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Finding Some GPS Guidance

I've been getting a lot more questions about Global Positioning System receivers this year than I'd expected--these little things have become one of the most popular electronics purchases this year.

For example, as of this morning, three of the 10 most popular items in Amazon's electronics category are GPS receivers. (Of the other seven items, four are iPods, two are Canon digital cameras and one is Amazon's own Kindle.)

I last covered GPS receivers in my column back in August, when I tried out three high-end models with built-in traffic data.

But I also just wrapped up a short piece about GPS for the March 2008 issue of National Geographic Traveler. Although the story won't appear on newsstands until late February, I'll give you a preview of my findings here.

For the NGT piece, I wanted to investigate alternatives to the traditional, car-windshield-mounted device--so in addition to auto-use models from TomTom and Navigon, I checked out Hewlett-Packard's iPaq 310 Travel Companion, Palm's GPS Navigator and Verizon Wireless' VZ Navigator service.

The TomTom One XL-S, $400, and the Navigon 5100, $499, offered about the same convenience as other GPS car kits, but with a few pleasant bonuses. TomTom's "MapShare" site allows users to submit corrections to its geography--a potential solution to my biggest complaint about GPS, its inability to learn from experience. Navigon, meanwhile, includes the best windshield mount I've seen (a long plastic stalk with a simple ball joint at the end), along with free traffic guidance (instead of the usual subscription-based service) and a "Reality View" that approximates the overhead signs you'll see at major highway interchanges.

But I was more intrigued by the other three products. The HP and Palm devices, for example, aim to solve another big shortfall of most GPS units, the fact that they don't know where your friends live.

The trim iPaq 310, $450, includes an address book that can synchronize with your copy of Microsoft Outlook, plus the ability to display digital photos and play music files. Unfortunately, the 310 refused to plot addresses in an Outlook contacts list that I'd synced to the device, saying they were not "valid." An HP publicist wrote that the initial software provided for this device still needed work:

The current software has a hard time recognizing state abbreviations. It also appears to be having problems reading a full state name.

She said a fixed version will be released in January, and in the meantime suggested using only a person's Zip code. But that didn't help either.

Palm's tiny GPS Navigator, $249, worked better for me. It paired up with a Palm Centro smartphone using Bluetooth wireless, allowing the Centro to act as the screen, controls and Internet connection for this tiny plastic box (the Internet connection allows this little pod to download traffic data). The included Garmin software took up much of the Centro's memory and had trouble mapping out a few addresses in the Centro's contacts list, but otherwise lived up to its billing.

Lastly, I tried the Verizon Wireless VZ Navigator service. This, like other navigation services provided by wireless carriers, can find you indoors--if the GPS signal fades out, it can plot your location by analyzing the signals of the carrier's transmitter towers. An LG Voyager phone running this service ($2.99 a day or $9.99 a month) quickly put me on the map within a block of my actual location while I was sitting at my desk in the middle of the Post's building.

Just before I filed my story, though, Google released a beta version of its Google Maps for Mobile software that offers the same network-based location for free. The new release is available for Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Java-based and Symbian phones; it doesn't work on Palm OS devices, although Palm is reportedly working to fix that.

If you've recently bought a GPS device, how's it working out so far?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 17, 2007; 10:50 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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I got a Garmin for my wife in the summer. It's everything you expect it to be.

For people who don't like maps, don't find it exciting to research their route ahead of time, and like the security of always being able to press the "take me home" key, GPSs are great.

I'm interested to know if they re-route-due-to-traffic features work. When I'm driving and there's a tie up, there's generally no detour that will shorten my drive time, relative to just sitting in slow traffic.

I personally think GPSs are hot because we all have digital cameras and iPods. What else is there left to give as a gift?

Posted by: Gman | December 17, 2007 12:21 PM | Report abuse

I think the Navigon product should be the top of the heap...I use an older version of the Navigon software with my PDA and a GPS receiver, and it's always been very usable and nice, if a bit slow. Dedicated hardware and plenty of memory should rectify that. I also have a subscription to VZ Navigator, and I like how it works too. Plus, VZ Nav *should* be regularly updated with map changes and refreshed points of interest, which are things that my old nav software lacks.

Posted by: 23112 | December 17, 2007 12:39 PM | Report abuse


Please be sure to delineate between a GPS equipped navigation system and merely a GPS unit.

A plain ol' GPS unit will only tell you where you are, whereas a GPS Nav system will tell you how to get to where you're going.

The media seems to want to interchange these terms in every article I've seen recently.

Posted by: Kim | December 17, 2007 1:21 PM | Report abuse

I bought a Magellan Roadmate 6000T last Christmas for my wife. I broke down when my wife called from Route 29 somewhere north of Lynchburg asking where was the nearest gas station. The system is very good, with the occasional screw-up. My biggest complaint is that the unit's mapping software was last updated in August, 2005. Finally this month they have released the latest maps, but want to charge $79 for the upgrage. I think I will sell the unit on eBay and switch to VZ Navigator.

Posted by: Bern | December 17, 2007 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I find it interesting that most GPS reviews pay little or no attention to the map database that is provided with the unit. Even the best of these (and there are some bad ones) vary in both the quantity and quality of content from one part of the country to another. Problems with locational data (e.g., missing streets) are common and the business listings are (a) usually incomplete, and (b) poorly located when retrieved. The cost of updating the database is often substantial when compared to the initial cost of the unit.

Posted by: Geographer | December 17, 2007 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I bought the low end Tom-tom one last holiday season and have been using it since on longer trips. Shy of not knowing a few small cul-de-sacs in the DC area and telling me certain rural roads were 100 yds to the left or right of where they were (in upstate NY and Alabama) it is a terribly good product. I bet the maps will be outdated soon enough, but for now it seems a good buy for the money. No more and no less than what an average person would want. Friends of mine opted for the high end Tom-tom realized they never use any of the extra fancy features they paid for.

Posted by: That Guy | December 17, 2007 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I purchased the Magellan Maestro 3100 a few months ago. The only issue I have had with it is that the maps did not seem to be completely updated with new traffic patterns. This has only happened twice.

Otherwise it is easy to use and very reliable. It does reroute you if you hit traffic; however, you have to know how long of a detour you are going to need.

Posted by: Tomtom | December 17, 2007 6:12 PM | Report abuse

I own the Navigon 5100 and its like a well trained butler. The key difference is its highway manners. It will alert you to exits starting 1 mile ahead of time, then remind you until its time to exit. You can also tap an icon to repeat instructions. The overhead sign of interstate lanes is another nice feature that is displayed about 1 mile ahead of lane changes. All together, this one is alittle better at keeping you on course.
One uh-oh. I've had two Microsoft aborts. They are MN6.exe aborts and they force you to hold down the power key until a reboot is done.
One pain is the size of the keyboard, too cramped for people with fat fingers and averaged size people will have trouble hitting a N vs. M.
I've owned it for 1 week and have used it all over the SF Bay area.

Posted by: whocares | December 17, 2007 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I bought the little known Mio C520, based on a friend's recommendation and a little online research myself. I really love the unit, and I think for approx $300, it packs features that are available in the Garmins and the Magellans at a higher price. It also has ample real-estate on the LCD (4.3" screen), enabling it to easily show a map as well as a turn-by-turn itinerary on a split-screen.

Posted by: GA | December 17, 2007 10:57 PM | Report abuse

I have had a Lowrance Iway 500C for about two years. Its is a portable GPS unit which I use on both our cars. It has a quit large screen and is very easy to update the maps by downloading from their website. I did discover that my EZpass can create problems, but my wife just holds that up to the windshield when needed. The unit is a bit heavy so it must rest on top of the dash. I'm very pleased with it. It's very good at directions if you remember to set your preferences,favor interstates or not, etc.

Posted by: Bob inMD | December 17, 2007 11:11 PM | Report abuse

I bought a Tomtom last January, because I had gotten lost several times in the New York vicinity following mapquest directions in the dark, while driving to NY from Cincinnati. Let me add that I lived in New York for 30 years, so I know a lot of the areas I was driving in. The tomtom proved to be the best electronics buy I've ever made. Beats mapquest anytime. I also got lost in Cincinnati following mapquest directions because I was in too much of a hurry to input the address into the tomtom (I had printed out the directions the night before). I knew I was close by and asked some passersby, including construction workers, how to get to my destination. No one knew the neighborhood. I then turned on my tomtom and got to where I was going, late but less stressed. The unit is also great for getting anywhere you want to go when it's dark, and it liberates you if you're hesitant about driving in neighborhoods you don't know.

Posted by: Sophia in Cincinnati | December 18, 2007 9:07 AM | Report abuse

My wife bought me a Garmin fro my birthday this summer, and we have found it to be well worth the cost.
However, after the free trial period for the traffic service expired, we have been unable to renew it. We have found that we don't really need it. Nevertheless, it was annoying when I tried to give them our money to keep the service, only to be told that there was no such service in this area.

Posted by: Bob O. | December 18, 2007 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Have a Garmin C330. Unit woks very well in the DC area, rural Va and rural NC to get to herding trials or a meeting. Purchased the unit last Spring. Would never spend the money on an in car naviagation system since I dont want to pay a auto tech a 4110 a hour to diagnosis any problems. ANd the cost of new DVDs or CDs can be more than the cost of my garmin. I dont need Bluetooth or MP3 capability. I use it and Mapquest"Yahoo maps to get where I am going

Posted by: Anonymous | December 19, 2007 9:06 AM | Report abuse

My wife has VZ Navigator on her phone. The nicest thing abut it is that you don't have to carry/install another device. Besides the obvious driving uses, it's nice to have when walking around in unfamiliar cities.

Posted by: J | December 19, 2007 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Tried out a Garmin nuvi 360 in about 25 different countries in Europe. Useful in the main, but even the 2008 maps were sorely out of date in major cities, or omitted complete highway systems. They need something like TomTom's mapshare to advise map errors, but Garmin seems to be ignoring customer feedback.

Posted by: Mike | December 20, 2007 2:38 AM | Report abuse

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