Review of Alpine NVE-N851A Navigation System

by Raja Bhat

July 16, 2000
(See end of article for February 2002 update)

The Alpine 851 is a second generation DVD based car-installed Navigation system. The first generation model 751 was based on data read from CD-ROM, and you needed up to nine discs to cover the entire United States. What the DVD system has done is to combine the data from all the CDs into one DVD. Aside from getting all the data on to one disc, there have been several other improvements made, particularly in the monitor. 

The system consists of three components: the TME-M750 monitor, with its control/processing unit, the NVE-N851A DVD Navigation unit , and a GPS antenna which has to be professionally installed.

Monitor: This consists of a state-of-the-art active matrix LCD screen with a 6.5” (diagonal) screen. It is about an inch thick. The screen is in the new 16:9 ratio. I watched several minutes of a DVD movie played back on the monitor and its picture quality was excellent. A select button switches from the Navigation to two auxiliary inputs if they are connected, for a VCR or DVD or video game. It has a built-in speaker with a volume control on the front panel. Pressing and holding the select button and then going to the appropriate menu helps choose picture brightness and a dimmer setting and movie screen settings. For those watching a movie from a separate DVD player (the DVD player on the nav. unit cannot be used to watch movies, sorry!) you can adjust the screen four different ways to watch either a theatrical screen movie or a video formatted to a regular TV.

During night driving, rather than going to the dimmer setting, the navigation unit itself has a day mode and night mode with automatic switching when your headlights are turned on. However this feature did not work in my car because Lexus has an automatic headlamp on feature controlled by a light sensor and perhaps it was not possible to connect the 851 to the light system of the car. The monitor was mounted below the dash so there never was a problem with sunlight bothering the display.

Navigation unit: This is a relatively small unit that easily fit in the narrow space under the driver’s seat. If I were to install again, I’d have it placed in the trunk area as it is possible that a passenger may accidentally strike the unit with a foot. The DVD bay has a plastic cover that has to be pressed forward and pushed down to expose the bay so it is well protected.

Satellite antenna: The antenna is about an inch and a half square and was securely installed on the back of the roof. As of yet I have not been through a car wash but I’m sure that it can handle those without any problem.

Remote control: The system is operated by a small hand-held remote control with logically placed controls. Every operation of the remote is accompanied by a beep emitted by the monitor, which I would have liked to eliminate but could not except by lowering the monitor’s speaker to a low level in which case you can not hear spoken directions from the unit.

Operation: When the car’s ignition switch is turned to either “accessory” or “ignition,” the unit comes on and display’s an Alpine logo followed by a disclaimer that you have to accept every time by pressing “enter” on the remote.” Every navigation system has this disclaimer, where you agree to mind your driving and not be distracted by the unit, essentially. On the lower left corner, the correct time derived from Satellite is displayed.

The monitor itself has an on/off button but that turns the speaker off as well. There is a display on/off button on the remote, but it actually is an on/off of the Navigation system If the “display off” is pressed on the remote, then when it is turned back on you again have to accept the disclaimer. I wish they would allow you to accept the disclaimer just once during a trip and allow you to turn the display on and off as needed.

Unit’s operation: When turned on, the display shows an arrow pointing to where your vehicle is, and the direction your vehicle is pointing to, on a map of the surrounding area. You zoom in and out using the remote. I found that on a long trip you usually find a suitable zoom setting and you don’t often have to change it.

The unit is extremely accurate. I checked the arrow when I was at intersections, of both Interstates and local roads, and it was always dead-on accurate. When an Interstate had a divided highway, you could clearly see that the tip of the arrow pointed correctly to the part where you were. Perhaps as GPS gets more sophisticated the system could tell you to move to the inner or outer lane as needed!

Creating a route: To create a route, the car must be stationary. If you try to do this while moving, you are politely told that you cannot do so. You click on the “menu” button on the remote, and go to creating a route. You can choose as your destination, an address, a telephone number, a street intersection, or a point of interest, anywhere that the database has. The address can be entered new, or the system remembers your recent ones, and there is also an address book to remember 99 addresses. Entering data is easy and relatively quick. You first choose the area of the country, then the city, and then the street and then the number on the street. Once entered the system calculates the route, and does so fairly rapidly. You will quickly find that in large metro areas you can find pretty much any street but you cannot in most of the USA (see below, map database discussion)

Map database: Alpine currently uses the map database provided by Navtech. And just as all such products using Navtech’s database, it is pitifully poor as compared to an electronic map that you could display on your personal computer using software made by MicroSoft, DeLorme, Rand-McNally and such. Very large metro areas (usually a couple of them per State though some States had more) have full street detail but the rest of the country is shown in what Alpine calls “Intertown coverage.” This is supposed to “include the roads and cartographic features contained on AAA State and provincial maps plus town centers and points of interest." In reality, if you take a State AAA map, and take all the detail that is included in the city insets that such maps have, well, Alpine’s database falls severely short. It is easy to check the map database of the entire USA using the joystick like function of the remote, and I checked major areas such as Charleston SC and Harrisburg PA, both State Capitals, and the detail on the map was awfully scanty. Downtown Charleston had exactly three streets shown. Savannah GA, a busy tourist spot, was also given very inadequate detail. My town, Wilmington NC is one of six large metro areas of North Carolina, and the County has exactly three roads shown, all of them ending abruptly in the middle of the County without going to the Coast as shown on the State map. Downtown Wilmington had less than half a dozen streets shown. Coastal towns of Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, Southport, do not exist. The unit could not map a route to the airport because the main road to the airport, 23rd St., is not on the map. The local Hospitals are not shown, one of them being a major 400 bed Hospital. I believe that all these car installed navigation systems ought to have all hospitals in the country listed; you never know when you have a crisis and need help.

As compared to a personal computer map database, an automobile database is said to handle up to 150 bits of data for each street segment, making it difficult to fit all street detail of the entire USA into the disc. Perhaps the space on the discs could be dramatically increased if they stopped “reserving” a certain amount of disc space for each street segment. In any case, however, I believe that the detail available on State AAA map insets ought to be shown, partly because Alpine states it does, but mostly because it is a bare minimum. Anything less is doing a major disservice to buyers of the system.

Alpine, like many companies selling navigation products, projects on advertising that you can get directions from anywhere to anywhere using their navigation system. But you quickly realize that you just cannot do so. I live about a mile from a State Highway, and the unit stated it could not create a route from my home and asked me to “reposition my vehicle.” Which means, “move closer to a major highway and I’ll then create a route for you!“ In Harrisburg PA I tried to create a route, and it highlighted a route starting about a half mile away from where my car was, and the system said to “proceed to the highlighted route.” But this would have meant for me to keep looking at the monitor to see if I was headed in the right direction frequently, and would have been hazardous. So I did not even try. Fortunately my brother, a local resident, was in the car and gave me an easier route!

I was so upset by the lack of map detail as described above that I told the dealer I absolutely had to return the thing. However, he said that Alpine was unwilling to take the unit back. I would have had to take it to court, which really would not be worth my time. Also, I reasonably would have to pay the dealer for the labor cost of the initial install and then uninstall, which in all would amount to over $300 at least. So the dealer and Alpine have offered to provide the next upgrade of software free of charge; I have decided to keep the system.

Any better systems out there? Not really, as far as installed GPS systems go. Clarion has released its AutoPC, but its screen is barely two inches wide and can really only display the name of the street that you are on and the street that you are approaching. It relies heavily on voice guidance. TravRoute makes a street level detail map showing street detail of the entire USA for the Clarion. Magellan’s 750NAV, also available as Hertz’s NeverLost system, uses the same map database from Navtech. Maybe Garmin will come out with a larger screen than its SteetPilot with a DVD unit to run its database. Another possibility is for systems to use removable shock resistant hard drives that you could hook up to your PC to download current map changes made by the vendor.

Caveat Emptor! Consumers venturing into GPS Navigation systems installed in cars really need to check carefully before purchase. The major problem is the installation, which takes hours of labor cost, non-refundable. Car installed GPS systems have detail requirements as discussed above that computer systems do not, so with full detail it will perhaps take two or three DVD discs to get the entire USA in street detail. My complaint at this time is that the companies ought to state that clearly and not mislead people into thinking that their systems can guide you “door to door.” It's not just Alpine, all similar systems have the same problems.

But I’m sure that it won’t be long before companies such as TravRoute or Rand-McNally adapt their map databases so they’ll run on these systems. I see a very exciting future for car GPS systems, but right now it’s the customer that feels the growing pains!

Update, February 2002: At this time, the NVE-852A has superseded my 851. Information can be found on the Alpine web site. Alpine released the 1.2 upgrade of its DVD in late August. Retail cost is $300. I requested the dealer (I finally found out that he is not an authorized Alpine dealer!) to provide me with an update, and after numerous phone calls, by Christmas 2001 he still failed to get the upgrade that he was supposed to provide free. So I offered $150 and a few telephone calls and two visits to the dealership later, the software finally arrived. The map looks brighter and the colors are more vivid. There are about 25 urban areas that have been either updated or added to version 1.2. (See Alpine’s Web Site for details.) In our area, there have been some improvements though it is not mentioned in the Alpine web site. One major road, Route 74-76, now does extend all the way to Wrightsville Beach, which now shows the main North-South road, Lumina Avenue. Route 132 does now go all the way to Carolina Beach whereas it ended abruptly in the middle of the County before. Whether Navtech has made other corrections within the State, I can’t tell yet until I drive to Myrtle Beach and see if they have re-mapped Route 17.


Navtech apparently has completed mapping the entire USA street by street and is now in the process of sending these maps to various companies. Hopefully, in the fall of 2002, Alpine will offer the most exciting DVD release ever, with full street detail of the entire USA. However, since Navtech failed to correct errors on their maps that I had reported, only time will tell how often Navtech will work on corrections on the new database. I am guessing that they have been working hard to create an entirely new database of the entire USA and did not have time to bother with correcting the existing database. Hopefully it will be in a format that the company will find easy to make changes and corrections to. Alpine's DVD version 1.2 also has a software update that will improve the overall functioning of the unit.

My advice: wait for the new Navtech data with full USA street detail to be incorporated into a DVD database before buying a car navigation system. But as far as the hardware is concerned, I think that the Alpine is excellent. If the system is fully adequate for your needs as is, you could buy it now and look forward to it being upgraded to an even better system in the next year.

 Questions?  Comments?  Email the Author HERE .