Langa Letter: Three Technologies Worth Watching - InformationWeek
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Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: Three Technologies Worth Watching

After months of hands-on use, Fred Langa updates his experiences with powerline networking, GPS, and white-box PCs.

We've also discussed GPS, the Global Positioning System, twice before, in "Error-Free Business Travel" and "A Real-Life GPS Road Test".

GPS technology lets you know exactly where you are at all times. With a moving-map display, a GPS device can help guide you to any location--on road or off--and let you navigate through unfamiliar areas with the confidence of a native.

GPS technology has burgeoned even more since our previous coverage, and is now available not only in conventional handheld and dash-mounted units, but also is being incorporated into everything from cell phones to small radios. Prices have continued to drop, too, with many units costing 20% less than they did when we last wrote about them.

The underlying technology hasn't changed: All GPS devices listen for ultraprecise timing signals from a fleet of satellites built and maintained by the U.S. military, but available to all users. The GPS software processes the satellite signals to calculate the exact location of the receiver. A typical handheld unit will almost always show your location to within 50 feet, and often can achieve accuracies to within 10 feet: A good GPS can not only know what road you're on, for example, but even know which lane you're in. Although the GPS signals are available worldwide, some nations are uneasy about depending on a U.S. military system; the U.S. government can and does make its system less accurate during times when it thinks hostile forces may be using the GPS technology against it or its troops.

So, the European Union has announced plans for Galileo, an independent fleet of GPS satellites that will be under civilian control. These satellites would have higher-power transmitters (enabling the signals to reach where the current ones cannot, such as inside buildings and through dense foliage), and ones that would match or exceed the current, highest available GPS accuracy.

The new system probably won't work with current generation GPS receivers, but Galileo isn't scheduled to become operative until 2008, and so isn't a factor in GPS purchase decisions made today. Meanwhile, the U.S. slowly is updating its fleet of GPS satellites; they will remain in use for the foreseeable future, and almost surely well beyond 2008.

As a side note, a third system--the Russian Glonass--also is in operation, and some current GPS receivers are capable of using these signals. However, without elaborate signal processing, the standard, public-use Glonass signals are fairly low precision (typically accurate to within 170 feet to 200 feet or so) and so are mainly of use on the open ocean, where a positioning error of that size doesn't matter much. The Russian system also has been degrading in recent years, and its long-term future is uncertain.

So, for the short- and medium-term future, conventional GPS using the U.S. system is the way to go.

I'm still getting good service from a combination handheld/dash-mount Garmin V: I use it as part of my car's basic equipment: For example, I routinely use it to drive to new and unfamiliar locations, and also to learn new routes and unexpected shortcuts to even well-known destinations.

But I also use it as a piece of sports gear. For example, on my last vacation, I took advantage of the Garmin V's waterproofing and brought it with me on a long swim to a desert island off the coast of Saint Martin in the French West Indies. Once there, I used the GPS to plot the location of a shipwreck, and to establish a "geocache" on the island. (For more on the sport of geocaching, visit Geocaching.Com; and for more on the Saint Martin geocache I established, use the Geocaching.Com search engine to search for waypoint GCGM9P; or use these coordinates: N 18 05.439 W 63 00.611.)

My one complaint with the Garmin V is its relatively small screen, a drawback when using it as a driving aid. So, I recently purchased a Garmin StreetPilot unit for my other car; it's a larger unit with a brighter color screen and a synthesized voice that speaks aloud your turn-by-turn directions so you don't even have to look at the unit while you drive. The StreetPilot is more versatile, clearer, and much less expensive than the built-in GPS/navigation units offered as an option on most new cars.

Be warned, though: GPS is one of those one-way technologies. Once you've used it, you'll never want to go back to navigating any other way!

Your turn: You're heard Fred's updates on these three technologies and trends, but what do you think? What's been your experience with powerline networking? With white-box/small-brand PCs? With GPS devices? Join in the discussion!

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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