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Better Vacation Travel: GPS Navigation (5/2006)
by Douglas Dixon
Whoever said that "getting there is half the fun" was not traveling with cranky children on a congested vacation weekend. However, the aphorism does suggest the important characteristics of holiday travel: successfully getting to the destination, and providing some entertaining distraction along the way. I recently had the opportunity to try out two heaven-sent (or at least satellite-based) answers for these crying needs -- a ALK CoPilot GPS-based navigation system and a SIRIUS satellite radio system. Both navigation systems and satellite radios are becoming hot add-ons for new cars and rentals, and there are a variety of interesting and ever more affordable options to upgrade your existing vehicle. What's particularly interesting is how these products are using digital formats, digital storage, and digital communications to add new capabilities and further blur the lies between different categories of devices.
See also: Vacation Travel: Satellite Radio
Navigation systems tell you where to go and how to get there. Today's systems work well with small or even built-in GPS antennas, provide visual and voice prompts for upcoming turns, and can dynamically adjust when you take a detour and recalculate an alternate route on the fly. These systems typically can store at least major highway maps for an entire region like North America, plus detailed maps for a specific region, as well as associated points of interest (POIs) -- addresses and even phone numbers for businesses, gas stations, ATMs, hotels, restaurants, and attractions.
This year's fun toys are self-contained portable GPS systems that you can add to amount on your dashboard. These come with enough built-in memory to store local maps and points of interest for the entire continental U. S. While prices are declining, these units are still in the $500 to $1000 range, still a bit more than an impulse buy.
For example, a high-end unit like the Magellan RoadMate 760 portable GPS vehicle navigation system (www.magellangps.com, $799) includes a 20 GB hard drive with built-in maps of the continental U.S., Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Canada, plus nearly 7 million points of interest. You can also purchase detailed maps of 25 European countries. It has a touch-screen interface, and provides voice prompt navigation in 11 languages.
Magellan RoadMate 760
A smaller unit like the new Garmin StreetPilot 500 series (www.garmin.com, around $640) provides North American coverage and optional traffic receiver.
Garmin StreetPilot 530
Or for your motorcycle or scooter, the TomTom RIDER (www.tomtom.com, $899) is water resistant and includes a Bluetooth headset for wireless spoken instructions -- and to route calls from your mobile phone.
Beyond the built-in storage, the TomTom PLUS service adds real-time data services including traffic and weather information, safety camera location alerts, as well as downloadable voices and points of interest.
But why design a custom unit, when today's handhelds have more than ample displays, processing power, and storage to run GPS mapping applications? For example, the Garmin iQue M3 Mobile Navigator ($499) is a Pocket PC-based system with a base map of North and South America and the ability to download detailed street-level map data -- or similar European or Pacific Rim maps.
Garmin iQue M3
The CoPilot GPS navigation systems from Princeton-based ALK Technologies (www.alk.com/copilot) take this approach a step further, offering bundled and unbundled GPS mapping systems and stand-alone software for laptops and tablet PCs, plus Pocket PC and smart phones, as well as for commercial applications in trucking ($199 software only, or $299 bundled with a wireless Bluetooth GPS receiver).
I tried out CoPilot Live | Smartphone on a Samsung i730 Pocket PC Phone provided by Verizon Wireless (www.samsungusa.com/wireless). The i730 certainly is a powerful enough platform, with a 520 MHz processor, a 2.8 inch, QVGA (240 x 320) display, and 64MB of RAM plus a SD expansion card slot. It features a slide-out keyboard for extensive typing, plus a touch-screen display more appropriate for navigation on the road. As a bonus, the i730 supports broadband-like access, with built-in Wi-Fi and support for next-generation EV-DO mobile service (averaging 400 to 700 Kbps, and peaking up to 2 Mbps for downloads, 40 to 70 Kbp for uploads).
CoPilot Live: Smartphone to, Laptop
Since the i730 runs Microsoft Windows Mobile (www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile), it's a full-fledged Pocket PC system, and can be synced with your desktop system using the Microsoft ActiveSync connection. You then can use the CoPilot Live desktop application to plan trips and select portions of the map to download to the Pocket PC. Sinply select a rectangular region, or a radius around a city, or a radius along a trip route. For example, the rectangular region on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. from Philadelphia to Boston and Cape Cod requires approximately 65 MB.
In this case, storage capacity actually has caught up with demand -- Today's removable media capacities have gotten large enough to store the entire detailed database for North America or the European Union on a 1 GB SD card, with space left over. The CoPilot database for North America includes around 7 million miles of road and 3 million POIs, all in around 850 MB. The European Union database includes some 3 million miles of road and 540 thousand POIs, in around 700 MB.
The best part of using ALK CoPilot Live is that it's not yet another device with more wires in your vehicle. Just set plug in your phone as usual, and fire up the CoPilot application. Even the GPS receiver is unwired -- ALK offers a Bluetooth GPS kit with a small receiver (3 1/2 x 2 in.) that has a built-in rechargeable battery that lasts up to six hours. We just popped it up on the sunroof cover, and had no problem getting our bearings from Princeton to Boston to Cape Cod.
CoPilot Live for handhelds / PDAs: Treo 700w, PocketPC
To get started, you just tell the handheld CoPilot software where you want to go, and it figures out how to get there, starting at your current location. For longer trips, you can plan your route with the desktop CoPilot application, including setting waypoints for your preferred route, and then sync them to the handheld.
Data entry is optimized for the touch-screen handheld. For example, to drive from Chatham to Wellfleet, Mass. on Cape Cod, we entered the state abbreviation on the touch-screen keyboard display (MA was already the remembered default), then typed the first few letters of the town name, and finally chose the default "town center" as the street location CoPilot then guided us out of town with visual and voice prompts before turns, took us up Route 6, and then headed us into Wellfleet. Near the end of the trip it did try to take a short cut up a tiny dead-end street, but we just detoured around and CoPilot immediately re-computed a new route to the destination. The latest version 6 adds a completely finger-touch user interface (no stylus required), and a keypad interface for smartphones (based on a 3x3 grid of menus).
As a bonus, the Live feature in CoPilot works with a smartphone (or a Bluetooth connection to a mobile phone) to add real-time communication features to connect with home or office. If enabled, CoPilot can receive text message queries and format them for easy one-touch responses. You also can download itinerary updates for changed travel plans, and upload position updates to allow live vehicle tracking via the Internet.
Interestingly, the growing capacity of storage cards will allow these products to become more convenient to use. As SD card prices drop, and with SD card copy protection, ALK expects to be able to deliver full continental regions on a single card. Users will no longer need to be concerned with downloading segments of the map, and in fact will not need to sync with the desktop application at all, except for planning routes and adding custom points of interest. Even better, the use of secure cards resolves the issue of building in an activation process when installing the applications -- the card is the key, so you will be able to just insert the card and get going immediately.
Now that's how to travel -- you know where you're going, the kids are entertained in the back with satellite radio or DVDs, and you even can choose the best route based on current traffic conditions!
ALK Technologies / CoPilot