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Mio C520 Portable GPS System Review

The holidays are a great time to tinker with gadgets, because let’s face it, the best electronics come out to play around this time of year. The holidays are also good times to get familiar with electronics that released earlier in the year that you missed, and the Mio C520 Portable GPS System and multimedia player is one such item, for three reasons. First, it’s a sexy gadget that just begs for user input. Second, it’s an incredibly useful tool for navigating your way to holiday parties at obscure relatives’ houses. And third, its combination of GPS functionality and multimedia playback is just what the “gadget geek” doctor ordered.

Mio’s C520 GPS system definitely looks the part of a 21st-Century device. At only 4.9″ wide, 3.2″ tall and 0.8″ deep, it isn’t really much larger than an original iPod, which is quite a feat considering everything it does. Its compact size is also nice for those who want to take advantage of its multimedia features or shove it their pocket while taking a hike in the mountains. Amazingly, the majority of that small face is taken up by a 4.3″ touch screen that displays 65,000 colors at 480×272-pixel resolution. This may not be in the same category as the iPhone, but the large screen and resolution really make reading maps and text — and watching movies — much more pleasant than expected.

That’s right, it plays movies. More on that later. At its core, the Mio C520 is really a GPS device for people whose cars aren’t equipped with that functionality or who walk about sans-auto and are in need of directions. The allusion to a car GPS system is important, because the C520 really has all the bells and whistles normally reserved for in-car systems:

  • The ability to choose multiple map perspectives (2D, isometric, relative position versus north-always-up, etc.)
  • Both daytime and nighttime brightness settings
  • More than 6 million pre-loaded Points of Interest, complete with phone numbers that can be called via a Bluetooth connection to your cell phone
  • Text-to-Speech functionality that frees you from needing to watch the backlit map all the time and focus on driving

The text-to-speech feature is particularly nice, because if you’re in need of driving directions, the last thing you want to do is focus on a map rather than watch for obscure landmarks or addresses. You’ll also need to watch the road rather than the device because the Mio C520 regularly lagged about a block behind in the city and up to a quarter-mile behind on the highway during our testing. With a widescreen display and ability to zoom in or out on the map, we found it easy to get a bird’s-eye view of the next turn well in advance, but it’s sad that we almost needed to do that due to the occasional navigational lag. The occasionally odd re-routing directions didn’t help matters, either.

Mio C520 GPS/MP3 device

In addition to the zoom functions on the widescreen display, the C520 can also be customized so its screen is split into two halves, one showing the map, the other showing pertinent details like the distance to your next “checkpoint,” the nearest gas station or even your GPS coordinates. Splitting the screen definitely ran the risk of cluttering the interface, but when you’re traveling down a highway or country road, the extra information is nice.

That’s not to say the Mio C520 is without clutter, though. At its first startup, the device asks for your home address and other seemingly silly details, but if you make a mistake in any one of these, the sheer number of customization options and the different paths to get there can make it confusing and difficult to find the right menu option to fix or change them. For instance, the Mio C520 includes so many street names and addresses that my wife accidentally chose the incorrect predictive text for our street and inadvertently listed our house as being located on an alley half a block away. This wasn’t a grievous error, as the directions to various locations didn’t really change that much, but it took me 30 minutes to find a way to change our default home address. There were at least half a dozen ways to look at our home address, but only one way to change it…and that one way was hard to find.

Another oversight that seems silly but is surprisingly inconvenient is the lack of an external volume control. Remember that bit about the Mio C520 being sleek and sexy? That’s because the design is so elegant and minimalist, with a power button, mini-USB port, headphone jack and SD memory card input being the only external “blemishes” on the case. As a result, adjusting the volume must be done via three or four tedious taps on the interface, depending on how deep you are into the system. As a result, parents who are on the road may find themselves scrambling to find the volume controls if a particularly loud text-to-speech announcement comes along, because the speaker is loud enough to wake small children from an in-car nap.

An external volume control would’ve also been nice in light of the Mio C520’s multimedia playback functions. Although it’s not exactly an iPod, the Mio C520 plays back MP3s as well as any other device on the market, and the included software can convert different files to an appropriate format. This software is particularly important where the video-playback options are concerned, because watching a converted video on the Mio C520 is (in this editor’s opinion) much more enjoyable than watching the same film on a much-smaller iPod screen. The Mio C520 display isn’t quite as large as that of the Sony PSP (PlayStation Portable), nor quite as refined, but for an all-in-one GPS and multimedia device it’s probably about as good as you’ll find.

Mio C520 GPS/MP3 device

Just make sure as you watch a movie or navigate on a long road trip that you keep the Mio C520 plugged in with the included car charger. Although its lithium ion rechargeable battery is technically rated for 4.5 hours of life (8.5 hours of MP3 playback if you have the backlight off), our field testing saw the battery drain after closer to 3.5 hours. To be fair, that was with the backlight on, the GPS giving in-city directions and music playing, but after charging the battery for eight hours, we had hoped for a bit more juice.

Still, for an all-in-one GPS device that hovers around $300 retail, it’s hard to find too many faults. The people most likely to use the Mio C520 Portable GPS Navigation System are those who regularly need directions and will leave the device plugged in, and/or people who crave customization options that are deep to the point of confusing and will not take issue with the wealth of menus. For a first-time GPS user, the Mio C520 may offer a bit more horsepower and potential than is really necessary, but if that’s the case, we suggest downgrading to the Mio C220 instead, which will save you a bit of money as well.

Check Prices on the Mio C520

Check Prices on the Mio C220

Score: 8
A sleek and functional device that handles multiple purposes with aplomb. A few interface issues and design decisions keep it from being a “must own” for GPS newbies, but pound for pound it’s a great system.

— Jonas Allen

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