Naturally, the lion's share of the best car gadgets category for the Vodafone Pocket-lint Awards 2009 is concerned with satnavs or PNDs as the industry likes to call them. It's been a tense year for the device manufacturers. They've seen the rise of the smartphone on the horizon for some time now and with mapping applications and GPS chips so readily available in handsets everywhere, it's only been a matter of time before the fight has come to the satnav's doorstep. If the battle hadn't begun by CES 2009 then it certainly has now.
The three main players - in the shape of TomTom, Garmin and Mio - have certainly been busy throughout the year with multiple series releases each aimed at a different section of the market. Mio started the ball rolling in January with the launch of the Mio Moov range which pretty much laid out the form factor approach for the year for all the brands. There were three models going from a 3.5-inch pocket version through a 4.7-inch middle of the road to a 7-inch premium monster. The value was not only in the screens but also the multi-lingual text to speech, the millions of POI and Bluetooth for hands-free calling as well as software additions such as Junction View. Since that point, it seems to have been an arms race with the mobile phone for the satnavs to offer value and new features that its enemy just can't compete with.
For Mio/Navman, one of the highlights was the addition of digital TV receivers into PNDs with the Navman Sprint V505 and V705 units as launched in the summer and the company wasn't the only one to decide that in-car entertainment was the dimension to add for success. Navigon also introduced a DVB TV-toting model and Pioneer, TomTom and Navgate have been quick to release models focusing on music playback with support for CDs, MP3, AAC and often with SD card and USB slots too, as well as the option to playback through your car stereo.
Another approach has been specialisation of one sort or another. At the beginning of the year, we saw TomTom do a deal with Renault to create a satnav that embeds directly in the car's dashboard, while Navevo came up with a solution for HGV drivers with software focusing on the kinds of details that would suit the professional driver. At the other end of the motoring spectrum, Garmin brought out a satnav with BMW aimed at motorcycle riders which included features such as glove-friendly touchscreens, but perhaps the most common focus we've seen in 2009 is for fuel economy and eco-friendliness to match both growing green concerns and the global recession. There were models from Vexia with the Econav as well as a glut of software additions on the matter from the major players, and if it's just plain value you're after, then even Medion has got into the market.
In all, it's really been a question of testing the water for the PND makers. They know there's trouble ahead, they know they need to find reasons for people to keep buying them and they're looking for the added value to which the public will respond. Whether it's better software, 3D maps, bigger touchscreens, TV, music, voice control or just faster GPS chips is entirely up to you. What you can be sure of is that we'll continue getting more services, more additions and more maps for less money.
Probably the biggest punch up between our readers, our staff and and our judges is going to be over this particular bone of contention - when does a phone become a car gadget? The trick is that you can argue any gadget is a car gadget if it proves itself particularly useful to the motorist or passenger, but then that rather opens the field out to just about any smartphone on the market as well as even the likes of handheld gaming machines and portable DVD players at a push too. The latter two aside though, there have been a small handful of releases in 2009 that you simply can't deny as car gadgets even if they can be used for other purposes as well.
Rather than fight the mobile phone, Garmin has embraced it in its partnership with Asus and ventured into the world of telephony at MWC earlier this year. The Asus-Garmin M20 and G60 nuviphone handsets have finally been released, albeit, in the Far East. Closer to home, Nokia has also refreshed its line of Navigator handsets.
Where the line really starts to blur is when you can add software to hardware that isn't specifically designed for navigation. Step forward Co-Pilot, the TomTom app for iPhone and Android and, more recently, Google Maps Navigation for Android 2.0 on the Motorola Droid. It's the gadget that the award is for rather than a program, but if TomTom makes the iPhone the best car gadget of 2009, then who are we to say no?
Car kits, cradles & hands-free
With phones and PMPs finding their way into our lives and our vehicles more quickly than ever before, you'd expect to have seen a mass of releases in this department in 2009, but actually there have been surprisingly few. What has been the major hallmark though is the quality of each that there has been. Naturally stalwarts of the trade, Parot and Jabra, have been on the case with an iPhone car kit and Bluetooth speakerphone, but the big excitement of the year was with BlackBerry's first entrance with the VM-605 visor mount speakerphone guaranteed to turn most RIM nuts into jelly.
Security specialist Kensington also came up with a speakerphone kit of its own and an iPhone cradle, where TomTom was also not going to miss a trick having come up with the app for the machine itself. But, just to prove it's not all about mobile, both Kensington and Gear4 have brought auto support for the iPod and iPod nano with a couple of kits of their own while Griffin has made some very interesting updates related to the in-car pod range with the Powerjolt, which offers a whole new iPhone battery, the iTrip Universal Plus which will now scan for radio frequencies automatically and Tunflex for music remote control.
One should never forget that the point of a gadget is to make life easier. So, there's no reason why something smaller can't out-do the likes of the pricey PNDs in this category. A fine example of simplicity is in the Duracell in-car USB charger, which converts your 12V DC socket into a USB port where you can juice up just about any gadget you can think of.
If you'd rather integrate your tech, then there have also been a couple of notable car stereo launches in 2009 as well in the shape of the Sony Xplod and the Pioneer DEH-P4100SD. They've both embraced digital music with the support of all the standard audio file types as well having CD players, tuners, SD card slots and USB ports where you can plug in your PMP of choice. Surely the only way to go for any serious music loving car fan.
And last, but certainly not least, we've just started seeing mainstream installs of proper entertainment systems into any car of your choice from FLO TV in the States - certain to be a contender by next year if it can't gather the momentum for 2009.
What do you think?
But these are just some of the fantastic choices our readers have had in 2009. What would you like to see held aloft as the winner of Pocket-lint Best Car Gadget 2009? Who have we missed out? Which are your unsung heroes and of those we've already mentioned, which would get your vote? Let us know in the comments below and you can help our panel decide which make the shortlist of nominees to be announced here on Pocket-lint on 16th November. We'll have all out coverage of the Vodafone Pocket-lint awards 2009 right here. Don't miss a minute of it.