Need Directions? Better Buy A Map

GPS software for handhelds isn't ready for the road

Okay, call it a guy thing. I hate getting lost, and I hate asking for directions even more. So I collect maps. My car is stuffed with them. I've had an American Automobile Association membership for years, and I have never once called for roadside assistance. The AAA maps alone are worth the membership dues.

But maps don't help much if you're really lost. So for a long time, I've wanted a navigation system in my car that would pinpoint my position and figure out a way to get to where I'm going. Typically, these devices search the sky for as many global positioning system (GPS) satellites as they can find and use the signals to triangulate your position, displaying the results on a digital map. Unfortunately, the best built-in systems are frightfully expensive, in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. That's because carmakers, or installers of aftermarket gear, add various sensors to the car to keep track of distance, speed, and turns, and integrate that information with the GPS data to get a position that's usually dead on.

But a new breed of GPS is coming to market this spring from a number of makers. These work with handheld computers, such as 3Com's popular Palm family and Microsoft Windows CE units, including those from Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, and Casio Computer. In light of this news, I felt compelled to see whether it's finally time to dump my maps and guidebooks and go electronic. My conclusion? Not yet.

I persuaded Rand McNally to lend me a prototype of its StreetFinder GPS, which it expects to introduce in April. It's an appealing package: The GPS antenna-and-receiver unit snaps onto the back of a Palm computer and comes with mapping software and a windshield mount that keeps the Palm's display in your line of sight as you travel. There will be two models: a $199 version for the Palm V and a slightly bulkier $179 unit for the Palm III.

Other companies have similar plans: TravRoute will introduce Pocket CoPilot for Windows CE devices about the same time, and MarcoSoft, the small Menlo Park (Calif.) company that makes Quo Vadis digital maps for Palm computers, plans a $139.99 GPS module that slips into the back of the Palm-compatible Handspring Visor. Earlier GPS systems for handhelds, such as DeLorme Publishing's Earthmate Road Warrior, require stringing a cable between your computer and the GPS receiver.

The idea is you load trip-mapping software on your home or office computer, work out a route, then upload it and a map of the surrounding area to the handheld. In the car, the GPS unit tracks your progress, displaying written directions and big arrows to signal upcoming turns. You can toggle between the directions and the map display to identify nearby points of interest, such as gas stations, hotels, and restaurants.

There is no navigation software in the handheld--a distinction that I initially missed. If you stray off the route you've loaded, the handheld doesn't have the power to recalculate another way to your destination. That ability is the main attraction of navigation systems designed for cars and laptop computers, which automatically come up with a new route when you miss a turn or need to detour around traffic or construction. With the new handhelds, you can't enter new destinations without going back to your PC and starting the process all over again. The handheld will show you only where you are in relation to where you should be. You have to find your own way back.

To see how useful the Rand McNally system will be, I took it for a ride along with the best of its more capable brethren. I chose Alpine's new $2,000 navigation system that's an option on the Honda Acura 3.2TL. (The car is $30,855 extra.) I also loaded TravRoute's $399 CoPilot 2000 into my IBM ThinkPad, plugged its GPS receiver into the serial port, and put it on the passenger seat next to me. I propped the handheld system on the dashboard.

The big advantage of handhelds is that the GPS receiver and computer snap together into a single unit that, if you want, can be plugged into the cigarette lighter for power. Besides occupying the passenger seat, or the passenger's lap, the CoPilot requires a maze of cables. To get the clearest signals, the disk-shaped antenna should be as far forward under the windshield as possible. One cable runs from the antenna to the computer's serial port, another to the cigarette lighter outlet for power. You can also power the GPS receiver through the computer's mouse or keyboard port. This feature comes in handy during long trips where you'd need the car's 12-volt outlet to keep the computer up and running.

The results were not very encouraging. I live in a canyon. This represents a real test for GPS systems, which need a clear view of three or more satellites. The Acura located me precisely in front of my house, TravRoute found me on the next block, and Rand McNally thought I was a quarter-mile away, on the other side of a nearby freeway.

Once I was on the freeway, all three systems held to the route pretty well, though the TravRoute seemed to lock onto a parallel side street for a couple of miles of the trip. Once I was back on surface streets, but now in the flat Los Angeles basin, the systems were right on target as I steered my way through the grid of streets.

SAFETY ISSUE. I was not happy with either the Rand McNally or TravRoute devices. For one thing, there's the safety issue. The Acura's in-car navigation system is mounted high up in the car's center console, where it's easy to see at a glance, and a voice prompts you turn-by-turn along your journey. TravRoute's CoPilot also uses voice prompts, but they were difficult to hear over the laptop's tiny speakers. TravRoute suggests adding an external speaker or plugging the unit into the car's cassette deck by using a special adapter. But that means stringing even more wires.

Rand McNally's Palm unit was almost as hard to see as TravRoute. No matter where I put it, I was bothered by reflections off the surface. And the display kept shutting itself off, probably a power-saving feature. But it seemed to turn itself off just as I was stopping for a traffic light, about the only time you can safely check where you're going. The laptop-based TravRoute, by design, was just the opposite, blanking the display at speeds above 5 mph so you won't be tempted to steal a peek.

A bit disappointed with the results of my experiment, I've decided to wait another couple of years before adding GPS to my map kit. By then, if I can believe the promises, I'll be able to get a system that can report traffic hot spots and handle e-mail on the side. Right now, a couple of hundred bucks is pretty expensive for a gadget that does little more than watch the road go by. Think about how many maps that money could buy.

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