-alone units, the technology has moved on a little and by far the biggest challenge GPS-unit makers have faced has come from the mighty smartphone, hotly pursued by the tablet computer. With the addition of a little software, costing anything from $100 to absolutely zilch, you can turn your mobile device into a pretty handy sat-nav. Which begs the question, why have a sat-nav unit at all?

It’s a question that could be applied to a lot of life’s situations. For example, why have a kitchen knife and table cutlery when a Swiss army knife could do all those same jobs? It could, but there is a better way. Having a stand-alone sat-nav just works more efficiently. One of my pet hates when using the phone GPS is when someone calls, which blanks out the nav, usually when I’ve reached a five-ways and have no idea which way to go and I’m surrounded by angry peak-hour traffic.

A stand-alone unit happily ticks away at its job, regardless of what else is going on around you. You can buy a basic unit quite cheaply. Dutch firm Tom Tom, a long-standing operator in this space, will sell you a basic unit designed for a car for $120. Its bike unit is five times the price.

Why? Because a motorcycle is a spectacularly hostile environment for electronic equipment that’s hard mounted to the machine. It’s open to all weather conditions, including high-speed splashes of water, is prone to much higher vibration levels than in a car and gets smacked around a lot more by crashes and bumps in the road. A motorcycle’s handlebar is actually one of the last places on earth you would deliberately mount sophisticated electronic equipment. But we do.

To survive that, the maker has to build the electronic answer to a Hummer – as tough as old boots. That costs a lot more in the design and development phase, and substantially more when it comes to making it. Which is why we get stung with some substantial prices. If it makes you feel any better, the boat fanciers are in, ahem, a similar boat.

TWO TRIBES

We’ve had a couple of motorcycle-dedicated systems to play with over recent months: the ‘Genius’ from local maker Strike and the Zumo from Swiss brand Garmin. The Strike is actually the recently superseded model and has been with us for near 18 months. Let’s have a squiz at what they offer.

The Strike has a smaller 8.9-centimetre screen, compared with the 10.9cm Garmin. The Garmin’s extra ‘real estate’ is welcome and a little easier to read, however the Strike is better shaded with its own shroud. Both claim to be water-resistant and, just as importantly, vibration and shock-resistant. I reckon this is where a lot of your money is spent – making these things robust enough to handle a pretty challenging environment.

Both come with motorcycle handlebar mounts and suction-cup options. The Garmin’s cup is recommended for car use only (not robust enough on a bike) while the Strike unit is sturdy enough for either environment. They can ‘talk’ to your computer via USB, and be charged that way, or hooked up to a 12v socket on your vehicle. Somewhat mystifying is the decision by both makers to double up the power inputs rather than have them all in one easily accessed USB hook-up.

In both cases, I’d set the bike up to charge the unit on the run. It will perform better, avoiding disappointment at that crucial last turn. You might want to ensure that wiring switches off with the ignition, to ensure the GPS doesn’t drain your battery when idle.

Both sat-nav units are fairly intuitive to operate. There are differences in how the software works, but it’s down largely to style rather than substance. However the software is a major battleground in other respects.

For example, the Strike comes with a year’s mapping updates included. Sounds good? The Garmin promises lifetime updates for nix. The Strike gives access to Hema 4WD mapping (something you adventure tourers and trail riders might want to take notice of), while the Garmin comes with the ability to plan your trip on a PC and transfer it to the GPS unit.

Both feature Bluetooth and offer a host of extras. For example, the Strike comes with an earphone kit, while the Garmin offers a maintenance log. Really, it pays to go to their respective websites to trawl through the features. In any case, aside from some minor grizzles, both units have served their purpose.

And pricing? The Strike is a shade under $400, while the Garmin is closer to $750. Garmin also makes two other models, with the cheapest starting at $600. Obviously the Strike has a significant price advantage, which may be whittled away depending on how frequently you update the maps, after the first year, through naviextras.com, at $US45 a time.

Who else is in the market? Tom Tom is the third and only serious motorcycle player that we’re aware of. It offers a bike-dedicated unit called the Rider for $600, which includes free lifetime map updates and fixed speed camera location alerts. We’ve yet to test this unit.

If you happen to be one of those lucky folk who gets to ride overseas on occasion, you can reload all three brands with international maps, at a relatively modest cost, usually around the $50 mark. Just make sure you get the English-speaking version!

All three are reputable makers, so the decision of which one to buy could easily come down to what software package you like the look of better, and at what price. Will you manage without it? Probably. But it’s one of those things that once you use it a few times, you’ll be well and truly hooked.

GET THE HEADS UP

If you’re anything like us, you’ve been keeping an eye on the development and possible applications of Glass, the flagship Head-Up Display technology soon to be released by Google.

Cashing in on the trend is LiveMap, a Russian start-up that is in the process of developing a full-face motorcycle helmet with a built-in HUD. The lightweight helmet is constructed of carbon-fibre and weighs little more than 1kg.

While you ride a transparent image is projected onto the visor directly in front of you, eliminating the need to look down at your GPS or phone, or even up into a corner as in most other HUD displays. Displayed information can include maps, traffic information such as speed limits and weather forecasts, although it’s possible to imagine it could do far more.

The maps will be powered by Navteq and will be available for all countries, while Nuance will handle the voice commands. Battery life is claimed to last a whole day between recharges.

This helmet is closer to concept than production, however LiveMap has heavy backing from the Russian government and is crowdsourcing funds to make a working prototype and then take it into market. The helmet will, of course, be fully certified and will retail at around $US2000, making it expensive, but awesome. The helmet is scheduled for an Australian introduction from around October this year.