Technology

Global Positioning Via Cell Phone


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Editor's Rating: star rating

Regardless of some sensitivity issues, the inexpensive TeleNav GPS Navigator Bluetooth Kit is an easy way to get reliable directions on your mobile device

Time was, if you wanted to use the global positioning system to get from one place to another, you had to spend $500 to $1,000 for a standalone dashboard-mounted unit from vendors such as Garmin (GRMN), TomTom, or Magellan. But lately, GPS is becoming a must-have feature on cell phones, with device makers including Research In Motion (RIMM) happy to oblige. RIM's BlackBerry 8800, for instance, includes a GPS chip that allows navigation from the palm of your hand.

However, handhelds that don't come with GPS capabilities, including my BlackBerry 8700 from T-Mobile (DT), need a little help. I got that help recently from the $99 TeleNav GPS Navigator Bluetooth Kit, a little device about the size of a box of paper clips. Similar in concept to a Garmin device I tried recently (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/15/07, "Garmin's GPS 10x: Smart Phone Navigation"), the TeleNav device reminded me again how far Bluetooth, GPS, and wireless networks have come and how well they can work together. Nowhere was this more clear than when I looked down at the BlackBerry in my hand to see a map of Manhattan that not only showed my location but also areas of traffic congestion on FDR Drive and the West Side Highway depicted in orange.

Making Connections

Whether you too need the receiver to pick up GPS signals depends on what kind of smartphone you have. Besides the 8700, RIM's BlackBerry Pearl and Palm's (PALM) Treo 680, 700, and 750 all need it. Certain devices running Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Mobile can differ here as well: A Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) iPaq 6510 does not need the receiver, but a Samsung BlackJack does.

To grab the GPS signals, a series of connections is involved: First the BlackBerry was connected via Bluetooth to the TeleNav receiver, which I placed on my dashboard. This in turn received signals from the GPS satellites in orbit. Meantime, my BlackBerry was communicating with TeleNav servers pushing such data as maps and turn-by-turn directions. Getting these to work in synch took no time. The receiver has some sensitive GPS chips from SiRF Technology (SIRF). After pairing the BlackBerry with the receiver, a process that took a minute or so, I launched the TeleNav application and within another minute had a map showing where I was.

Next I imported my address book, including the address of a friend in Rhode Island. I wasn't actually driving there, but I could have done so without hassle, considering how easily the TeleNav constructs maps when all the address fields are filled in correctly. The maps themselves look terrific—you could choose between a traditional two-dimensional version and a modern 3D style.

Signaling Sensitivity

The TeleNav had similar features to the Garmin software. Among them, large, hard-to-misinterpret turning directions featuring big fat arrows and voice cues. But one key area where the TeleNav falls short of the Garmin receiver is in sensitivity to GPS signals, which are easy to lose in big cities like Manhattan that are full of tall buildings. In places where I had adequate signal strength with the Garmin unit, the TeleNav struggled more often to maintain a signal lock. But outside of those limitations, it performed just as well as the Garmin. At $99 for the receiver it's $101 less than the Garmin device. TeleNav charges $9.99 a month for a subscription to its data service, which is the same price that Garmin charges.

Eventually GPS chips will be so common in wireless phones that you won't need an external receiver to use one for navigating. But you'll probably still have to pay a fee for services like TeleNav. Assuming you keep your phone for three years, that's less than what you'll pay for a dedicated navigation system. And until a GPS system is de rigueur in cell phones, devices like the TeleNav go a long way to helping you get by.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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