Hands-on with the HP iPAQ 312 Travel Companion GPS

I would say I’m quite good with maps and for that reason I’ve never needed a GPS device. Having said that, I’m also deeply intrigued by the technology. Today I received a HP iPAQ 312 Travel Companion to review.

Turning on

Prior to this, I had no idea Hewlett Packard had made a GPS product. This is in fact their second. Still, I was a little worried they might be stepping into unfamiliar territory and the quality of this product would reflect their lack of experience in the field. Having played with it now, it has overcome all my fears and I believe there’s no reason why anyone looking for a GPS device should exclude this from their list. Here’s my what I found.

Main menu

At the first impression, you’ll come to admire how beautiful the user interface is on this gorgeous high-resolution (800×480) resolution screen. Each icon is finely detailed and there are plenty of them. The cool blue theme is consistent yet refreshing.

Touch

The interface is also well optimized for touch, the only method of input. Unlike the capacitative multi-touch craze, this device uses the traditional resistive touch technology which means any object forced onto the display will register. A stylus is included and sits in a slot on top of the device, but because the buttons are so large anyway there’s little if any reason to use them.

About

You might be led to believe this device is running a custom operating system – perhaps Symbian or Java, but in fact like most of the other HP iPAQ devices it runs Windows, Windows CE 5.0 to be exact. And no, it hasn’t crashed. This is a great example of a Windows device that doesn’t scream Windows.

Size comparison

By looking at some of the promotional HP images of this device, you might be easily convinced that this is a large device, but in fact it’s very compact. In comparison, it’s smaller than my mouse. There’s minimal bevel around the generous 4.3-inch screen. Whilst the screen size doesn’t hinder readability, it would have been nice if it was just a little bigger to space out the smaller buttons a little more.

Right side of unit

On the right side is a rotatable and clickable scroll wheel – similar feel to a mouse scroll wheel, this serves as an easy way to zoom in and out of maps as well as changing volume and screen brightness. There is also a rubber flap for antenna, headphone and USB connectors. And at the very bottom, a small reset button.

Left side of unit

On the left side is the slot for the Secure Digital card. No SD card is required to operate the device, however you can access the media stored on it.

Map 3D view

A big selling feature of this device is the 3D map capability, which is a combination of the software and third-party mapping data. Unfortunately the digital map data in Australia is very primitive and does not show buildings and other structures as it would in US or Europe, but you can still see some of the 3D effects on bridges as above.

Routing

Personally, I find myself switching back to 2D view again and again because 3D view is quite processing incentive, and doesn’t give the fluid experience of panning around a map very well.

Route info

This device had no problems routing all the routes I threw at it, including those in outer suburbia. All the returned routes were exactly the ones I know are the best from personal experience. Routing journeys of around 40 kilometers (25 miles) took less than 4 seconds. Route recalculations such as those from a wrong turn were under 2 seconds. In the route details screen, it was smart enough to show me how many kilometers were traveled on highways and if there were any tolled highways or roads.

Route avoid

However if you’re a freeloader like myself, you can easily set up to avoid toll roads as well as many others unfavorable road features.

Typing address

The turning point of this device for me from just a digital map to a useful driving tool is this feature of address filtering. I’m not too familiar with GPS devices so I’m not sure how many of them offer similar functionality like this, but what it does is it prevents you from typing addresses which do not exist such as road names and suburb names.

For example, after you input a suburb, it will only allow you to type the roads that exist in that suburb. This filtering continues to cut down letter-by-letter. When appropriate, it will switch views to present you with a list of options you can select.

Street number

The same applies to street numbers too.

The text-to-speech synthesizer is equally impressive as well. Whilst it doesn’t announce street names Impressively, it even announces street names through the text-to-speech engine available on some languages including US English but not Australian English, a feature usually available on devices $200 more expensive than this. It provides very clear and natural directions via the loudspeaker on the back.

GPS detail

Having walked around on foot with the device, the GPS accuracy has an error margin of around 10 meters which is not that much of a deal in a car. However after turning a corner and changing orientation, it is able to correct itself pretty much instantly. Surprisingly with the internal antenna, I was even able to receive some GPS signal on and off under a tin metal roof.

Media

In addition to the navigation features, this device also includes a range of basic entertainment functions like viewing pictures, videos, music and a range of arcade games. I applaud for HP for trying to extend the device with useful multimedia features, but it really falls short.

The Achilles heel of this device is that it is severely underpowered. For example, when trying to play a standard-definition Windows Media Movie video, it was downright unwatchable almost like a picture slideshow. On top of that, when the announcer informed me the GPS signal had been lost, the video actually froze so the speech synthesizer could do its job. Either the multimedia software is severely unoptimized or the processor is not powerful enough, I hope HP takes this problem seriously for the next version. It could have been a serious PMP-contender, but the software and hardware is just not up to scratch.

Extras

Since I don’t have a Bluetooth phone, I wasn’t able to check out the Bluetooth connectivity features but at the least it offers hands-free answering capability to receive and dial calls. Most points of interest on the map also has a telephone number which makes it even easier to book reservations at your destinations without ever touching your phone.

Packaging

The device comes with a standard set of accessories including USB cable, wall-socket power charger, car charger, car windscreen mount, dashboard mount as well as faux leather pouch.

At a recommended retail price of US$450, this GPS device does slip a little into the pricey side. Having briefly compared it with some competing products, I think the user interface alone might be worth its difference. For its second try, HP has built a very solid device with a great piece of software that really shows they’re committed to the GPS experience as much as any of the other competitors. Can’t wait to see where they’ll go next.

Check out my Flickr gallery for more pictures of this device.

Update: I decided to try out the HP Content Manager available from the iPAQ website. Much to my surprise, there’s an abundance of updates already available for my device which I believe to be fairly recent.

HP Content Manager

From here, I can download and install base software updates, map updates, POI updates, menu languages and voice languages. At the time of writing, there are 560MB worth of updates I’m downloading and installing. I’m going to see if this has any impact on performance.

Update 2: After applying all the software updates, I can’t find any visible changes to the operating system nor the applications. Navigating around the interface seems a little bit snappier, but navigating around maps is still not as smooth as I’d like it to be.

20 insightful thoughts

  1. Well thanks for the review. I am in the looking for a new GPS centered iPAQ. My iPAQ broke down on me a few years ago, and interestingly my dad’s, who has the same one i did, and pushes it a lot harder than i did, is still working good.

    Having said that, your review about the performance not doing well makes me cautious. I wonder how this compares to the 310 from iPaq and their rx5915 travel companion.

  2. It doesn’t announce street names? Damn, that is a complete and total deal breaker. Pretty much in a city when driving downtown you need that audible street name because in crazy traffic you may not have time to glance down to read a street, plus sometimes the GPS can get off and it’s telling you to take a right as you’re passing the street. Names help a lot, at least for me.

    Do you know if it does waypoints or keeps a GPS history? It would be nice if you could get to the GPS history data to make geotagging your photos a bit easier; slip it into your pocket when out of the car while snapping pictures and marry the data together with software, or even better slide your camera’s SD card in for automatic EXIF/geotagging updating.

  3. @Shawn Oster: Heh, no it doesn’t do geotagging or anything of that nature. The best way I can think of is that you add a waypoint to a faux route every time you want to keep a record, and then export that route via the HP software and you’ll give a list of GPS coordinates (and possibly time).

    But from that to geotagged photos is still a lot of work.

  4. @Shawn Oster: Ooooh, I just discovered it does announce street names. I had to pick a voice engine that had TTS, which none of the Australian voices did.

  5. Sweet! Thanks for the update, that’s great news. I really like the look of this unit at least from the photos you took, I’ll have to find one locally to touch it. Too bad the Australian voices don’t have TTS, I rather like getting my street directions in a different accent than mine :)

  6. Hp can’t tell me what the map software is, nor can Organiser World or Johnny Appleseed. Be good if you could let us all know, like can one run one’s own like Copilot 7 or Whereis.

    Great Review and pictures ,

    Thanks

  7. @Davin Scott: By looking through the about screen on the device, I can tell you the Australia map is provided by Whereis. The device does support map updates via HP, but I’m pretty sure you can’t load the updates you would if you buy the upgrade DVDs from Whereis directly. Mine’s running version R14.

    I have to admit, the maps are pretty updated. For example it already has the Eastlink tollway built in for Victoria which is not even completed.

  8. Long – How many maps do they provide? I plan to travel a lot, I live in the US, but I want to spend time in various parts Europe – can you just download whatever you need?

  9. @RyanLM: It appears to me they only provide the maps for the region you purchased the device in, however these are controlled via licenses. I don’t know how you can purchase map licenses for Europe for example, but when you do, it activates those maps for download using their PC software so you can then download and install those maps.

    You might want to send HP sales an email before buying this to make sure you can purchase additional map licenses separately.

  10. I read with interest in the Hun (Herald Sun) yesterday that Whereis are copping flak from Theiss John Holland after several people, one of them a taxi driver, attempted to use Eastlink under the guidance of their satnavs.

    I do love that GUI and it looks like a very competent device. If I’m ever in the market for such a device I might look out for it…

  11. Thanks for the review. I think I am going to get it next week.

    A couple of things I hope HP would do:

    1. continously update the ipaq.com site and provide updates (like maps, street names, Australian TTS engine) to the current model.

    2. add in mobile TV support (DVB-T) in future models.

  12. I thinking to buy one in my home town, Bangkok ‘cuase it offers additional maps of 4 countries eg. Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. Previously I’m not quite sure that elevation is available. Having gone through this review, I am convinced some of its features match my need. I have actually owned Garmin 310 which is somehow limited to my sight.

  13. Thanks for the great review. Does the 312 Travel Companion have a ‘diary’ function or ‘to-do-list’ software to download, as well as the GPS and Outlook Contacts synchronisation mentioned?

  14. @Kim: No it does not have any personal organizer functionality at all. Not even a text file viewer.

    It does sync your Outlook contacts for addresses and phone numbers.

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