Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Never ask for directions again

location based services

Sick of dead ends? We tested free mapping sites and in-car GPS gadgets to pinpoint the ones that won't steer you wrong.
More than 400 years ago, when Jacques Cartier began his famed expedition, maps labelled much of North America as terra incognita--unknown territory for European explorers. For today's traveller, terra incognita can be the next province, the next town, even the next neighbourhood. But, unlike Cartier, we have a wealth of tools not only to help us get where we're going but to find services--fuel, shelter and the all-important latte--along the way.For this review, I looked at four free web-based mapping tools and five portable GPS navigation devices, all of which provide descriptive and graphical guidance in real time. I also tried a PC software package that offers comprehensive mapping and trip-planning features.These services and products may not always reflect the most recent road changes, but hey, it's not like your old paper maps ever update themselves either.GPS for your dashPortable GPS devices are addictive: the ability to quickly find gas stations and other services is a great time-saver.Like the mapping sites, these devices don't always pick the fastest paths. But they almost always get you there--and if you miss a turn, they quickly calculate a new route. Most of the GPS models I tested store maps on external memory cards, so searches may take longer than they would with the usually pricier hard-drive-based devices. All have touch screens for data entry, speakers for voice directions and suction-cup windshield mounts.The Garmin, Lowrance and TomTom products have built-in rechargeable batteries, so they don't shut down when you turn off the car engine, such as when stopping for fuel. (Units without batteries may have to recalculate routing when you get back on the road and restart them.) You can also connect a battery-powered GPS device to your PC to preload addresses, or to use it when away from power--for example, while hiking.For a comparison of these portable GPS devices, see our chart.
Using GPS with what you've gotWith cell phones, personal digital assistants and digital music players already cluttering your pockets or purse, adding a portable GPS may seem like inviting device overload. But you might not need a new gadget.If you own a Windows Mobile- or Palm-based handheld (or a PDA-phone hybrid such as a Treo), you can buy kits such as Delorme's Earthmate GPS Blue Logger, Palm's GPS Navigator, Pharos's Pocket GPS Navigator or TomTom's Navigator 5, which include mapping software and a Bluetooth GPS receiver. A cheaper option for Windows Mobile PDAs with a CompactFlash slot is Pharos's Pocket GPS Receiver.Garmin, Hewlett-Packard and Pharos also have PDAs with built-in. Garmin's iQue line includes Windows Mobile and Palm OS models; HP and Pharos offer only Windows Mobile-based PDAs.Map 'n' phoneGiven how many cell phones have integrated music players and cameras, you'd think that more of them would come with built-in GPS receivers. If you own one of the few that have a GPS, you typically must pay a subscription fee to access mapping data from a server, and frequent map and direction downloads could eat into your airtime minutes.PC software for road-trippersFor a quick dash from point A to point B, a printout from an online mapping site is all you need. But, when wanderlust strikes and you're eager to take a lengthy road trip, desktop mapping software packages can ably assist you with a whole vacation's worth of planning, including drive times for specific routes and interesting sites along the way.Microsoft's Streets and Trips 2006 offers distinct advantages you can't get from web-based mapping services, most notably access to maps, directions and points-of-interest information whether you are connected to the internet or not.For a fraction of what you'd pay for a portable GPS navigation system, you can buy this PC application bundled with a small GPS receiver that connects to your laptop via USB and turns it into a real-time navigation device. And you'll have a nicer display too: a map is certain to look better on a full-size notebook screen than on the comparatively puny 3.5- or 4-inch displays of most portable GPS units. (This application is also available without a bundled GPS receiver, which significantly lowers the cost).That said, fussing with your notebook while driving solo can be downright dangerous--especially if the notebook keeps dropping into sleep mode. As in-car navigation systems, these products are OK for backup, but I would not recommend relying on them.Along with assessing its performance as real-time navigation systems, I evaluated the package on the accuracy and ease of use of its routing features, as well as the range of their trip-planning and annotation tools.
Review comparisons on GPS Devices CanadaLearn more about GPS LocatorRead article on Sony GPSClick Digital Product Reviews for a complete sitemap of PCWorld Canada electronic products reviews.Click Computer Technology News for latest computer product news and software release information.
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