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Take it on the road

Global positioning, handheld computing, and you.

Unlike the antiheroes of “Easy Rider,” while I gun my motor on the open highway, I like to know exactly where I am, where I’m going, and what my next move is going to be. That’s a pretty buttoned-down attitude for someone who plays Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” in the car, especially since I do what all less-than-hip 1960s dads did before a road trip: fuss over maps and directions the night before. As if to hammer home the differences between me and Captain America of “Easy Rider,” I take a computer with me to do a little work along the way. I also drive a station wagon.

But I’ve finally found a less stressful way to drive from one client meeting to another. It started a couple of years ago, when I rented an Avis vehicle with a NavTech global positioning system (GPS) that gave turn-by-turn directions to my destination, recalculated directions when I took detours, and, unlike any navigator I’ve ever had, didn’t get mad even after three missed turns. It cost an extra seven bucks a day, but it was well worth it.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I thought, “To have this in my own car?” Well, after testing three consumer GPS systems, I can answer my own question. Yes, it is great to have this in my car. It’s not perfect, but it beats the stress of trying to read Mapquest printouts while driving on unfamiliar roads.

Act locally, position globally

The global positioning system is a gift from the U.S. government, which keeps a constellation of satellites in orbit, beaming signals to the earth. When a GPS receiver on the surface receives signals from two or more satellites, it can calculate tiny timing differences, and figure out where on earth it is, to within about 30 feet. This calculation provides a number soup of latitude and longitude figures that make IP addresses look friendly (such as 39:52:52 N, 075:19:27 W). It’s then up to a computer loaded with map data to figure out what road you’re on and where your next turn should be.

TravRoute’s CoPilot systems include a GPS receiver, the mapping and direction data, and the computer-side software to handle the whole business of direction-finding. You bring the Pocket PC or notebook to the show, and you’re away.

The $399 CoPilot 2003 for notebook computers is a hockey puck-sized GPS receiver that plugs into a USB port. If you can give up gigabyte of disk space, you can carry street-level map data for the whole United States, and in my snow-covered Northeastern road tests, it worked like a charm (except on one long trip when my laptop’s battery ran down). Even using a 1996-vintage Compaq Armada 3500, the CoPilot software mapped my turns, recalculated my directions when I missed turns, and blasted out clear instructions in a Stephen Hawkingish computerized voice. (You can use recorded voices, but with that option, you only hear “Turn left ahead,” not “Turn left ahead on Morton Ave,” which is considerably more helpful.)

Certainly, a few flaws emerged during road tests of CoPilot’s 2003 map data. A road called Parkway that bisects an industrial park in eastern Pennsylvania was listed as Park Way, which led to some confusion with a Parkway Avenue three miles further along. But CoPilot included new housing developments that some recent street maps did not include, which is a bonus. And it didn’t tell me to turn down any one-way streets, either, though if it had, it would still have improvised a new route within half a block. To an easily agitated driver like me, that’s well worth four bills.

iPaqs and Axims and maps…oh my!

The big problem with laptop-based GPS systems is their sheer size. The GPS receiver is small enough, but for many trips, a five-pound computer is just too big. And you certainly don’t want to leave a grand’s worth of electronics on your front seat. So I tested two of TravRoute’s Pocket PC GPS systems too. One uses an iPaq 3800 and another is fitted for a Dell Axim X5. The $300 Pocket CoPilot system for the Axim revolved around a CompactFlash GPS receiver about the size of a matchbox. The $350 iPaq-ready GPS receiver was a sleeve that fits around the outside of the iPaq. In both cases, there’s an extension aerial in case the signal isn’t strong enough.

Getting started with the Pocket CoPilot system isn’t as easy as using the laptop system, because Pocket PCs have much more limited storage. It takes a gigabyte of data to provide street-level directions for the United States (and highway-level information for Canada and Mexico), so you need to ration your data on a Pocket PC. To take along only what you need, you plan your trips beforehand on a PC and download only the regions you need. Although you can enter starting points and destinations on the Pocket PC, it’s a lot easier at a PC keyboard.

However, once you’re on the road, the more compact Pocket PC solution is dandy. It’s easy to dismantle and slip into your pocket once you’ve reached your destination, and, of course, is handy for taking discreet notes during your meetings. And in my road tests, the Axim- and iPaq-based Pocket CoPilot systems were able to calculate and recalculate directions within half a city block after missing a turn. Speeds like this are ideal for stressful driving situations like inclement weather or heavy traffic in unfamiliar places. And frankly, it puts a lot of fun back in driving.

Of course, there were some gnarly usability issues with the Pocket PC/Pocket CoPilot combo. The first was that the small CompactFlash GPS receiver couldn’t pick up satellite signals in urban and suburban road tests unless the aerial was plugged in. And the aerial is an untidy piece of work–a six-foot wire with a magnetic pad on top that’s designed to stick to your car roof. The other problems were unavoidable ones. PDA speakers are just too small for the turn-by-turn directions to make themselves heard over my Steppenwolf CD. And even bright and clear PDA screens like the Axim’s aren’t easy to glance at, especially when they’re drifting around on the passenger seat, tethered to a mess of wires.

Taming the tangle

Of course, wherever there’s a cool product with an obvious limitation, someone rushes in with an equally cool fix. The savior of loose Pocket PCs in vehicles is Arkon Resources. Arkon makes a series of mounts that stick on your dashboard, windshield, air vents or even some cup holders. These mounts do more than just keep your Pocket PC/GPS package in sight as you drive (Velcro strips could do that). They also keep the wires tidy (with their own cigarette-lighter adapters) and some models amplify the turning directions.

Arkon’s audio-enabled mounts come in two flavors: those that broadcast the Pocket PC sound on an FM channel over the car stereo (FM Multimedia PDA mounts), and those that have their own amplifier and speakers, Powered Multimedia PDA mounts. These are a tad more flexible; you can listen to radio stations, tapes, or CDs as you drive, and still get audible directions with them. And although they’re a bit pricey at $69.95, they do the job well. Each uses a USB connection to carry data and electricity to and from the PDA, so they need to have special cables based on your PDA model. They handle all the usual suspects: iPaq, Handspring models, Clie, and the new Dell Axim. They also double as hands-free speakerphone systems with T-Mobile, Siemens, and XDA Pocket PC phones.

I tested the Arkon mount for the Dell Axim with Pocket Co-Pilot GPS navigation, a system that really needs amplification–without it, the directions were tinny and inaudible. With the mount, it was a different story altogether. Playing various car tunes in WMA format through Pocket Media Player resulted in a pretty decent soundtrack to the journey, and the robotic turn directions came through loud and clear too.

Of course, this did lead to a few odd moments. It’s hard to keep a straight face when a robotic voice interrupts John Kay screaming “Fire all of your guns at once and…” with “Turn left onto Park Way…”

But hey, even if you’re born to it, you can’t be wild all the time.

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