For those of you whom have driven in a car with a built-in GPS, I know you'll agree with me that this is a cool gadget to have. It might even save some marriages, because we all know most guys won't stop for directions. Having the GPS display your current location and a route to your intended destination could nip those arguments right in the bud.
So it was with somewhat high expectation that I tried out Microsoft's latest Streets and Trips 2005 version. The software comes with a small GPS receiver that connects to any standard USB port. The GPS was a mixed blessing, and while overall the product works as intended, I still had the feeling that I wasn't completely satisfied with the software.
The built-in units in the more recent cars have one feature that isn't found in the Microsoft S&T " that annoying voice-over that directs you to get back on track when you are off the route. When I test drove a friend's car that had the built-in navigator or used the Hertz NeverLost system, the voice option was the first thing I had to turn off, because I didn't want some damn machine telling me where to go. I didn't care whether the voice was male or female. Just turn it off!
The biggest trouble I had with the product was how long it took the GPS to find its location. On two different laptops, an IBM Thinkpad T41 and a Panasonic CF-Y2D running Windows XP, the process took anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on where we were. When I tried out the Microsoft GPS with some shareware software, the location came up within a few seconds. And my query to Microsoft tech support didn't shed any light on why the delay happens.
Once it found the location, the GPS generally delivered the correct location, as long as we were going less than 50 mph and stayed outside of major urban areas " faster speeds would result in a route that was off the beaten path, quite literally. One of the features new to the 2005 version is the ability to plot where you have been, at least according to where the GPS thinks you have been. While for the most part, this trail was accurate in the suburbs, when we traveled through midtown Manhattan, the route tracked across city blocks and through buildings, which was a bit disconcerting. This could be because of the challenging environment of tall city buildings interfering with the satellite signal.
There are a couple of issues involved with using your laptop in your car that have nothing to do with the Microsoft software, but bear mentioning here. If you don't have a passenger who is willing to ride shotgun, then you will have to be careful not to be looking at your laptop while you are driving (so that is where the voice thing can be useful, if the spoken directions weren't so annoying). Second, having a full typewriter keyboard to type in the destinations is a heck of a lot easier than using the scroll buttons and limited user interfaces that the built-in devices have to resort to, even if you don't really have much room to open the laptop and unfold the keyboard to a horizontal position. Third, the laptop screen can be hard to see in bright sunlight or with the sun low to the horizon: sitting in the back seat on a trip back home last weekend, I had to rig up a screen shield with a couple of coats behind me to see the darn thing.
One of the big things missing from the user display is a quick "you are X miles away from your destination." Added to this year's software is the ability to plot a new route from your current location, which can be handy when you are lost and finally acknowledge a call for help. As long as you have plugged in your GPS and are able to get your location on the map, that is.
Included with the almost gigabyte of hard disk software are locations for restaurants, hotels, gas stations, banks, and ATMs. You can select the type of business that you desire and the software will pinpoint them on the map, you can right-click on these locations for the complete name and phone number. The data was pretty accurate, although it did mistakenly list a hotel down the street from my house, on a very residential neighborhood where none exists and thought that a restaurant with the name "Inn" in its name was also a hotel. You'll need to zoom in to see this information, but that's fine too.
Microsoft includes a Pocket PC edition as part of the package, and you can download custom maps to your PDA and then use the PDA to display your route. With the appropriate connector from Pharos,you can also turn your phone or PDA into a GPS tracker. The big issue is that most PDA screens are so small that you will be spending a great deal of time scrolling around your map and zooming in and out to view your route and the map features.
Overall, this is still a gadget more than a tool. But it is a great way to impress your friends. And if you spend a lot of time in your car getting lost going to new places, it might save you some time. And the good news is that you still don't have to ask anyone for directions.
Microsoft Streets and Trips 2005 with GPS