Harman Kardon Guide+Play GPS-500

Harman Kardon enters the GPS navigation market with a combined satnav system and multimedia device. Comprehensive maps and good-sized screen means it looks the part, but can it safely find its way through our Best4Reviews test?

The Harman Kardon Guide+Play GPS-500 is a very tidy-looking combination of GPS satnav system and multimedia player. It claims to be able to help you find your way across most of Western Europe and listen to music or watch videos as you go.

A tough plastic body is dominated by the large 4-inch colour touch sensitive LCD. Its silver and black livery make the GPS-500 nice to look at, but, given this is a standalone system – eminently usable as a personal and car-bound navigation system –  it’s slightly too big to be comfortably pocketable.

On the top plate, a large on/off button must be held down for a few seconds to either turn it on or off. It is joined by a slot that accepts an SD card of up to 4GB capacity used to store video and music. The 2GB of internal memory cannot be used to store media files.

There is no software supplied, but the GPS-500 is pre-installed with maps for Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lichtenstein, Luxemburg, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the Vatican City...

... in short, most of Western Europe, and it is ready to go out of the box.

The lack of software means you cannot synch the system with a PC  but you can use its Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) function to use Windows Media Player 10 to convert and synch files that way.

Better still, you can simply copy media files of the correct format to a memory card using, say, a card reader and you’re away. Supported video includes MPEG-4 and WMV-9 formats while music formats accepted include MP3, AAC and WMA files.

So, what’s it like to use?

Well, there are relatively few controls as the majority of the opertaion is done via the excellent but easily marked colour screen. Down the right side is a volume control, the headphone socket and the USB socket, that doubles as the power socket when plugged in using the supplied charger. On the opposite side, you'll find the hold switch and a TMC (Traffic Message Channel) connector for the aerial.

However, while I had the unit to test, I did not get a single TMC message. The system is used to warn in advance of traffic snarl ups or potential black spots on roads but obviously, not that often! There's also a socket on the back for connecting an external GPS antenna.

A cigarette lighter power adapter means you can keep the device powered up on longer journeys, a windscreen/dashboard suction mount, mains power supply and case are included in the box, but the lack of a proper manual (there's a printed quick start guide only) is lamentable - especially since the finer points of control are a bit hit and miss at first.

When switched on you get four main menu choices: Navigation, Music, Video and Settings. Each choice throws up a new menu for the respective function.

Music and Navigation can be used at the same time but not video, and rightly so because you’re not supposed to be watching the latest blockbuster while navigating your way around busy roads. In fact, the GPS-500 keeps beeping a warning to remind you that is not what you’re supposed to do.

The source button at the bottom right of the screen takes you back to the four main menu options at any time (a nice touch) and via the navigation system you can enter your destination by either using the full address or the postcode.

Additionally, you can stipulate city centre or place of interest as destinations and all these can be saved as a list of favourites for oft visited destinations from a variety of start points.

However, one of my pet hates is when entering specific addresses it won’t always let you finish the addresses you wish to enter, bouncing a range of options to choose between. If the actual address you wish to use is not among the list, you cannot go back, override the list generation system and manually enter it.

The system will 'grey-out' letters not needed when tapping in a destination on the screen. This is helpful if there’s a short list that contains the destination you want, but not if it does not.

Once the destination is successfully tapped in, hit 'Go' and the system will immediately start to guide you (though if you turn the system on, it takes up to five minutes for the GPS signal to register) with audio and on screen navigation prompts.

You don’t get spoken or text-to-speech commands, so “turn right in 100-yards” is the type of command to expect, not “turn right into Mulberry Drive in 100-yards” . Incidentally, spoken languages include English, French, German, Spanish and Dutch. The GPS-500 also includes an optional safety camera warning alert, though it did not seem to work on my unit!

However, if you take a wrong turn or decide not to exit at an indicated junction (or you can skip a junction in menus as well if needed) then the system quickly churns out another, new route based on the new direction of travel. It does try to get you turn back for a while but does reliably get a new route in the end.

Audio quality from the built-in speaker is best described as adequate both for navigation prompts and music. However, using earphones there’s not a problem other than music did seem to skip occasionally.

Similar problems beset the video playback, where DROPped frames made for a plain juddery playback and marred some higher resolution video in both MPEG-4 and WMV format.

And finally and even more frustratingly, the whole thing occasionally froze when used in its multimedia guise. This never happed while “navigating” but required a reset via small recessed reset button on the base, accessed with a paper clip or pin.

There’s no disputing the GPS-500’s prowess at satellite navigation. My one worry here was the claimed battery life of up to five hours. I got three hours at most on my tests after a proper initial charge of the system. Easy to follow audio instructions and nice animated 2D (top down for example) and 3D maps with route indication give good and early warning of where you need to go next. But it looks pricey at £345 and the multimedia package seems to be a bit of a bolt-on, given that element of its performance overall. In short, the Harman Kardon Guide+Play GPS-500 is not an iPod by any stretch but then again, you cannot navigate across Western Europe with one of those either.