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10/1/2004
07:59 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: GPS Advances

A lot has changed in the year since Fred Langa last looked at Global Positioning System--GPS--technology. There's much to like, and many new features to take advantage of.

Two of the most-popular--if slightly offbeat--columns in this space have been Error-Free Business Travel and A Real-Life GPS Road Test. The former discussed how, "with today's affordable GPS units... you'll never again miss a turn--or a meeting."

The latter showed you "how you can use this emerging technology for your next road trip." For that article, I was the guinea pig, striking out on a two-week driving tour on unfamiliar roads through Europe, using only a GPS for guidance; no traditional maps at all. Then, a little over a year ago, we revisited the subject when we named GPS as one of "Three Technologies Worth Watching".

We haven't discussed GPS since then, but a lot has happened in the interim: It's time for an update. (If you're not familiar with the basics of GPS, or why a GPS can be far better than Web-based mapping or other tools for business travel, please refer to the above articles for a quick refresher.)

Death Of A GPS Unit
My own fresh look at GPS was occasioned by the senescence of my Garmin GPS V, my original GPS unit. It had seen some very hard use all over North America and across much of Europe in a combination of business and pleasure travel. It'd been in the air, on the ground, and even underwater: I took it on a snorkeling trip in the Caribbean, diving in salt water to depth of about 20 feet (7 meters) with the GPS protected by nothing more than a plastic freezer bag.

The final physical insult to that GPS was a motorcycle trip to northern Maine, rattling along a dirt road near the Canadian border in some truly awful weather. Something--perhaps the constant vibration, or maybe it was the steady rain and drizzle--finally caused the GPS to become unreliable: It would announce that it was "Off Route--Recalculating" at frequent intervals when in fact I was precisely on the planned route. It wasn't weak batteries, poor satellite coverage, a temporary problem with water seepage, or any of the other problems that can cause short-term glitches with GPSes: I'd simply worn that one out. It was time for a new one.

I was amazed to see how GPS choices have burgeoned. Garmin, Magellan, and Earthmate remain the "big three" GPS makers here in the US, but other brands and vendors are regionally popular, and dominate some markets. And the GPSes themselves have vastly improved.

Almost all midrange-and-higher units now sport high-resolution color screens, which make map reading much easier. Many of the same units also offer a 3-D perspective view of your planned route; a technology that first appeared in the permanently mounted in-car navigation systems often seen in rental cars. (e.g., the Hertz "Neverlost" system). These perspective views often also strip away extraneous map detail to let you process the map display at a glance. This means your attention can remain focused on your driving chores instead of trying to decipher a cluttered map display.

Among the GPS systems meant for permanent or semi-permanent in-car use, more models than ever now offer some form of voice navigation, where a synthesized voice announces upcoming turns (e.g. "Turn left onto Main Street in 400 feet..."), freeing you from having to look at the GPS at all.

Although I'm not aware of any truly hand-held units that offer voice prompting, many of the smaller units use a variety of distinct musical tones to let you know when a turn is approaching, or is at hand, or has been missed. This is in contrast to units from a few years ago that could at best generate a single kind of nonmusical bleep as a general alert sound: You had to look at the GPS to see what the alert was for.

GPS ergonomics in general also have improved: Many of the units I've looked at are easier than their predecessors to mount, hold, and use; and many software menus have been rethought to present information in an easier-to-access, more logical way.

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