A Handheld That Knows Where It Is

Combining a global positioning system (GPS) receiver with a Palm (PALM) or Pocket PC has always struck me as a natural marriage. But I have been disappointed by a stream of clunky GPS add-ons that did little or nothing with the possibilities created by a handheld that would always know where it was.

Garmin International's iQue 3600 ($589), a sleek handheld based on PalmSource software, finally makes the match work by thoroughly integrating GPS into the operation of the device. It's an attractive piece of hardware, a bit thicker than most Palms. An antenna recessed into the back of the unit flips up to activate the GPS system. The sharp, bright 2 1/4-in.-by-3 1/4-in. screen is legible even in strong sunlight. The device runs on the latest version of the Palm software, which supports a high-resolution, 320-by-480-pixel screen and a fast Motorola (MOT) processor. The pairing overcomes the trouble earlier Palms had in generating maps quickly and displaying them with enough detail.

The real wizardry, though, is in the software, since Garmin adds mapping and geographic knowledge to the standard Palm applications. For example, you can tap on an entry in your address book and, if you have the detailed map data for the region loaded, the iQue will pinpoint the location of that address. A couple more taps and it will compute driving or, if you prefer, walking instructions to the spot.

There are some nice touches for auto navigation, too. Instead of the iffy clamps and suction cups often used to mount a handheld on the dash or a window, the iQue offers a mount built on a flexible, weighted pad that holds the unit firmly on top of the dashboard. It's handy, but the $80 price tag for the accessory is steep. As you drive or walk, you can either have the iQue follow your progress on a map (with a choice of scales ranging from a couple of city blocks on a screen to the entire U.S.) or give you turn-by-turn instructions, both on-screen and spoken.

The iQue software is not really designed for trip planning or cross-country navigation. Planning a trip is really a job for a big screen on a desktop or on a notebook, and the iQue lacks such basic trip-planning features as the ability to print maps of your route. For trip planning combined with navigation, I recommend TravRoute Software's CoPilot for the Pocket PC, priced at $229. Combine CoPilot with a GPS add-on, and the cost is around $350. The iQue, however, is excellent for getting around metropolitan areas. But watch out: GPS is a power-hungry technology. If you use the iQue extensively away from a car and its 12-volt power supply, you'll want to plan on recharging at least every couple of days.

The geographic data, from Navigation Technology, include not only detailed maps but also a vast number of points of interest, hotels, restaurants, stores, and other potential destinations. This let me plot a route from my hotel in Palo Alto, Calif., to the Oakland International Airport with a few taps of the stylus. All that information makes for big files, so you have to be selective about the data you load into the iQue. Garmin integrates map selection into its version of the Palm Desktop software. You choose the detailed data you want to download by clicking rectangles on a map on your desktop PC, and the information is copied to the iQue when you sync. Since the data for a single big city will fill most of the 32 megabytes of internal memory, you'll want to store maps on an SD memory card.

As good as the iQue software is, the best is yet to come. Garmin is publishing the specifications software developers need to take advantage of GPS information in their own applications. This will permit the creation of specialized programs, both by the army of independent Palm developers and by corporate programmers writing custom applications.

Sales of handhelds have declined for the past couple of years, and some believe that more capable wireless phones are so attractive to consumers that PDAs are doomed. The iQue shows that there are some useful things you can only do with a handheld, and that there is plenty of life and innovation left in these products. By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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