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Garmin Nuvi 205: Entry-level GPS in the great wide open

GPS boxes have been on a steep price decline lately and a recent product launch from Garmin aims to embrace the next wave of users, with a sub-$200 pricepoint and easy-reach retail placement.

The $199 Garmin Nuvi 205 analyzed for this week's Under The Hood is one of the first “blister-pack” personal navigation devices (PNDs) I'd seen. Clear, vacuum-formed packaging around the product itself and unlocked rows of these on an open-floor retail shelf caught my eye at the local big-box electronics dealer. No longer at prices that force PNDs into locked glass cabinets, the Nüvi 205 and its presentation all speak to the growing commodity status of standalone GPS systems.

Garmin is neither the first nor the only vendor to field a $200-or-less PND, but the Nüvi 205 comes with a pretty rich feature set given the price. A 3.5-in. diagonal 320×240 touch screen serves up full-color 2-D and 3-D mapping data from Navteq, all preloaded on the device. Turn-by-turn audio directions are featured, along with optional FM-band derived traffic information and news via MSN Direct services. Geotagged photos from Google's Panaramio can be loaded in to a user-supplied MicroSD card to give a more visual experience than maps alone can convey.

Even key accessories like a car charging adapter and windshield-mount hardware are included, so there aren't many tack-on costs to achieve a fairly complete navigation experience right out of the box.

Consistent with an entry-level user target, the external interface is simple enough. The white plastic case has only an On/Off/Lock slide switch along the top, a USB connector in the back, and a MicroSD expansion memory card slot along the side. A Reset button hides under a molded tab in case system operation grinds to a halt due to lockup. It seems some things never change.

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Cracking open the two-piece case–after removing two screws hidden under the product label–one finds a single printed circuit board supporting all system electronics. A zero-insertion-force (ZIF) connector on the board is used to wire in the LCD touchscreen module held by friction fit into the upper case half. Three more screws hold the board into the lower enclosure and once removed, the 3.7-v/1250 mAh Li-Ion battery and 8-ohm speaker under the board are exposed. Both speaker and battery use discrete wire plug-in cables back to the PCB. Garmin claims both battery use and charge times are four hours.

The circuit board carries all receiver and processor functions with an 8-layer drilled glass-epoxy PCB technology. By careful placement of parts to optimize signal flow and equally careful component pad pitches to enable “escape routing” through conventional drilled vias, the added cost of high-density buildup board technologies can be sidestepped. When low pricepoints are in the mix, even a small bill-of-materials cost reduction is key. Every dollar matters.

Garmin makes use of highly integrated chips to keep component cost down and, architecturally, the design is split into just three buckets–GPS Processing, Memory, and Analog.

In the primary role of GPS processing, an STA5620 single-chip RF front end from STMicroelectronics demodulates and converts RF signals from the internal 25 mmsq. ceramic block patch antenna. Because there are fewer form-factor constraints than would be found with GPS in a cellphone–for example, the largish antenna can still be tucked into the product, offering better gain than a small stamped-metal aerial. A Maxim Integrated Products LNA fronts the receiver chip to further enhance signal-to-noise ratios for fast time- to-fix.

Signals from the RF receiver pass to the largest device, a Garmin-ST-marked processor that handles the GPS correlator functions along with system control and peripheral support. The Garmin-branded package has many of the physical attributes and similar functional attributes of STMicroelectronics's ARM-powered STA2062 “Cartesio” device, an obvious possible companion to the ST RF front end. Speech synthesis, LCD control, microcontroller functions, USB and memory interfaces are all cooked right in.

System memory for the processor comes from 32 MB of DDR SDRAM from Hynix (for working memory) and 2 GB of iNAND flash from Sandisk. The latter holds all mapping data and system code (for download to DDR SDRAM) with the inclusion of a NAND controller to manage the host processor interface. Wear-leveling and error correction along with SD or SPI bus interface formatting are all handled in the controller chip, co-packaged with what is almost certainly multilevel-cell (MLC) NAND silicon.

Analog functions

Outside of the GPS and storage buckets, the remaining parts serve analog functions of the system. A Linear Technology LTC35571 takes care of USB battery charging and DC-DC conversion needs, with a second Linear part–the LT3591–rounding out power management for the white LED backlighting of the Sharp-manufactured LCD touchscreen module. A TI TSC2046 serves as the touchscreen controller and TI also supplies the two chips comprising audio functions with a stereo DAC (PCM1774) and audio power amplifier (TPA2010).

For every new price/function barrier broken, there tends to be a new wave of buyers, and Garmin seems intent on capturing the price-sensitive customer. As full-enough featured PNDs come in below the $200 price point and show up en-masse on retail racks, the next obvious question for Garmin and all its competitorsis: How long until $100?

David Carey is president of Portelligent, a TechInsights company that produces teardown reports and related industry research on wireless, mobile and personal electronics (www.teardown.com).

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