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Road trip!

For the lost and clueless, technology can be a boon for travel, as our somewhat map-challenged SOHO Advisor discovers.

It’s true, and I confess it freely and without reservation. I cannot navigate while I’m driving. I cannot navigate in the passenger seat either. In fact, if it weren’t for little old ladies taking my arm and crossing me over the road, I’d probably never make it home from the mailbox. My family tells a story I wish I could call an exaggeration about the time I decided to walk around Golden Gate Park. I had just moved into an apartment literally half a block away from the largest body of vegetation in the entire Bay Area, yet I found myself up a hill a mile away, looking down on the trees and scratching my head. If I were a swallow, Capistrano would be a distant half-memory from my youth, never to be relived.

But I travel to many different places on a weekly basis, and this makes my navigational disability a serious disadvantage. And it makes me a very aggravated driver. Mapquest and Yahoo Maps do help–their occasional misdirections notwithstanding–but spreading printouts across the steering wheel is downright lethal on the turnpike, and when I take a wrong turn or miss one completely, I’m hosed. And I average about three missed or wrong turns per trip.

Think globally, drive locally

Thank heavens, then, for the global positioning system. I know it costs billions to keep those twenty-some satellites in orbit around the earth, beaming their radio signals to the earth. I know that the GPS receivers and laptop software I’ve been using cost $300-$400 each. But what price can you put on freedom from the two greatest sources of highway misery–road anxiety and getting lost? I’d say the price of either ALK Technology’s CoPilot Live Laptop 7 or Belkin Technology’s Bluetooth GPS Navigation System. I’ve used both in the past travel-heavy month, and I’ve been passing dozens of Mapquest-toters as they take their foot off the gas to check their printouts near every junction.

The advantages to laptop-based GPS systems are legion. With laptop prices where they are, you can get a fully functioning mobile computer and buy a GPS system for it for less than the price of an in-dash navigation system. And with a spare gigabyte of hard disk space, you can get road maps for the entire continental United States and Canada. Heck, with CoPilot Live, you get a disk with European maps too (though you have to pay extra to unlock them).

In all other respects, Belkin’s and ALK’s systems work like an in-dash system–they give turn-by-turn directions, recalculate your route if you drive by an exit or take a wrong turn, and even tell you how fast you’re driving. One feature I liked especially on CoPilot Live Laptop was the ETA readout. Sure, all it does is calculate arrival time based on your current speed of travel, which you can’t always maintain, but it beats doing mental math based on distance and speed.

The CoPilot system can come bundled with a USB-based receiver that you stick on your dash or mount on your windshield with a suction cup. The new batch of GPS receivers seem much more effective than the one I’ve been using since only last year (is the hardware, the software, or the GPS signal improving?). There are still some blind spots, though. Tree-lined streets, rows of tall buildings, or mountain passes can block the navigation signals from the GPS satellites, and temporarily leave you without a “you are here” marker. Usually, getting on the road and driving a block will help out, but on a couple of occasions, I drove a mile and didn’t get a signal until I stopped at a red light.

Blue route, Bluetooth

The big downside to laptop GPS systems is the wiring. You have cables strewn around your car, which look messy even in my old beater. But a new batch of Bluetooth GPS receivers solves that little problem. Belkin provides one; you can get one from ALK too. Charge it up using your car cigarette lighter or the five volts a USB port gives out, slap a Bluetooth GPS receiver on your dash, and it beams a navigation signal to a 10-meter radius. Any Bluetooth device with current GPS software can interpret the signal and give you directions.

Don’t have a Bluetooth-based notebook or PDA? You don’t have a problem, either. I test-drove two Bluetooth adapters–one USB adapter from Linksys for notebooks, and one PC Card from Belkin for notebooks or PDAs. Once installed, you can hook up to any GPS device in the area. The Belkin GPS receiver doesn’t fit into any normal Bluetooth device category, but you can pair up with it easily enough using the access code in the setup sheet.

The real plus to this cobbled-together system is price. Using a five-year-old Compaq Armada 3500 laptop or a new Dell Axim or iPaq ($300 or less each), a Bluetooth adapter ($50), and a GPS bundle with receiver and software ($350 or so), you have a GPS system for any car you want to drive–plus a Bluetooth-enabled computer.

I may get lost on the way to the bank, but I’ll be laughing all the way there.

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