Heavenly Guidance Gets Easier

I'm too proud to ask strangers for directions. But I'm perfectly willing to find my way with help from above--not the religious sort, but rather an electronic gizmo that relies on satellites to keep me on course.

Wireless Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers that can help you plan routes and calculate your whereabouts have been around for a while, but the latest versions are of better quality and more affordable than their predecessors. They can be godsends if you're driving on unfamiliar roads, want to return to the area on the lake where the bass were biting, or are stuck hiking in the middle of nowhere.

GLOBAL REACH. The devices tap into two dozen satellites, the first of which was launched by the Defense Dept. 20 years ago. The orbiting birds can help you find your navigational bearings and determine where you're going. En route, the devices let you mark key places--called "waypoints"--to make it easy to locate them later. With some GPS models, for example, you can assign tiny icons to plot whether you've passed a restaurant, rest room, or a landmark.

Only five years ago, handheld GPS models cost $750 or more, with dealer-installed in-vehicle navigation systems commanding well above that. Today, a basic handheld unit such as Magellan Systems' GPS Blazer 12 costs $120. It won't display maps, just latitude and longitude, but it can guide you in the direction you need to go, anywhere on the globe. Handheld gadgets with simple built-in maps cost around $300 and up. The Magellan GSC 100, which sends and receives E-mail, costs $999. Some receivers work with your laptop. For example, the $300 Magellan Map 'N Tracker lets you hook up a GPS receiver to a laptop's communications port. You can then check out your location in real time, using maps on your hard drive.

Lugging around a laptop in the woods is hardly ideal, of course, which is why many handheld GPS units come with slots for tiny map cartridges. Lowrance Electronics' new $449 handheld GlobalMap 100 includes a CD-ROM that contains a variety of global maps and databases, including major and rural roads for the entire U.S. You can download up to two megabytes of data from the CD to the receiver by connecting the GPS unit to your PC. Then you can take off without the computer.

Don't expect pinpoint precision, no matter which model you buy. As a security measure, the government intentionally degrades GPS satellite signals for civilian use so that the accuracy of GPS receivers is within 100 meters (328 feet) of your actual position 95% of the time. And some of the technology's other limitations became apparent when I sampled models from Garmin, Lowrance, and Magellan in Manhattan. Although GPS is supposed to operate under all types of weather conditions, your receiver's antenna should have an unobstructed view of the sky, which is a problem in the Big Apple. The first time I tried each device, it took 5 to 10 minutes for the unit to lock onto the satellites and determine my position. Then, as I walked or drove past tall buildings, I temporarily lost reception. Fortunately, it didn't take that long for the units to mesh with the satellites again.

Aided by Garmin's $550 StreetPilot GPS, I set out to find a bagel shop a few miles away from my starting point. StreetPilot was loaded with a small data cartridge for New York. Garmin's optional city-specific cartridges, which cost $99 to $200, let you search for museums, restaurants, automated teller machine locations, and so forth. You can also display your driving time, speed, and other parameters. An arrow points you which way to go. As I approached the bagel shop, a checkered flag appeared on the StreetPilot screen. I had to laugh, however, a few minutes later, when StreetPilot accurately indicated that I was driving north on West End Avenue, but added that I was "near Weehawken." The problem is that Weehawken is in New Jersey--across the Hudson River, a mile away.

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