Langa Letter: A Real-Life GPS Road Test - InformationWeek

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02:06 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: A Real-Life GPS Road Test

Fred Langa recently spent two weeks navigating through Europe using a GPS and a laptop. Here's how you can use this emerging technology for your next road trip.

Using a GPS let me do this far more easily than I could have using traditional paper maps or online routing services (such as the European route planners available from Michelin or Expedia). With a GPS, I could strike off into totally unfamiliar areas, sometimes even onto tiny rural roads way off the routes covered by the standard travel planners. Yet I always ended up where I wanted to be without going seriously astray--and (I know: it's a guy thing) without having to stop and ask for help. Traveling with the GPS was empowering, which is how technology should be.

OK, where's the hotel? Finding your way in an unfamiliar city (here, Zurich) can be daunting.

A GPS not only precisely shows you your destination (this map also shows Zurich), but also plots the most efficient route to get you there (purple line).

Here are the tech details of my trip, some or all of which may help you get the most from your GPS, no matter how far afield you travel:

Base Maps And Add-On Software
On its own, my U.S.-base map Garmin V GPS knew nothing of Europe except for crude, approximate political boundaries. But the Garmin software arm, MapSource, sells a CD with detailed European road data; I bought a copy of the CD.

The MapSource European software is much like that of the U.S.-oriented "City Select" CD, and includes most highways and roads, even down to small paths and dirt lanes, plus info on restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and more. However, unlike the software for U.S. roads, the MapSource European software isn't a routing product: You can't input start and end points, and have it automatically calculate a route for you. Initially, I thought this was going to be a showstopper.

But then I bought European routing software from Route 66. The Route 66 software generates not only point-to-point driving instructions, but also produces some wonderfully detailed maps that include basic topographical information missing from the "flat maps" of the Garmin products.

Garmin's MapSource software produces schematic maps that clearly show highways but lack topographic detail. This example map shows the area around Innsbruck, Austria. With MapSource, you'd never know the area was extremely mountainous.

Route 66's maps show not only the highway information, but also include basic elevation data. For example, this Route 66 map of the Innsbruck area, at the same approximate scale as the previous MapSource illustration, clearly shows the topography of the region. This makes the Route 66 maps somewhat better than MapSource for planning cross-country routing.

MapSource's schematic maps are superior for showing urban areas. Here, the MapSource view of downtown Innsbruck not only clearly shows the streets, but also shows restaurants, hotels, parking places, theaters, and so on.

Route 66's city maps are less detailed than MapSource's; although the Route 66 software can locate hotels, restaurants, and such via a search function, it doesn't automatically show these points of interest on its maps, a drawback in urban settings.

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