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Geek Speak column
[Published in the Key West Citizen Locals Guide on August 27, 2010.]
Where In The World?
Back in the ‘70s I was nominated for an Army Commendation medal for helping solve a synchronization problem the LORAN (“LOng RAnge Navigation”) system had pinpointing the location of a large communication device. LORAN was an expensive ground-based predecessor to the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) that now permeates our lives. This equivalent of those old clunky LORAN boxes is now embedded in cars, cell phones, even wrist watches.
GPS uses a constellation of lower orbit satellites to triangulate your location. The tiny receiver you carry is smart enough to find several satellites currently radio-visible in your sky as they streak around the earth. With careful calculation, the signals from the satellites can tell almost exactly where you are on Earth, and even your altitude above sea-level. We peons actually get a slightly less precise reading, because high-precision is reserved for military & intelligence operations. But it’s close enough to be extremely practical.
All GPS applications start with locating our position, or the position of some item you wish to track (such as a vehicle or maybe even a child). Once that position is known, the application places the coordinates within stored maps and processes it. Following are the most common applications:
- Tracking. The position is carefully recorded as it changes, for later playback. For example, a runner with a wrist GPS can transfer the recorded “path” to a computer and display an exact map of the path that had been run. Or a GPS-equipped vehicle’s path can be plotted to verify the route the driver took. If a communication device is included (such as a radio or cell phone) the track can be monitored real-time (or close to it). Great for keeping tabs on what your kids have been up to…
- Position analysis. Similar to tracking but only the current position is of interest. The application can show you nearby landmarks (such as the closet coffee shop). Specialty devices use this for “walking tours” to automatically provide information about buildings or other sites that you pass.
- Trip planning. You tell the application or device where you want to go. It knows where you are, so it can analyze the stored map and find a route for you to take. If you get off the recommended course, it helps you return to it. Or automatically find an alternate route. It can also help you get back to where you started, if desired.
Most full-function cell phones now include GPS, so the smarter ones (such as iPhones) can provide most of the functions described above. Because they are often carried in purses or pockets they often lose the GPS signal, so using them for tracking can be cumbersome. And they are far from ideal for following a trip plan while driving your car. But with care, they can help you avoid the cost of some of the specialty devices.
For optimum use, a specialty device can better track the satellites and communicate with you. For example, those who boat and fish have a whole range of “Fish Finders” available that will record a boat’s path for easy return to a favorite fishing spot – very useful on open water. With up-to-date downloaded maps, they can also help with navigating narrow channels through shallow waters. Many also include depth monitors. Look to spend between $100 and $300.
As mentioned earlier, runners have tiny GPS devices that strap onto the wrist or bicep. Some include heart monitors and will include that data with the track data you download to your computer for analysis. The newest ones download wirelessly. Look to spend between $150 and $350.
Automobile GPS always talks to you to guide you to your destination. Many new cars have built-in GPS devices with a screen on the dash. But for now most of us who want a GPS in our car will buy one from Garmin, Magellan or TomTom. All are quality, reliable devices, so you’ll need to compare prices and features when making a selection. Those with 3”-4” screens are cheaper and more compact, starting around $100. The 5” screens are now dropping below $200.
(See the Locals Guide page on Facebook for tips about GPS for cars.)
As mentioned in the September Locals Guide article, here are a few tips for use when considering a GPS unit for your car…
- Most drivers rarely if ever examine the stored maps on the GPS screen. The small “just ahead” area (showing upcoming turns or dead-ends) and the trip timing/distance/milestones information are the essential items on the screen. So many people will get by just fine with a smaller screen (3” to 3 ½”) and save money (currently at about $100).
- If you like to visually scan maps or you need larger on-screen buttons for your large fingers, opt for at least the 4” screen (about $125 and up), or spend a bit more on a 5” screen ($150 and up).
- “Text To Speech” (“TTS”) is not essential. Without it the GPS will tell you “take the second right”. With TTS it will tell you “take the second right on Southard Street”. Hearing the name of the street may give you warm fuzzies, but saving a few bucks by leaving out TTS is an option.
- All units allow you to select from a set of voices used by your GPS when it talks to you. Male or female, Americanized or British, higher pitched or lower, etc. You can usually download voices, too, and have somebody like C3P0 (from Star Wars) give you directions. Note, though, that these voices do NOT speak the street names for TTS directions. Also note that you will have to pay for some voices.
- Once you go to the 4” or larger screens, a few models allow you to command them by voice (ie, you talk to it, it talks to you). Only the Garmin 855 currently provides this at a reasonable price ($150 range).
- Some GPS devices can automatically fetch current traffic information where available, to assist in selecting your route. However this data is not very reliable and the savings of the cost of the extra service may be worth considering omitting it.
- If you like the Google Maps feature that lets you see points of interest (such as landmarks and even well established businesses) on a map, you can do this with a GPS also. However some units store more “POI” data than others. The more the better. But also consider the following option, to keep it up to date….
- If you plan to hang onto your GPS for more than a couple of years (without upgrading), it’s a good idea to pay for the “lifetime maps” option. This will keep the maps in your unit up to date for all the road construction going on, and new businesses and subdivisions being built. The place I visit regularly in North Carolina shows up as an empty field on my own current GPS – I’m looking forward to the day I get a unit with up-to-date maps!
Here are the best comparison charts that I have found:
– Garmin: http://gpstracklog.com/compare/garmin-nuvi-comparison-chart
– TomTom: http://gpstracklog.com/compare/tomtom-comparison-chart
– Magellan: http://gpstracklog.com/compare/magellan-auto-gps-comparison-chart
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