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?
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