Langa Letter: GPS Update - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management
12:49 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: GPS Update

Remember when cell phones went from fat, bulky, exotic devices to slim, must-have, everyday tools? That's what's happening to GPS technology right now, Fred Langa says.

One of the most interesting--and useful--technologies to emerge in the last few years is GPS--the Global Positioning System. It's something we started covering in 2002, with Error-Free Business Travel. We came back to the subject about a year later in A Real-Life GPS Road Test, which let you ride along on a two-week, GPS-guided driving tour of the Alps, using an early-model GPS mapping device for all the navigation. And then, last year, in GPS Advances, we discussed some of the many options becoming available in this fast-moving field. (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 and pleasure travel, please refer to the above articles for a quick refresher.)

I'm totally sold on the benefits of GPS technology, and I've added relatively inexpensive portable and handheld GPS units to all my family's vehicles. (These units are often more capable than dealer-installed navigation systems, and they're much less expensive than the OEM gear.) I use GPS for all my travel--business and pleasure--and find it has reduced the stress and hassle of driving significantly. As we said in our original article on this technology, "Traveling with GPS is like having a live expert navigator in the seat beside you, letting you drive through an unfamiliar area with the accuracy and confidence of a local taxi driver. GPS can make missed turns--and missed meetings--a thing of the past."

The newest GPS gear is fantastic. For example, I recently used a brand-new GPS that's roughly half the weight and bulk of my original GPS unit. I used it to navigate for 3,500 miles (5,600 kilometers) through the nether reaches of Atlantic Canada, including the back roads of far northern Newfoundland (see Fred's online photo album from his trip here).

Through rain, shine, hot, cold, light, and dark, the GPS's voice prompts let me get to where I wanted to go without even having to look at the on-screen moving-map display. The unit's memory was sufficient to hold highly detailed maps for the entire trip, including street-level information such as the location of gas stations, places to eat, and points of interest. Wonderful stuff!

It's amazing how fast GPS hardware has evolved in the last few years. For example, check out the following table. It compares three typical portable units from Garmin (an industry leader in GPS); one from 2002, one from 2003-2004, and one from 2005. All the units are self-routing (they'll plot turn-by-turn directions for you, between any two points); all come complete with software and mounting hardware for use in a vehicle; and all cost around $500 when first introduced. But beyond those basic similarities, look at the differences!

GPS Evolution
(using example systems that cost around $500 when introduced)
(e.g., Garmin GPS V Deluxe)
(e.g., Garmin GPSMap 60CS)
(e.g., Garmin Quest)
Available RAM
(for loading maps)
18 Mbytes 56 Mbytes 115 Mbytes
Display screen 4-level grayscale (gray on green) FSTN (Film Super Twist Nematic) 256-color transreflective TFT (Thin Film Transistor) display, sunlight-readable 256-color, high-resolution, reflective TFT, sunlight-readable
Data port Standard Serial, 9600 baud (typical connection) Standard Serial or USB USB
Included mapping software CD with street-level detail for one local region (additional regions available at extra cost) CD with continentwide street-level detail (e.g., all of U.S., Canada, Mexico) CD with continentwide street-level detail (e.g., all of U.S., Canada, Mexico); same data also is available preloaded into ROM (no CD needed) at extra cost.
Batteries 4 AA cells 2 AA cells Rechargeable internal lithium-ion
Weight 9 oz (255 g) 7.5 oz (213 g) 5.5 oz (156 g)
Size in inches (mm) 5.0 x 2.3 x 1.6
(127 x 58 x 41)
7.1 x 2.4 x 1.3
(180 x 61 x 33)
4.5 x 2.2 x 0.9
(114 x 56 x 23)
Weight 9 oz (255 g) 7.5 oz (213 g) 5.5 oz (156 g)
GPS hardware has undergone an almost unbelievably rapid evolution, adding more and more features into smaller and more power-efficient packages.

As you can see from the examples in the table, with each successive generation of GPS hardware, the hardware gets smaller, lighter, and more sophisticated. With each new iteration, you get more and more bang for the buck.

Low End, High End
Of course, looking at a given price point is only one way to see what's going on in GPS technology. It's also instructive to look at what's happened at the high and low ends of GPS hardware.

As of this writing, the Lowrance 11248 may be the best value in basic GPS technology; it sells for around $65; that's about 30% less than last year's lowest-priced basic unit. Although the Lowrance 11248 can't automatically plot turn-by-turn directions for you, it will show you where you are and what's nearby with an accuracy roughly equal to that of the Garmin GPS V, which cost $500, or over seven times as much, just three years ago. The Lowrance unit is an incredible piece of technology at an amazingly low price.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are units like the StreetPilot 2720, which can integrate GPS data with local, real-time traffic and weather conditions broadcast over the FM Radio Data System's "Traffic Message Channel." Many radio broadcasters already use the Radio Data System, or "RDS", to display text-based information such as station identification and the names of songs and artists currently being broadcast. Newer radios (especially in cars), can decode and display the RDS text. Similarly, the Traffic Message Channel or "TMC" is an application of RDS used for broadcasting real-time traffic and weather information that can be received silently and displayed by a TMC-equipped car radio or navigation system. A TMC-capable GPS, like the StreetPilot 2720, not only can show you how to get from point A to point B, but also can suggest alternate routes when it receives a TMC report of an obstacle ahead, such as a delay from construction, accident, or bad weather.

The StreetPilot 2720, like many other high-end GPS units from a variety of vendors, also uses speech synthesis and touch-screen technology to make it easier to use the device: The latter helps you avoid having to fumble for tiny, hard-to-read buttons; the former means you can receive instructions by ear, rather than having to take your eyes off the road to look at a screen. Somewhat atypically, the StreetPilot 2720 also extends its text-to-speech synthesis beyond basic navigational commands ("In 500 feet, turn left..."); it even can announce the names of cross streets, intersections, and so on.

A number of higher-end GPS units meant for in-car use now come with tiny hard drives built in, allowing them to hold a vast amount of detailed street-level information for huge hunks of the planet--such as all of North America! (See this or this for examples.) Some handheld or hybrid car/handheld units similarly come with large amounts of solid-state read-only-memory which also can hold a huge amount of data, but in ruggedized form that allows the GPS to withstand shocks and other environmental extremes that might harm a hard drive. In some cases, the solid-state memory is in the form of SD cards or other forms of commonly available, relatively inexpensive, flash memory.

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