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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

GPS Facts

Some cold, hard facts about GPS/mapping and what you need to know to make a good choice.

GPS is very accurate -- this stuff works! Even cheap GPS receivers can pinpoint your location to within about 10ft., no matter where you are on this planet. That's remarkable. Accuracy will never be your problem when you use GPS. Unfortunately, accurate though GPS is, mapping systems often tend to fall behind when you're driving. Sometimes you come to a complete stop while the system slowly catches up. (continued...)

Finding satellites -- there are 24 on-duty satellites up there, and your receiver needs to lock onto at least 3 of them to know where you are. That can take some time. Sometimes too much time. Check the specs and pick a receiver that doesn't take forever.

GPS for dummies -- if you suspect you are one, as far as GPS goes, stay clear of the techie/outdoorsman GPS and mapping systems. They use special terminology and you really need to know a lot about longitudes and latitudes and waypoints and such in order to make any sense of it all. If all you want is to drive from Point A to Point B. without getting lost, select one of the friendly systems. They let you pick your start and destination, then show beautiful maps, and easy-to-follow lists of directions, and they have trust-inspiring voice prompts. On the other hand, if you're a seasoned navigator or outdoorsman, make sure you pick a system that has all the professional features you need and want. The trend is towards nice graphics and ease of use.

PDA based systems -- if you already have a PDA you can convert it into a powerful GPS system for not much money (from $150 to $350). Just get one of the many bundles that includes the GPS receiver (USB or Bluetooth) and mapping software. If you'll be using the system primarily in your car, you need a suction-cup mounting arm for the PDA, and not all bundles come with that. As for the PDA, the larger display and the higher the resolution the better. Glare and visibility are issues also. In-car systems are usually much better in that respect. With a PDA you must find a place that minimizes glare.

Stand-alone systems -- they come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. Serious research is needed to find what's right for you. Inexpensive units are usually just raw navigation devices for outdoors people. They have no onboard maps. If they do, they're very crude. Even larger stand alones generally only have crude maps. However, they may have card slots to hold downloadable maps, or even hard disks for all the mapping you want. Those units generally need vehicle power to run and you can't use them anywhere else because they have no batteries.

Disappointing displays -- you'd think mapping and navigation systems would have great displays. They don't. Economy systems have awful, dinky little screens, but at least they don't need much in terms of quality for the data they display. But even midrange systems often have LCDs that would be unacceptable in a PDA. So before you spend a lot of money on a system, make sure you can live with the display.

Mapping data -- Don't worry about the mapping data. It all comes from the same source. There are just 2 players in this industry -- NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas -- NAVTEQ owns the U.S. market. This means even the least expensive bundle comes with the same high quality mapping data. It also means that whatever errors there are in NAVTEQ's data will be in all systems that use NAVTEQ.

Points of interest -- most systems boast millions of points of interest, but there are surprising differences in the way they are grouped and accessed. Some systems provide more detailed POI data than others. If the POI database is important to you, do some research and pick a good one. They mostly use the same data, but while some are useful and easy to use, others are unweildy, biased and often plain wrong.

Interface -- you'd expect little difference between mapping systems, yet that assumption is wrong. Almost every application we've reviewed has a totally different look and feel, from clumsy to (fairly) elegant, from friendly to stark and technical. Even maps don't look the same. Some are sparse and businesslike whereas others look terrific. Overall, the state-of-the-art in mapping system user interfaces is still not very evolved. Most are clumsy and inconsistent. It shouldn't be difficult to get from point A to point B., but in most systems it is.

"Personality" -- some systems are inflexible and ornery when you do not follow the route they plotted for you. They may insist you make a U-turn 4 miles after you take a shortcut or go on a different road. Others are more forgiving and quickly compute a new route to your destination for you.

Satellite reception -- you'd think they're all roughly the same, but they are not. Some systems constantly complain about weak signals or lose the signal altogether whereas others are rock-solid and never lose the satellite (Tom Tom and Socket do very well here).

Bluetooth -- a Bluetooth connection between a GPS receiver and a PDA can be anything from completely transparent to a total pain. Go for one that makes it easy (Tom Tom is best in this category).

Voice prompts -- good voice prompts can really help finding your way, but quite often the prompts are too generic or they come too early or too late. It'd be nice to be able to customize the prompts.

Error correction -- with the mapping and POI databases containing lots of errors, there should be a way for users to provide feedback.

"Paranoia" -- some vendors go to great lengths to lock and protect their software. In order to install the software and get to the maps you may need serial numbers, authorization codes, online activation and other nonsense. Others, like Delorme, trust the user.

Desktop applications -- most mapping bundles, come with a desktop application. Some of them are very complete and very flexible (Delorme) whereas others are just utilities to let you download maps to your handheld.

Overall assessment -- I've been following GPS and mapping systems for years. They have progressed in leaps and bounds, yet they're not quite there yet. The sheer variety of different systems is confusing to consumers. Many systems remain steeped in a highly technical, non-consumer-friendly mode. Receivers lose signals too easily, and the general state of mapping system software interfaces is poor. At this point it is generally as difficult to learn how to use most of these systems as it is to follow directions or read old-fashioned maps. The people who don't need GPS probably understand the mapping systems whereas those who need help most will have a hard time figuring them out, which, of course, defeats the purpose.

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