GPS for the holidays

10 years ago by in Uncategorized Tagged:

Over the hills and through the woods, to grandma’s house we go; GPS navigating all the way

Observer Staff

When I was a young man and owned my first car, navigation on the highway was by dead reckoning or service station maps, which were free in those days. Yes, ye of tender years, you could simply pull up to your handy Esso or Mobil (now Exxon/Mobil) gas station and get your free maps. Back in those days the station attendant also filled the gas tank, checked the oil and washed your windshield.

The TomTom Go 720 GPS
(Photo by MICHAEL HAMNER for the Observer)

Fast-forward to the 21st century and paper maps are sold mostly at bookstores, and are so 20th century. The global positioning satellite navigation device, or GPS, not only shows you the fastest route to grandma’s house; it actually knows where you are, even if you don’t.

All of this magic is due to 24 government satellites that trans- mit signals, which allow the microprocessor in the GPS unit to triangulate its position and match that position up with mapping data from one of the two private companies that provide data to the GPS manufacturers.

GPS navigation devices were among the hottest items sold on Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, according to consumer research firms. Unlike the Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Xbox or anything in the iPod family, however, GPS prices have plummeted in the last year to as low as $150 for a name-brand unit. This price drop is partly due to a fierce struggle for market share among the three top GPS manufacturers: Garmin International, TomTom NV and Magellan Navigation. The devices are on track to be among the top Christmas gifts this year.

There are different types of GPS devices; the type selling most quickly now is what the industry calls “portable navigation devices.” They’re intended to be used primarily in automobiles but are portable enough to fit in a pocket.

The advantages of this type of device are:

* They can be used when you are traveling by rental car.
* They can be swapped among personal vehicles.
* They can be used while walking — if the unit has a rechargeable battery.
* They can be carried in a pocket or purse when leaving the vehicle, to avoid theft.
* Some can even be mounted on motorcycles or bicycles.

Why buy a GPS? A GPS navigator can give you information you cannot get from maps. It can give you your actual speed, in both miles and kilometers per hour, more accurately than your speedometer. It can give you the estimated time to your arrival point. It can lead you through some tricky turns that can’t be gleaned from a paper map. It can find points of interest, such as restaurants, hotels and parks, either in your vicinity or anywhere along your route. But most important — it’s a killer gizmo-toy.

Even the medium-priced GPS devices, which sell for between $350 to $550, can now pronounce street names, in addition to giving you multiple voice warnings of the direction in which you should turn. This feature is called “text-to-speech” and it can even vary the warning intervals according to how fast your vehicle is traveling. Many include auxiliary features, such as Bluetooth technology for hands-free phone calls and MP3 players for listening to music or audiobook files. They usually work through an unused FM frequency on your car stereo.


Piqued your interest? Check out the resources below to learn more about GPS devices:
* PC Magazine, PC World,, Consumer Reports and the technology sections of the Washington Post and The New York Times, which provide frequent reviews of the latest GPS devices.
* GPS-specific sites, including, and
* The GPS forums on and other Web sites can yield a wealth of information from other users.

Another feature to look for is downloadable maps, or maps on memory cards, for keeping up-to-date, or to add countries other than those included in the device at the factory. Traffic information, which usually requires an optional subscription to a traffic data service, is another useful feature in congested areas, such as Washington, D.C.

What to choose?

There are literally thousands of portable GPS navigators. Here is a comparison of three popular, mid-priced models from major manufacturers. All three units havde a 4.3-inch diagonal LCD touchscreen, include text-to-speech, and use memory cards to store data. All have a one-year parts and labor warranty. All three have a rechargeable battery good for about four hours between charges. The Magellan and Garmin claim six million points of interest; TomTom has 500,000. The Magellan Maestro claims to have the thinnest case in the mid-priced segment, at just 0.7 of an inch thick. The thickest is the TomTom at 0.9 inches. In factory-included features, the Magellan Maestro is the only unit with voice-recognition, which allows the user to speak the destination address rather than key it in on the touch screen. The TomTom has a proprietary technology called MapShare, which not only allows the user to correct errors in the map data, but to share this information with other TomTom users. The Magellan and the Garmin use map data from Navteq, while the TomTom uses TeleAtlas. There are loyal camps of users for both mapping data companies with many users saying that Navteq data are more reliable in the U.S., while TeleAtlas has the edge in Europe. Either company’s data set will probably get you to your destination, but possibly with slightly different routes.

Try before you buy

Most of the big-box electronics retailers, which tend to have the best selection of GPS navigators, also often have metal roofs. This type of roof effectively kills the devices’ satellite signals, which means that you may have to try out the unit in demo mode only.

If you can test the unit in a store that can receive satellite signals, however, you’ll have a much better chance of putting the GPS through its paces. In testing, make sure that your home address is in the unit’s mapping data. Then, plan a few routes from your home to different addresses.

Also, make sure that the store has a minimum two-week return policy, with no re-stocking fee, so that you can test the unit thoroughly in your own vehicle while traveling your own routes.

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