This review will for a change not talk about Pocket PCs, GPS receivers, or software. I will focus exclusively on the “supporting actor” – the thing that keeps the show running without being in the limelight. With all the gear and the software we are testing it is very important to get the basics right . What the hell am I talking about? Windscreen mounts with suction cups. Yes, you read correctly. I felt they deserve a review, too.
The usage scenario will be something like “a frequent flyer who always takes a rental car and therefore needs to switch cars frequently. That person has a Smartphone or a Pocket PC , and the Pocket PC is capable of running landscape orientation aware programs”. But don't worry, most of the review applies to permanently installed suction cups too.
Some of the newer rental cars come with a sat nav equipped, some even with TWO CDs !!! (as I recently heard from an excited AVIS counter agent), but so far I haven't seen one that would even come close to the functionality of a Pocket PC system . And with your own system you don't have to learn how to use that in-car program. Some of them have very , uhm , interesting usage concepts that will take you a good two months to get used to.
When you have to change cars frequently, either as described above, or -very common in America - when you have more than one car in the family - the suction mount is the quickest to install and uninstall. It is also pretty indifferent to the type of car you have– they all tend to have windscreens (if your rental vehicle doesn't have one then you should ask for a replacement, stating that you wanted a car, not a motorbike.)
Anyhow, as soon as you consider a Windscreen suction mount, you will come across a name over and over again - HR - it's printed on nearly every mount, right next to the term "Made in Germany". Ever wonder who that HR is? Read on.
Herbert Richter – Company background
Established in 1956 in the Black Forest area of Southern Germany (cuckoo clocks anyone?), HERBERT RICHTER GMBH + Co.KG (that's what the HR stands for) is one of the biggest car accessory producers in the world. Current products include Universal Car Accessories, Phone and PDA Holders, but also items like eye glass holders or tissue boxes, and many more fancy accessories…
The first product Herbert Richter developed back in the sixties was an item called SMOKEFIX. This product was designed to be implemented in the dashboard of the car and was able to store 20 cigarettes. By pulling a button, a already lighted cigarette came out. He tried to persuade VW to include this product in all dashboards of the VW Beetles but for some reason the VW engineers were not interested…
Herbert Richter then decided to manufacture St.Christopher plaques and similar products showing three monkeys - one covering with its hands its eyes, the second its mouth and the third its ears. All products had to be fixed inside the car by little magnets on the back - cars had metal dashboards in the early sixties. Isn't it funny how history repeats itself, now that we have Bluetooth GPS receivers with magnets on the bottom.
So Herbert Richter was one of the very first pioneers in the automotive aftermarket who manufactured and sold products at a low price, to fit universally in all cars. Today his company continues to be the market leader in this area.
With the advent of mobile telephony and personal navigation the Universal Holder market literally exploded, and HR was (and is) right in the middle of it. It all started with the unfortunate clamp holders that still give me the shiver when I see them, but has now thankfully progressed to custom fit slide-in holders, both passive and active. (It's ironic that a passive mount requires activity from you (slide the device in and connect the cables) while an active mount doesn't (just slide the device in)).
With about 170 employees, HR has all the manufacturing processes in house. This includes Injection molding, Ultrasonic welding, Vacuum forming and all kinds of other weird and wonderful processes that I never heard of before. Given a good enough market expectation, HR are very quick to design a prototype and to move a product into mass production (more on this below) without the delay caused by overseas manufacturing.
You will notice that all products made in the HERBERT RICHTER factory are protected by design- or patent-rights worldwide. This doesn't stop the competition from borrowing design elements or copying whole mounts. So HR have been spending a substantial amount of time and money to take the copycats to court, so far always successful.
HR conducts the majority of their business in Germany (about 40%), closely followed by the rest of Europe (35%) and “the world” (25%).
We had the pleasure to meet with Harald Richter (the son of the founder) at this year's CeBIT . This was my last meeting at CeBIT, and by far the most valuable for me. Not just because I snatched a goodie from Harald ;-).
The suction mount generally consists of three parts – the suction cup that attaches to the windscreen, some piece to get the necessary clearing, and finally the PDA holder.
The Suction Cup
The suction cup has to make the contact with the windscreen. There are a number of items that you need to consider carefully.
First of all the glass should be reasonably clean. Then, there should be no dirt on the suction cup – even a little hair can make the cup lose suction rapidly.
When you tighten the cup, make sure to press as much air out BEFORE you agitate the lever that produces the final suction. That way the sunlight has less effect. If you keep too much air in it will heat up when the car is parked in the sun. Hot air expands, and will make the suction cup fall off quicker.
The suction cup is not 100% tight, there will always be air permeating through. So it is a good thing to check and re-tighten the suction cup every once in a while – every month or so – if yours is a permanent installation.
Unfortunately the suction cup rubber is aging, and – particularly in hot weather – will lose its composure quite quickly. Check the levers on this picture – the two left ones are not touching the plastic cap any more because the rubber below has already endured too many hours under suction in hot sunny conditions. The right holder is newer, but also has a better lever which pulls the rubber further up when it is engaged.
Note that the left suction cup is made of black rubber - in the meantime this design is discarded because the suction cup attracted too much heat.
Second thing is the curvature of the windscreen. These windscreens in your cars are never flat, and thus provide only a suboptimal surface for the suction cup. Have a closer look at the edge of the suction cup in this photo...
...you can clearly see that suction is better left and right than it is top and bottom. You can try to find a less curved piece of the windscreen, or you can select a different variety of the suction cup – they come with a plastic ring directly covering the rubber (bad), or with the rubber extending beyond the plastic (good).
You can see that nicely in the photo with the three cups – the left one has the plastic cap extending over the rubber, and it will give you the most grief with heavily curved windscreens. Early models of the GO used such a suction cup with the result that my test model GO mount simply fell off the windscreen at the slightest hint of rough road. Thankfully it didn't fall far… HR have told me that the newer GO mounts will have the design changed to be more like the example on the right.
That little nose by the way is not a production error. It is supposed to support your effort of getting the suction cup off the glass when you want to remove the holder from the car. Make sure to disengage the vacuum lever first, otherwise you will have to use extensive force to get the cup off again . Do not use any tools or knives etc to get the suction cup off the glass - you will damage it beyond repair.
(Don't you love the name of this thingie – “Mega Super Suction Cup” - but in this case the name is justified, this thingie really holds tight.)
Next in the design is the distance piece – the thingie that bridges the distance from the windshield to the place where you can just about still see the PDA. In the old days this distance piece. was mostly a gooseneck. Did you ever wonder what makes the gooseneck so flexible yet sturdy?
The solution to this secret is very easy – they have simply used a thick strain of (softened) Aluminium (Aluminum for the US readers) to achieve this behaviour . Pretty ingenious, ah?
Other options are adjustable tubes as shown here or even solid mounts (like the HR "GLOBAL" mount used for the TomTom GO). Generally – the shorter the clearing unit the better for an experience with less vibrations. Long goosenecks like you may see advertised in various places are totally useless, they will jump up and down with every single little pothole.
The downside of a short connector is that it may not bring the Pocket PC close enough for you to reach it or to read the screen. Particulary in Vans and SUVs the windscreen is pretty far away. HR also offer a dashboard mount adapter (basically a round plastic disc that glues onto the dash and provides the surface for the suction cup) but I don''t like that too much - it certainly decreases the resale value of your car.
The PDA Holder
Last but not least the PDA holder – there are as may varieties as there are Pocket PCs. Fortunately there's a standard 4 prong ratcheting connector on the mount that can accept any type of holder.
Here shown is the version for my Pocket PC ( iPAQ 6315), but HR produce adapters for any device that sells good – including all standard Pocket PCs and Smartphones , but also oddly shaped items like the Nokia Communicators.
Here are some general rules how to select the location for your mount. The mount should be in the normal viewing area (so you don't have to look down), but should not obstruct your view on traffic. The mount should be easily reachable from thesteering wheel, but should not be interfering with the turning of the wheel. You'll need at least a “one hand” clearance. Other possible locations are in the middle of the windscreen, between driver and copilot, and I have also fastened it at the side window that some cars have between hood and door.
And here the same for the Brits
If possible (for example if you use the device only in Portrait mode), allow the Pocket PC holder to rest on the dash – this will greatly reduce vibrations. If you plan to use an active mount, select one where the cable(s) do NOT come out at the bottom – otherwise this cable would rest on the dash. This won't last long, and it also looks ugly.
Finally, if you use an active mount it will have to be relatively close to the cigarette lighter socket since the average mount cable is not that long.
Swivel and tilt
When you install the suction cup mount into your car you will have to adjust its position to the viewing angle, but you will also have to reduce glare and reflections. This is where a swivel adapter comes in handy.
As you can see the left mount ("STABILO") can only tilt or swivel. The right one ("CAR MOUNT 4") can do both at the same time, providing more flexibility. (However it is not as sturdy as the left one). Combine the left mount with a tilt/swivel base and you have the best of both worlds.
With the introduction of TomTom 5 putting your Pocket PC in landscape mode for navigation became pretty fashionable. But most other programs still run in portrait mode. So your mount really should support both modes. This can either be built in (see above) or you can use a swivel adaptor plate, even from HR competitors (this one on the left is from Seidio ).
It is very important to mention that the swivel mechanism should not be too loose. Not a good thing to see your expensive device turn over and head for the floor.
Either put the screw on really tight (and verify from time to time) or use adapters with self-tightening screws as you can see in the picture above. You know, those screws with counter-nuts or with nuts that have a plastic piece inside that prevents the nut from loosening.
Safety is important
I have to say that I am a big fan of custom holders, and do not particularly like clamp PDA holders. These holders have a tough time to secure the PDA in place, and it is also a hassle to insert and remove the PDA. Recent models have shown some improvements. The clamps are no longer flat. Instead they have indentations that will give the device a better hold.
I know that these clamp holders are extremely popular with vendors ("One size fits all") but for your own safety, and for the sake of the device, use a slide-in holder. It will cost more but it protects your investment a lot better.
No more innovation?
So – can such a simple device like a Windscreen suction mount be improved? One of the problems with suction mounts is the suction cup… It is just not sturdy enough and no matter how tight you can fasten it - it will still be elastic and will contribute to vibrations. Especially on rough streets this is mightily irritating, and makes it very difficult to discern any of the information on the screen.
Imagine my astonishment when during our CeBIT visit Harald Richter pulled the "DUAL SUCTION SYSTEM" Mount out of the hat, uhm , the display box.
As the name suggests this monster device sports two suction cups instead of one, completely eliminating one axis of vibration (mostly the vertical axis) . As a result the mount performs exceptionally well even in said rough street conditions.
An added bonus is the fact that it now takes two suction cups to fail at the same time for the mount to fall off. If only one loosens your precious cargo will still be prevented from hitting the floor.
As you can see the mount also has a very flexible design to accommodate various levels of incline. It has the standard four ratcheting prongs so any adapter plate can be used, even the ones from competitors. For example, HR have a gentleman's agreement with Brodit and as a result the connectors are interchangeable.
Here you can see a Seidio active mount and a Seidio Swivel /Tilt adapter fitted to the double suction mount, supporting both portrait and landscape orientation of the PDA. (At the time of writing HR don't yet offer a swivel/tilt adapter)
It looks a bit like a spacecraft, doesn't it? But it performs beautifully, and vibrations are mostly a thing of the past.
“What about the Global mounts?” do I hear you ask? Yeah, they are kind of ok, particularly since they reduce the vibrations through their more monolithic tower design. But that's also what I do not like about them – I find them a tad too bulky.
They are ok for the GO, but less optimal for people who travel a lot and need to keep the gadget size down (the double suction has a somewhat smaller “footprint” in your suitcase). Esthetically the GLOBAL mounts have the advantage of being able to hide behind the device. We plan to do a review of the GLOBAL range a bit later if there's enough interest.
This is the right time to point out that some of the PDA holders (like the Seidio ) are not originally designed to hold a PDA in landscape mode. As a result the PDA sits in the holder somewhat crooked, and there is even a potential for the PDA to fall out of the holder if you would bang into an obstacle on your left. Have a look at the photo below and you see what I mean. You will have to straighten the PDA out from time to time.
Needless to say that the HR PDA holder does not have this problem since it has a tight grip on the PDA well through the center of gravity. You could even put your PDA upside down, and the HR holder would still hold on to your device.
Market economics versus custom builds
I mentioned before that HR are monitoring the market closely and only develop products where they can see a sufficient request level. So when I asked them if they would do a PDA adapter for my iPAQ 6315 with extended battery (which not just extends the capacity to a whopping 3600 mAh , but also extends the thickness of the iPAQ ) they said flat out “No, not enough market interest”. Sad as it is I'll have to agree – there can't be more than a dozen people in the world using the extended battery. (Just for the record, Seidio also do not support it).
But Harald Richter was so kind to let me have some more of the standard PDA adapters, and after a few minutes with saw and screwdriver and glue and Dremel tool (don't ask…) …
… I had a hybrid PDA adapter that would take both the original iPAQ and the one with the extended battery. I used it extensively for my travels in Europe this summer, and was pretty happy with it. OK, one of the screws fell off, but then I'm not the owner of an ultrasonic welding machine…
... but it is fixed now, and I keep torturing the mount under in the Texan sun. I would just wish these mounts would come in other colors, not just black. I know that white ABS exists, but it's probably not big enough of a market yet to make it into HR's product list.
Windscreen suction mounts may not be the sexiest topic in the GPS business but they also deserve a serious consideration when you are planning your navigation system purchase. I hope you enjoyed the read, and took some information away that can help you with your decision when it comes to mounting your GPS setup in the car. Clearly the Herbert Richter Gear is a top candidate to consider. There is a variety of options at your disposal, so you can really create a mounting solution that is optimal for your car. The HR website is a bit minimalistic but you can view their excellent catalogue or you can send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about purchase options (HR don't sell to end users, but are happy to help find a reseller for you) or general product questions.
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