Let Your Laptop Do The Navigating

CoPilot's voice-command system can get you through some tough-traffic towns

At LaGuardia Airport a few months ago, I rented a Hertz car that was equipped with the NeverLost navigation system. I entered my destination, and the system's spoken commands guided me north to Tarrytown, N.Y., through what could have been a confusing web of Westchester County parkways.

Unfortunately, you can't buy the helpful NeverLost, which combines gyroscopic navigation with technology that uses a network of satellites to figure out what spot on the planet you're on. The closest things to NeverLost are navigation systems from Alpine Electronics, Clarion, Sony, and others that use speech and a computer-like display incorporated into the car's audio equipment. The systems cost around $2,000 and up. Similar versions are available in BMWs and some other luxury cars.

Still, your laptop can become a talking navigator anywhere in the U.S. with a $400 combination of a CD-ROM and a receiver for the satellite based global positioning system (GPS). Door-to-Door CoPilot from TravRoute Software (888 872-8768) relies entirely on GPS, so it isn't as precise as NeverLost, especially in urban canyons where GPS reception is poor. But it can be a huge help in finding your way on unfamiliar roads.

To put CoPilot to the supreme test, I used it on a recent trip to Boston, a city that has never seen a need to put street signs at major intersections. When you start the GPS system for the first time in a new city, it can take 10 minutes or more to get a fix. Meanwhile, you can enter your destination, and the program computes a route. As you approach turns in your route, CoPilot speaks instructions, generally with enough time to position yourself in traffic. When stopped, or if you have an assistant aboard, you can click on the display to repeat the last instruction, get the next instruction, or have the program tell you where it thinks you are. (There's a voice-recognition feature for these commands, but it works poorly in the noisy environment of a car.)

TravRoute called the program CoPilot, not Pilot, for a good reason: It's not a substitute for the driver's judgment. GPS technology is far from perfect, and the database of driving instructions doesn't always know about one-way streets or turn restrictions.

You'll be happiest with CoPilot if you keep your expectations reasonable. Even with a good fix, the version of GPS it uses can locate your position only within a circle 109 yards in radius, so sometimes it will think you've missed a turn when you're still approaching the intersection. When the antenna's view of the sky is restricted, accuracy drops, sometimes to the point where the system loses track of your location, though these outages generally don't last more than a minute or two.

Fortunately, the program is good at coping with its own inadequacies. If you miss a turn or an exit or choose to ignore an instruction that doesn't make sense, the computer will realize what has happened and announce that it is determining a new route. After a minute or so, it will give you a fresh instruction. I found that CoPilot was very helpful in guiding me from Cambridge to Newton and back to downtown Boston, even doing reasonably well at navigating the construction chaos of the "big dig" where the city's thoroughly clogged "central artery" highway is being rerouted underground. It performed even better on a trip to Pittsburgh through more open terrain.

The laptop CoPilot combo may never be as convenient as a built-in system. But it's a worthwhile driving aid--and an impressive performer for the price.

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