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GPS and Handhelds...Better Bring a Map


The marriage of Palms or Pocket PCs and global positioning system technology seems like a natural. Handheld computers can store maps along with data about hotels, restaurants, and attractions. GPS makes that information far more useful by pinpointing your location within a few meters. Unfortunately, my experience suggests that the marriage is less happy than it ought to be. The culprit isn't the hardware, which has gotten smaller, cheaper, and faster, but software that falls badly short of the mark.

I looked at two new software-hardware combos: A Compaq iPAQ with a Pharos GPS receiver and Ostia mapping software (www.pharosgps.com) and a Palm m505 with a Navman receiver and Rand McNally Street-Finder software (www.randmcnally.com). I also revisited TravRoute's Pocket CoPilot, first reviewed here last year (Mar. 19, 2001), updated with a new Navman receiver for the iPAQ.

These systems are designed mainly for use in cars. Download the appropriate data to the handheld and when the unit is fired up, the GPS pinpoints your location on a displayed map and provides on-screen and, except on Palms, spoken driving instructions.

The $240 Pharos unit is a nice design that works on any current Pocket PC with a CompactFlash slot--a bulge about 1 1/2-in. long and 3/4-in. thick extends outside the slot. A small extension antenna on a long cable (at left, in photo) gives you a lot of flexibility in locating the Pocket PC inside the car. All the systems I tried come with a suction-cup device for windshield mounting, but I found them unreliable and prone to let go--a frightening and potentially dangerous event.

The difficulty was in the maps. Other systems let you plan a trip on a PC, then transfer driving directions and relevant maps to the handheld. With the Ostia software, you use a PC only to transfer maps. The main problem with this method is that you have little control over the size of the files you must load on a handheld. For example, the maps for New York City take 4.7 megabytes. But just to extend coverage to Yonkers, you have to add all of Westchester County and beyond, for an additional 10.2 MB. Covering the city and all its close-in suburbs requires over 40 MB. That's more than the total built-in memory of any Pocket PC, and if the Pharos unit is filling your only expansion slot--the case on many Pocket PCs--you are out of luck.

The $200 Rand McNally-Navman-Palm combo has a different software problem. The basic program is StreetFinder, which has been around for years. It works fine and lets you download exactly the maps you need. But installing it nearly drove me crazy. The full set of U.S. maps is on four CDs, and loading an assortment of regions onto your PC hard drive will require using at least two or three CDs. But when when the program prompted me to change disks, I got a stream of error messages either complaining that I had taken out the old disk or hadn't put in the new one. There was no pleasing the program, although I eventually realized that I could click through the error messages and it would work. But I think that if I had been a retail customer, I would have returned the package in frustration.

The Navman receiver is a thin unit that clips onto the back of a Palm m-series--there's another version for the older Palm V--with a thick, stubby antenna on the top. The design requires that it be mounted close to the windshield so that it can get satellite reception. But the main limitations are in the Palm. Even with a color display, the quality of maps is much worse than on the higher-resolution Pocket PC display. In addition, the Palm software does not give a latitude, longitude, and heading display that would make the unit useful as a handheld GPS receiver for outdoor activities.

My favorite ended up being the TravRoute-Navman combo. The Navman sleeve for the iPAQ, similar in design to the Palm unit, is clunkier than the Pharos receiver, but the software is much more usable because you can select maps and plan trips on a PC. The Navman also contains a CompactFlash slot, so you can load lots of maps and routing data on a memory card.

Of course, it's not reasonable to expect a $200 add-on to a handheld to perform like a $2,000 built-in Alpine Electronics navigation system. But poorly conceived and executed software makes the gap even bigger than it has to be. By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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