The n35 joins a limited range of handheld/GPS combos, including the Windows Mobile-based Mitac Mio 168 and Navman PiN 300 (they share the same hardware design), Garmin’s newly announced iQue M5 and the company's well established PalmOS-based iQue 3600.
The n35’s dimensions -- 720 by 120 by 20mm -- are on the large side for a handheld, though it's reasonably lightweight at 165g. The GPS antenna is hinged at the top of the case, swivelling out when needed. When folded away the antenna fits flush at the back of the device, so you can sit the n35 flat on a desk if you want.
Acer’s design uses a two-tone black and silver look, with the application shortcut buttons and a navigation button below the screen in the standard location. The navigation button is a square-shaped raised joypad that we found easy enough to use, although it looks odd to our eyes. The left side of the n35 houses a scroll wheel, which is our preferred way of navigating within applications. The stylus, which lives in a slot on the upper right edge, is long (which we like) but rather lightweight (which we do not). The headphone socket is on the top edge, along with a microphone, while the bottom edge provides facilities to soft and hard reset the hardware. These are not labelled, but the former is a button and the latter a switch, so you should be able to remember their functions. Both are well recessed to guard against accidental activation.
Acer is adamant that the n35 is a navigation solution first, and a handheld second. More generally, vendors describe their navigation bundles -- regardless of whether their antennae are built in or not -- as offering all the features of a handheld with navigation as an added bonus. Acer’s emphasis is just as well given this handheld's specifications, which are decidedly mid-range.
The 266MHz Samsung processor did not pose any problems in general handheld use, although we suspect it did play a role in a Destinator issue, of which more below. The memory allocation is more problematic. Although the specifications on Acer’s web site say there is 64MB of SDRAM for user applications and storage, before installing Destinator the total of free memory for ‘storage’ and ‘programs’ was 46.2MB. After installing Destinator we were left with 42.9MB, plus a further 1.84MB of free flash memory. If you intend to use this device purely for navigation, then 43MB of available memory may be enough, but if you want to add extra software, you may find it gets stretched. The 1.8MB of spare flash memory is the result of a 32MB ROM being used for the operating system, which leaves very little for user access. If you need to make backups to non-volatile memory, this will not be enough.
The good news is that the Destinator navigation software is provided on a 256MB SD card, and after installing the software from this card we were left with 52.3MB free for other purposes. Some applications can be installed to flash memory cards and will run from them, but others have to be installed on internal memory.
There is a single SDIO-compatible SD card slot on the upper edge of the n35. This is required by the Destinator software, which means you won't be able to access additional cards and use Destinator at the same time. Neither Bluetooth nor Wi-Fi are built into the n35, making it the first handheld we've seen for some time to lack both wireless connectivity options. You will need the SD card slot to add either of these features -- but as mentioned above, this will rule out using Destinator.
The OS is the first edition of Windows Mobile for Pocket PC 2003, which lacks the screen rotation facility provided by the Second Edition. Additional software is thin on the ground. There is a backup tool that can be set to automatically make backups if the battery power sinks below 30 per cent, while the installation CD provides a copy of the Adobe Acrobat Reader for Pocket PC. As well as the n35 and the 256MB SD card containing the Destinator software, the box includes a mains power cable and synchronisation cable, cigarette lighter charge cable, car mounting gear and a carry case for the handheld. There is also some desktop software for Destinator that allows you to install extra maps and create map segments.
The Destinator software is a mixed bag. The install routine runs automatically when you pop the SD card into its slot, making it straightforward for non-technical users to get going. Unfortunately, whenever we reinserted the Destinator card after using another SD card, the install routine started to run again. Cancelling out was no problem, but when we did cancel we were told that the software had ‘not installed successfully’, and were encouraged to run the setup routine again. In fact there was nothing wrong with the install at all -- this is clearly just a routine response to hitting the Cancel button during installation. Even so, a more user-friendly approach would be preferable, as some people could become confused as it stands.
Destinator has some great features. A real plus point is the ease with which destinations can be entered. It is very useful to be able to enter destinations using different variables in different orders (postcode then street, or city then street then house number, for example). Finding an address, for example, is a quick and easy process -- among the best we've seen in this respect. The GPS receiver located us quickly, even on first use -- with some other hardware, a warm-up period of several minutes is required. We had been concerned that the built-in receiver might lose its connection if we positioned the n35 away from the car's windscreen, but in fact it maintained a GPS connection even when sitting on the passenger seat.
A map view called Bird’s Eye sits somewhere between 2D and 3D and is particularly helpful for visualising the route ahead. We did find that the screen was slow to refresh at times, but suspect that this has more to do with Acer’s choice of CPU than the Destinator software. When you stray from the designated route, you can opt to have Destinator notify you, or you can simple let the program re-route you. The latter option sometimes results in an abrupt u-turn instruction, which can come as a surprise. You can also choose to be told when you exceed the speed limit, when the GPS signal gets low, and to ‘drive carefully’.
Route recalculation was very quick and planned routes were generally reliable. Images showing the next turn are large and clear, although they're not flashed on-screen for very long. There's only a single line below the main map to deliver vital information sequentially, such as: estimated arrival time with remaining journey time, latitude and longitude, speed and altitude, distance to destination. Showing these data in turn helps to keep the screen free of clutter, but this may not suit all tastes.
The Acer n35 delivers loud instructions, which we had no trouble hearing. However there are some drawbacks with the driving instructions. The software only issues instructions when it thinks you need to negotiate a major junction, and sometimes ignores left turns or forks in the road. This means that you need to glance at the screen more than you should while driving -- something that really should be rectified. We also felt that the roundabout instructions weren’t as clear as those from some other navigation programs. At one point we were nonplussed on leaving a roundabout and entering a long straight stretch of road to be given further roundabout instructions, followed by the fact that this was several kilometres away. This is a simple error: let's have the distance to next decision point first, and then the instructions on what to do there.
Our usual test of the battery life for a handheld is to play MP3 files continuously, forcing the screen to remain on during this process. Under these conditions, the battery delivered 4 hours and 55 minutes of life and 4 hours 33 minutes of music. The battery is not removable, but since the n35 comes with a car adaptor it should be fine during long trips. For a navigation/handheld bundle, Acer's n35 GPS is reasonable but not outstanding. There's a wide choice of navigation solutions these days, including: handhelds with built-in GPS receivers and bundled navigation software; handhelds with the software on-board and an external GPS receiver (Bluetooth or wired); separates systems where you buy the software, receiver and handheld individually; and dedicated devices such as the TomTom Go.
The moderately specified Acer n35 won’t suit anyone looking for sophisticated handheld usage beyond the navigation side of things. The Destinator software is good in parts, but the rough edges we found around spoken instructions are pretty fundamental. In its niche, then, the Acer n35 GPS is fair, and well priced at £249.99. But if you're in the market for a handheld-based navigation solution, we suggest you do some extensive research first.
Edited by Charles McLellan
Additional editing by Tom Espiner