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The Plenio VXA-3000's huge screen makes for easier viewing of the map and information and is the unit's most distinctive feature.

In general this is a good unit with plenty to like and only a few quirks.

 
 
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Plenio VXA-3000 GPS Navigation Unit

Small and compact, but disappointingly underfeatured
 

A clean design, a huge screen, and a generally well thought out user interface make the Plenio unit attractive and easy to read and use.

Part of our series on GPS - additional articles to be published in coming weeks.

 

 

The Plenio VXA-3000 offers a lot of product at a very reasonable price.  It is well suited for 'average' GPS users, but not so well suited for a 'power' GPS user, and because of its marvelously massive screen size and corresponding increase in weight, it is not quite as convenient a unit for a road warrior to travel with.

Costing little more than one third the price of a top of the line 7" screen equipped Garmin StreetPilot 7200, the Plenio unit is following the trend to greatly reduced pricing in GPS receivers, while still offering a good feature set and user interface.

Recommended for people seeking a middle of the range type unit.


Plenio VXA-3000 Overview

The Plenio VXA-3000 is an example of a 'no-name' unit sold at a price way below the prices charged by the major brand name units.  With GPS receivers becoming increasingly generic, it is now possible for companies to 'design' and build a GPS receiver using a collection of standard off-the-shelf components - a SiRF GPS receiver chip as used by almost all GPS manufacturers, one of several generic antennas, a generic display screen and other hardware components, a generic interface layered on top of a generic operating system (often Windows CE based), and map data from either Navteq or Tele Atlas.  This pretty much eliminates any need for expensive R&D on the part of the company assembling and marketing the unit, and when such companies are located in low cost areas such as, in Plenio's case, variously China, Korea and India, it is possible for the final retail price of the unit to be way below other products.

Does this provide a way to get more than you pay for?  My earlier experience with a low priced unit - the Michelin X-930 - was very disappointing.  The Plenio unit is more expensive ($369 compared to $199), and it also offers vastly more functionality, a huge screen, and an accepted industry standard interface (Smart2Go) and so I approached the Plenio unit with optimism.

Happily my optimism was more justified this time.  While not offering as complete a feature set as Garmin's StreetPilot 7200 and StreetPilot 7500 7" screen GPS units, it has the identical screen resolution (so probably uses the same screen assembly), and has a street price of $369 compared to Garmin's $1300 list price and $950 street price for their 7200.  Most normal users of a GPS unit will probably be satisfied with the slightly more limited feature set in the Plenio VXA-3000 when they consider the pricing differential between the two units.  You can buy two Plenio units and still have over $200 left in your pocket compared to the price of one Garmin StreetPilot 7200.

The Plenio VXA-3000 went on sale in or about October 2006, and - at the time of writing - remains a current unit still available for sale.  Similar units can also be found under the Maxtek name, although note that the similar seeming Maxtek MNT-7T is not the same as the VXA-3000, but instead is equivalent to an earlier less well featured and now discontinued Plenio unit, and so is not recommended as an alternative, even though it may be available for slightly less money.

Using the Unit

The first thing we do when receiving any piece of electronic equipment is to check for operating system upgrades.  Happily, this unit didn't seem to need any upgrades, because upgrading it would be non-trivial.  Although there's a tantalizing mini-USB port on the side of the unit, the manual says it is only for use in their workshop testing.  To copy a new OS to the unit, one needs to download it to one's computer, then use a special program to copy it over to a SD card (not the one with all the map data on) and then copy it from the SD card into the unit.

This is complicated, and requires both a spare SD card and also some sort of way to transfer data from your computer to the SD card.  None of this is provided with the unit.  Disappointing.

Although the software was current, there is the promise of new mapping data to be released in mid/late March, and which we're now (10 April) told will be available some time in late April.  The only update we needed was a new manual, which we downloaded off Plenio's support website, www.dvssales.com.

Like most other units using SiRF GPS chips, the unit has outstanding sensitivity to receiving GPS signals, and very quickly locked onto enough satellites to provide a location fix.

Using the unit for normal things is very simple and acceptably intuitive.  Chances are you could use the unit without needing to read the manual at all.

The unit does have some quirks and some annoying limitations.  Probably the most annoying 'feature' of the unit is its automatic zooming, combined with no display of map scale.  You never really know if the unit is showing you the next half mile, or the next 100 yards, or whatever, and the maximum zoom out setting it chooses is still way too ridiculously close in and overly detailed.  When I'm driving down the freeway at 75 mph and the next turn isn't for 50 miles, I have no interest in the map data showing surface streets within half a mile of my position - I want to see ahead to where I'm going, nearby towns and cities, and watch my progress that way.

A strange quirk is the way the unit shows altitude in yards rather than the universally accepted measure of feet, and similarly, as soon as distances reduce below a mile, it shows the distance in yards rather than in tenths of a mile.  I prefer distances in tenths of a mile, because that's what we see on our odometers and what most people are comfortable with; until getting to the last tenth of a mile or so, at which point a switch to yards is sensible.  For most of us - to be told there's a turn in 1408 yards doesn't mean as much as if the information was described as 0.8 miles.

A strangeness that we don't understand about the unit is how it estimates one's arrival time at the end of a journey.  On one occasion we went for a 72 mile drive, and during the first 65 miles of this (on the freeway) we were making very good time, averaging a speed that was, ahem, slightly over the posted speed limit.  But, notwithstanding this, the unit kept recalculating our arrival time as being later and later, even though it was obvious that even the unit's first ETA was later than when we'd arrive.

When we finally turned off the freeway, there were 7 miles remaining (of open country road with posted speed limits of 45mph and 50mph and no stop lights) and the unit was telling us it would take 24 minutes to drive these 7 miles (ie an average of 17.5 mph), a nonsense figure that was contradicted by the not quite 10 minutes it took.  Similar inconsistencies occurred on other occasions too.

There was another very bizarre issue with the unit.  It does not correctly tell you the distance to the next turn.  The distance it tells you is between 5% - 10% greater than the actual distance - for example, if your next turn is in 20 miles, it might tell you 21 or 22 miles.  How can this happen?  I don't know how, but I do know that the unit is indeed consistently wrong in measuring the distance to the next turn.

Unlike other brands, there's no way to tell the unit what types of speeds to use as averages for different road types, making the ETA information inaccurate.

Some functions on the unit weren't as easy to access as they should be - for example, changing the volume - and if you went away from some of the main navigation screens, when you returned back to them the unit had to then recalculate its route.

Recalculating directions was moderately fast, but not as quick as some units we've used, and if you went off the route, it would automatically recalculate as needed.

The unit had disappointing limitations on the number of user defined locations we could add to it, and apparently when the software was last updated, someone messed up and forgot to leave in the ability to edit or delete user programmed locations (it was present in version 3 but is not present in version 4).  This will quickly become a big problem for those of us who like to program in pre-set destinations.

On a couple of occasions the unit has displayed 'anomalous behavior' or locked up, but fortunately a simple powering off of the unit and then switching it back on again has resolved the issue both times.

Talking about powering off, every time the unit loses power (ie when you turn the ignition off) and is then powered up again, you also have to tell it where you want it to navigate to again.  This is not difficult - you use the 'recent destinations' option and your destination is top of the list - but it is a nuisance and an unnecessary hassle.

These are minor quibbles for the most part, and in general, you're likely to find the Plenio VXA-3000 easy to use and helpful to getting you where you want to be, and telling you where you currently are.

We didn't test the other features of the unit - the ability to display pictures or play audio and video files, because we felt these to be rarely used in real life, and not a key determinant in deciding whether to choose this or a competing unit.  Suffice it to say the unit offers only limited functionality with its video and image functionality.  There are very much better ways to achieve these goals.

A Possible Problem with its Large Size?

The unit is fairly prominently visible from outside the car when mounted on your dash.

It may just have been a coincidence, but after driving around with the unit on my Landrover's dash for two months, one early evening, while it was still broad daylight outside, thieves smashed the driver's side window of the vehicle, reached in, and stole both the GPS unit and a semi-concealed satellite radio receiver as well.  This was in the car park of a large suburban shopping mall in a fairly good neighborhood (Bellevue, WA), and a place I've parked cars in without a single problem for 22 years prior to now.

Was the sight of the large screen Plexio GPS unit a temptation that encouraged the thieves to break in to my car?  I don't know, but suspect it may have been.

The Bottom Line

The Plenio VXA-3000 is a good unit.  There's nothing spectacularly great about it, but while far from perfect in all respects, happily there's nothing spectacularly bad about it either.

Its most distinctive feature is its huge screen.  What a shame the large size wasn't matched by a high resolution, but even with an underachieving 234 x 480 pixel resolution it offers, it gives you a very much larger map and lettering, making it much easier to read from the sort of distances typically found in your car.

Its huge screen does reduce its portability somewhat - it is necessarily larger and heavier than smaller screened units.  But as a semi-permanently affixed unit in your main driving vehicle, these issues are not important.  And while the unit is large, we managed to fit it into the very small dash/windshield area of our Jaguar XJS convertible as well as with larger vehicles.

There are better units out there, for sure, but to get appreciable improvement in functionality, you're looking at about twice the cost, making this both a good quality unit and a great value.

Recommended for 'ordinary' rather than 'power' or 'road warrior' type GPS users.

Currently the lowest price is on Costco.com.  If you're not a Costco member, the next best price seems to be on Amazon.

Feature Analysis
 

Feature

Test Unit

Model

Plenio VXA-3000

Price

$600 list, $369 at Costco.com

Review Date/Details

Tested April 2007.

Version 1.62 software in the test unit

Warranty

One year, offered to original purchaser only

Support

Phone (not toll free), 9am - 5pm Mon - Fri, and web/email support.

Two test calls resulted in the phone being immediately answered by a pleasant friendly American; he didn't know all the answers to all my questions, but was nice to talk to (and some of my questions were admittedly a bit 'off the wall'!).

Inclusions

The unit comes with :

The unit itself
Windshield Mounting bracket
Car power adapter
Handbrake sensor (optional to limit video functionality when driving)
Audio output cable
A/V input cable
IR cordless remote control (but doesn't work for GPS/navigation mode functions)
4 page photocopied Quick Start guide
79 page User's Manual
Windshield mount instructions
1GB SD card with US map preloaded
DVDrom with US including AK, HI and PR map data (but no Canada)
 

The unit does not have any type of carry case and neither does it come with an external antenna.

More seriously, it doesn't have any easy way to operate the unit other than through its cigarette lighter power supply.  There is no mains power adapter nor onboard battery.

Runs out of the box

Yes, mount it in your car, plug it in, turn it on, and it is immediately and fully functional.

Much of the unit's operation is intuitive, so you don't even need to study the manual.

Size

Unit measures 4.9" x 7.4" x 1.4".

Weight

The unit by itself = 1lb 5oz

The unit, mounting device, power cable = 2lb 0oz

This is comparatively heavy (and, by virtue of its screen size, bulky) making it less appropriate as an 'on the road' portable unit, but of course is not an issue if it is primarily mounted only in your main driving car.

Mounting Accessories

A mounting bracket and suction cup is provided for affixing the unit to the vehicle's windshield.  There is no adapter for mounting it on the dash rather than the windshield.

Screen Size

7" diagonal.

3.5" x 6.1" = 3:5.2 or 9:15.5 aspect ratio

Screen Pixels

234 x 480 pixels

67 pixels/inch vertically

79 pixels/inch horizontally

This is fair rather than good pixel density.  It is important to appreciate that while the screen is huge, it has a very poor pixel count - it has fewer pixels than a typical 4.3" diagonal screen with 270 x 480 pixels and only a little more than a typical 3" screen that has 240 x 320 pixels.

The low pixel density is visible on the screen with lines clearly running across the screen, in a manner similar to what you see if you sit too close to a regular (not HD) tv.

Screen Colors

65,536

Screen Visibility

Fair.  Colors wash out when the sun is shining on the screen.

Also, the light grey of the unit is quite reflective, and it is possible for sun, when ahead of the car, to shine on the back of the unit and then reflect off the windshield into your eyes.

Screen Backlighting

Yes, five levels offered.

Day/Night Mode

You can either switch modes manually, or you can allow it to do this automatically - it seems to do the switch automatically at 7pm and 7am, whether it is needed or not, and no matter what the time of year.

This is unlike Garmin, where their units intelligently change based on what they understand each day's sunrise and sunset to be (based on your location and day of the year).

Colors change as part of the mode change.

Controls

The unit itself has only an On/Off slider switch, all other features being controlled through the touch screen interface.

However, it also comes with an infra-red remote control - this might make it easier for someone other than the driver to control the unit.

Unfortunately, the remote control doesn't work with the navigation functions, but only with the A/V functions, and so is of little use when using the unit in its GPS mode.

Interactive help files available

No

Limited functionality when moving

There are no restrictions on what it will do while your vehicle is in motion.

Graphics processor speed

Good

GPS Receiver

SiRF Star III

Max number of satellites simultaneously tracked

Not stated, but believed to probably be 12.

WAAS enhanced

No

Dead reckoning capability

No

Satellite display

No.  It does show the number of satellites it is receiving signals from, but no other data.

Accuracy calculation

No

Can the unit show you your current latitude and longitude and compass heading

Yes, on the main driving screen.

But when you have the unit programmed to navigate you to a destination, the compass rose is obscured by navigation information and is no longer visible.  This is a bad bit of design.

Can the unit show you your current altitude

Yes, but it shows this in yards rather than the universally accepted measure of feet.

Can the unit show you the exact time

Yes, it shows time synchronized with the satellites.  You simply tell it what time zone you're in, and it then shows the time completely accurately.

External antenna capability

The unit's built in antenna can be set to different angles and works well (is best rotated so it is horizontal).

In addition, it has an MCX connector (located on the built in antenna) for an external antenna (note that MCX and MMCX are different type connectors).

You should get a connector that is a straight inline connector, not one with an elbow.

CPU processor speed

Samsung ARM9 Core, 300 MHz, 64MB RAM and 64MB flash

Uses Windows CE.NET 4.2

Uses Smart2Go user interface software

Screen refresh is okay but not wonderful, and is slower when the screen is in night mode.

Trip Computer functions

It shows instantaneous speed, but nothing else.

Battery Type

There is no internal battery.  This is a disappointing omission.

Battery Life

n/a

Power Input

The only provided power source is a car lighter adapter.  In theory, it is possible for other power sources to be purchased (from where?) and used with the unit, but the unit doesn't even tell you what polarity the plug would need to have, adding further to the difficulty in arranging this.  (You want to have the center of the plug positive and the outside of the plug negative.)

Auto Power On/Off

No auto on/off, but the unit of course turns off when you kill the power to the cigarette lighter (ie, in most cars, when you turn the ignition off) and automatically powers up again when you turn the ignition back on again.

When you turn the ignition back on, you have the option to restart your current journey.

 

Mapping

Map provider

Tele Atlas and Smart2go

Countries provided

US only (including all 50 states and Puerto Rico).

Update policy, frequency and cost

They say they plan to issue updates every 6 - 12 months, and while the pricing isn't confirmed, they expect it to be about $50.

There is a new version (4.1) due to be released late in April, but there is no credit or discount to be given to people who have recently purchased units with the older software in them.

These version numbers are a marketing construct of Plenio's - each version may contain updates to the Tele Atlas map data and/or the Smart2go interface and POI data - for example, the update from 3.0 to 4.0 had updates to the Smart2go interface but no updates to the map data.  The soon to be released 4.1 will have map updates and possibly some Smart2go updates too.

Other countries also available

Currently none, but hope to add Canada, Mexico, and much of Europe in the reasonably near future.

How is map data loaded into the GPS receiver

Master information is on a DVD-rom disk, information is loaded into the receiver via an SD card.

The unit can support SD cards up to 2GB in capacity.  Some users report success in using 4GB cards with their unit, but this isn't officially supported.

Not all SD cards work with the unit - Plenio support says they don't know why.  This may be due to how SD cards store unique ID information which is required by some types of licensing control software.  Plenio say that Transcend and SD cards work reliably, and others also may (details in their manual).

Can the entire US be loaded into the unit

The unit holds all of the US but not Canada.

Speaks Directions

Yes

Speaks Street Names

No

Languages spoken

The DVD has a massive fifteen different languages on offer (counting US English, Canadian English, and British English as three different languages, and Canadian French and French French as another two).  Many of the languages are available in both male and female voices.

The unit is supplied with a UK English female voice preloaded on its SD card.  You can add extra voices to your SD card (if you get a 2GB card) as you wish.

2D/3D

Yes

Can you choose between North up or Direction of Travel up

Yes

Split screen mode

No

Map Scale Shown

No.

The auto-zoom feature is very annoying and can't be switched off.  The zoom feature depends on how long until your next turn and also on your speed.  If you are stopped at a traffic light, the map will zoom in so the entire display from where you are to the top of the display represents perhaps 50 yards.  And when you're on the freeway, driving at 75 mph, and with the next turn not for perhaps 50 miles, the distance to the top of the display seems to be only half a mile, and you can't override this.

In other words, the GPS map is only showing you the next 25 seconds or so of where you're driving, even though your next turn isn't for 25 minutes or longer.

This is very poorly thought out, and the inability to override the automatic settings is very frustrating.

Number of POIs provided

They variously claim over a million POIs and sometimes 1.5 million POIs.

There are two different POI files supplied on the DVDrom.  The one that is preloaded onto the SD card is a 110MB file, but if you get a larger 2GB SD card you can load the larger 180MB file that stores more POIs.

POI data in the 110MB file seems reasonably complete and accurate.

It is unclear whether the 1.5 million POI claim relates to the 110MB or the 180MB file - their support person didn't know.

Number of user POIs that can be added

According to their support people, you are limited to only 20 bookmarks - ie, user POIs by another name - that can be added, and can't currently add your own POI files.

And you can't edit or delete these bookmarks either.  This is a massive limitation for 'power' users.

POI information includes phone number

Yes for pre-programmed POIs, apparently no for user created POIs.

POI proximity alert

No

Speed limit warner

No

Does it show both miles and kilometers

Yes

 

Route Planning

How to enter addresses and other data

ABСВ table layout with forward predicting of the next letters in the name you're entering

Can you build a multi-stop journey with waypoints

Yes, with flexibility in the order in which you go through the various waypoints on the journey.

Will it solve the 'traveling salesman' puzzle

No

Can you program assumed speeds for different road types, and if so, how many different road types?

No

Can you choose different settings for different types of vehicles

Yes, for car, bike, scooter, pedestrian and van.

Can you program preferences for road/route types

Yes, basically a prefer/avoid freeways, ferries and toll roads

Does the unit present you with multiple route choices to choose from

No

Can you choose between fastest/quickest and shortest route options

Yes

Will it show breadcrumb trails?

No

 

Extra Features

Bluetooth

No

Export data to laptop

No

Can it play MP3 or other digital audio

Yes

Can it play MP4 or other digital video

Yes, but the manual warns that the system may become unstable if displaying video files with a higher resolution than 240x320 (this is actually quite a low resolution).

Can it display pictures

Yes, but the manual warns not to display images larger than 1.8MB each, and not larger than 2048 x 2048 pixels.

Many 'raw' images from modern high resolution digital cameras may exceed these limits.

Integrated with real time traffic reporting

No

Integrated with other location services

No

Other features

It has a built in game.

It has an auxiliary input for other a/v sources such as, eg, a backing up camera, or an iPod.

Has an FM transmitter to transmit its audio output on one of four FM frequencies (so as to then be played through your car's FM radio receiver).

Has an external lead to be connected to the handbrake so as to disable the video when driving, but this is an optional feature and if you don't install it, you can watch video even when driving.

There is another connector port on the bottom of the unit that has a rubber cover glued over it.  Plenio's support people said they didn't know what this port was for.

In theory you can download additional city guide type information for cities from Smart2go's website.  Unfortunately this website is currently down, although it promises to be back up again really soon now.

 

Read more in the GPS articles series

See the links at the top right of the page to visit other articles in our GPS series.

 

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Originally published 13 April 2007, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 

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