Hardware & Infrastructure
07:59 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

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.

And the core hardware has advanced significantly. In a way, the GPS industry is in a phase similar to what the PC industry went through in the early- to mid-1990s, with prices dropping precipitously and vendors building more and more into the box as a way to attract customers.

As a quick example: My original Garmin V was fully equipped with a North American map database on CD, serial cables for connecting to a laptop or PC, AC power converter, 18MB of user memory (in which to load local, high-resolution map detail), and an adequate but unspectacular black-and-white (or rather, gray on green) LCD screen. It cost somewhat over $700 total.

My new system, a Garmin GPSmap with similar add-ons, has more than four times the memory, comes with a bright, clear color TFT screen, gets twice the battery life, is smaller, weighs less, recalculates faster, has many more features and options--including a built-in altimeter and compass to help keep you oriented in three dimensions when satellite signals aren't available--but still costs roughly $200 less than the old unit did! Plus, the "unlock codes" for the Garmin map CDs now let you use the same CD on up to two GPS units. (Before, you had to buy a separate, expensive CD for each GPS unit.) So, not only have the prices dropped in a major way, but the "bang for the buck" ratio also has increased significantly.

Other brands and models of GPSes have experienced similar price drops and performance enhancements.

Hand-Held Units
As you might surmise from the above, I'm a fan of portable, full-feature hand-held GPS units. They're the most flexible type of GPS, suitable for almost any kind of use in almost any vehicle, in almost any kind of business or pleasure travel. Their small size means you can easily carry them with you, either for use while walking or simply to move them between vehicles, such as in different rental cars on separate legs of a business trip. (Most GPS makers offer non-marking portable mounts that make moving the units between cars very easy.) And yet, these full-featured devices can still provide complete, turn-by-turn navigation guidance and offer an easy way to find gas stations, restaurants, rest stops, or other travel necessities.

Some examples:
and others.

Permanent-Mount GPSes
These units are designed to remain mostly in one vehicle; heavier and larger than the hand-held units, they're not well suited for portable use. But their larger screens mean they're superb for use while driving. And their size also allows the manufacturers to pack in more features. For example, the top-of-the-line Garmin StreetPilot 2660 doesn't require use of an external CD for its map database. Instead, the unit has its own internal miniature hard drive that stores highly-detailed maps of an entire continent--all of North America, for example: You can set it up once, and then drive anywhere in the U.S. or Canada without having to worry about running off the edges of the built-in map. Although this type of unit is expensive, it still costs less than many of the original-equipment, in-car GPSes offered by car dealers.

More examples:

  • High-end systems
  • Other systems
  • GPS-Enabled PDAs And Laptops
    Over the last couple years, GPS add-ons for PDAs and laptop/notebook PCs also have proliferated. These units usually cost less than the full-featured standalone GPSes because the PDA's or PC's screen and processor provide the display and the brains of the unit; the GPS add-on usually consists of a GPS antenna that connects to the PDA or laptop via a serial cable or USB socket; and the necessary mapping and tracking software to process and interpret the GPS signals. If you already have a PDA or laptop, you may find that a small, relatively inexpensive GPS add-on may be a real help in your business travel.

    Some examples include:

  • Earthmate
  • Other PDA-oriented GPS devices/Add-Ons
  • Other laptop-oriented GPS devices/Add-Ons
  • and this article: "GPS and Your Windows XP-based Laptop."
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