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It's Getting Cheaper to Find Your Way


When I bought a new car last year, I thought seriously about getting a navigation system that shows me maps of where I'm going and even tells me when to turn. Ultimately, I couldn't justify the extra $2,000. But now, if you have a handheld computer based on Microsoft Corp.'s PocketPC software, you can get about 75% of the function for about a quarter of the cost with the Pocket CoPilot from TravRoute (www.travroute.com.). CoPilot demonstrates that the PocketPC, a distant second in sales to Palm-based handhelds, is beginning to use its superior processing power and display to do things Palms just can't handle.

The Pocket CoPilot consists of a little global positioning system (GPS) receiver that sits on the dashboard of your car, software and map data on two CD-ROMs, and a clip that lets you hang your PocketPC from the dash. The basic package costs $299 and includes software for the Casio Cassiopeia, Compaq Computer IPAQ or Aero, or Hewlett-Packard Jornada PocketPCs, and U.S. map data. The actual cost of using it will depend on what additional accessories, such as a car charger, you need.

SELECT AND DOWNLOAD. Before starting your trip, you select the map data you will need on a Windows-based PC, then download it to the PocketPC. The area you can cover depends on the amount of storage you have, and an accessory storage card is strongly recommended. Detailed data for metropolitan Los Angeles, for example, takes up more than 40 megabytes.

To use the system in your car, you enter the origin and destination of your trip. A number of points of interest, such as airports and major hotels, can be selected from a list. Others require entering an address. The system can display a map showing your current position, but normally while driving you will want the screen that gives information about your next turn, which is supplemented by spoken instructions over the PocketPC's speaker.

On a recent trip to Phoenix, I found the Pocket CoPilot on an IPAQ did an excellent job of getting me around a city I don't know well. Its only failing was not realizing that left turns are prohibited off 16th Street during rush hour. But it quickly calculated a new route after I deviated from its course. (Warning to bank robbers or errant spouses: The software maintains a detailed log of your movements.) The driving instructions were clear and minimally distracting, and the alternative map display, while limited by the small screen, was clear and bright.

By contrast, a poor display is the bane of the clever Geode from GeoDiscovery (www.geodiscovery.com). This is a shame, because the $289 Geode is a really clever idea. It is a 3.7-oz. Springboard module that turns a Handspring Visor into a GPS receiver and electronic compass. Unlike the CoPilot, it is intended more for walkers than drivers, since it shows your heading and location on a map but gives no driving directions. You can download map data for the entire U.S. from a CD or the Web, although the amount you can load into the Visor is limited by its memory. A future software upgrade will allow the Geode to use up to 128 megabytes in auxiliary memory cards.

Geode's strength is an excellent GPS receiver that gets a fix quickly and gives your location with two-meter accuracy. But the Visor's 160x160-pixel Palm display, with only a third the pixels of a PocketPC, is a severe drawback. Maps, which are black and white even on a color Visor Prism, lack detail and are hard to read (a future version will offer color maps). You have to tap on the screen to label even major streets or Interstate highways. This makes it more suitable as a competitor to GPS devices such as a Magellan Map 330 or a Garmin eMap than a computer-based mapping system.

Both the Geode and Pocket CoPilot show how software and hardware developers are transforming handheld computers into true multipurpose devices through add-ons. GPS-based applications are a natural for these gizmos, though Palm and its partners will have to improve the display soon if they are to be competitive. By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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