Technology

Garmin's GPS 10x: Smart Phone Navigation


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Editor's Rating: star rating

For $200, Garmin's Bluetooth wireless receiver turns your BlackBerry, Treo, or other smartphone into a fully functioning GPS device

How much are you willing to pay for navigation help in your car? If you spend a lot of time driving for work or play, especially in unfamiliar territory, then it may be easy to justify spending $500 or more for a high-end navigation device, or well over $1,000 for a built-in dashboard system.

If you travel only occasionally for business, and really just need reliable directions from the airport to your hotel and maybe the site of a meeting or three, then it's probably not worth buying one of the better dashboard-mounted devices from Garmin (GRMN), TomTom, or Magellan.

But if this is your decision, it needn't condemn you to a lifetime of asking directions at gas stations. If you happen to carry a BlackBerry (RIMM), Palm (PALM) Treo, or any of a number of Windows-based smart phones, there's a new device from Garmin that turns your handheld into a fairly full-featured navigation system—all for just $200.

The Size of a Small MP3 Player

Garmin's GPS 10x Bluetooth wireless receiver is about the size of a small MP3 player and weighs only two ounces—it fits easily in a pocket. It contains all the electronics necessary to determine your position by picking up the signal from Global Positioning System satellites. This data is transmitted to your phone by way of a Bluetooth wireless data connection.

The other part of the product is a software application called Garmin Mobile that you can download to the phone itself. Launch the application while the 10x device is turned on and your BlackBerry or Treo becomes a capable navigation system offering a choice of spoken directions or large-type text with direction arrows displayed on the handheld's screen.

When used with a BlackBerry, the software sends your coordinates to Garmin's servers over the phone's cellular Internet connection to grab mapping data. In other cases, as with the Palm Treo and other smart phones, maps are stored on an SD memory card. That way the directions keep coming when you can't get cellular reception, so long as you're still getting a GPS signal.

Hotel Prices and Weather Reports

With all the smart phones, however, cellular Internet access is an advantage because Garmin's servers deliver a wide array of useful information pegged to your coordinates. These include the locations of nearby gas stations and restaurants, traffic conditions from Clear Channel's (CCU) Total Traffic Network, weather reports from Customweather.com, and even hotel room prices from Hotels.com (EXPE).

During my tests with a BlackBerry, maps loaded quickly when the cellular data connection was strong, but they were subject to the same troubles you'd expect when reception grew weak. And again, if you lose cellular coverage with the BlackBerry, the updates will stop even though the Garmin device is still picking up the GPS satellite signal.

That said, the Garmin device worked quite well with my BlackBerry 8700g on T-Mobile's data network. The spoken directions were exceedingly clear. Using Garmin's "Where To?" feature, which made it simple to pick from a list of likely destinations nearby, I asked the device to direct me from midtown Manhattan to LaGuardia Airport. A voice promptly instructed me to "Start out west on 49th Street, then turn left on Seventh Avenue." I had never heard my Blackberry talk before.

Poor Reception in the Canyons

Because the 10x is a GPS receiver, it occasionally lost contact with the fleet of satellites orbiting the Earth a few thousand miles up, especially when I was navigating the urban canyons of Manhattan. GPS signals aren't very strong, and so occasionally I waited as the 10x reacquired its coordinates. This is a problem that's hard to avoid even with pricier GPS systems.

But in most situations, so long as the signal holds steady, this combination of a pocket-sized GPS receiver and a handheld device is terrific. If your need for a GPS navigator is only occasional, and if you already own a BlackBerry, Treo, or Windows device such as the Motorola Q (MOT)—sorry, no iPhones—it's a great way to get the benefits of GPS without breaking the bank.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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