Tuesday, January 5, 2010

If Columbus Had a GPS

If Columbus Had a GPS by Bill Adler

Before I launch into the heart of this column about how to buy a GPS, I want to follow up on something from last week's column and also mention a tech tidbit:

The saga of the mouse continues. The people who answered my query on the human-powered search engine, Aardvark, http://www.vark.com, were right. It's a mouse. We even found a hole in the wall under the kitchen sink. (We have a broken garbage disposal to thank for helping us find that hole; we never would have looked under the sink for a hole in the wall if our 7 year old disposal hadn't decided to ring in the new year by giving us the gift of having to find a plumber on New Year's weekend.) Three traps later, the mouse remains at large.

There's a terrific article on The Consumerist blog about Best Buy's so-called optimization of computers at http://bit.ly/7pEe2t . For $39.99, Best Buy will "optimize" your computer by installing a number of utilities, tweaking settings, and removing some icons from the computer's desktop. One problem with this optimization is that it actually makes some computers run more slowly. Another problem is that Best Buy sometimes refuses to sell non-optimized computers, essentially tacking on $39.99 to the advertised price. The Consumer article has the details, but the bottom line is avoid buying any optimized computer from Best Buy: Only buy a computer that's factory sealed in the box.


The world would have been vastly different if GPS had existed centuries ago. Or even decades ago. How different would history have been if Columbus knew exactly where he was going? What would have been my fate in 1992 if I knew where I was going when I tried to navigate along Glebe Road in northern Virginia on my way to dinner with friends? (Answer: I might have arrived on time, and not walked through the door just as everyone was ordering dessert.)

The world is different now from the way it was in 1492 and 1992. Paper maps have become art relics of the pre-digital era. Paper maps look pretty framed, but are cumbersome and comical to unfold and refold. Paper maps don't know your current location, a variable that's kind of handy when it comes to figuring out how to get from here to there. Coining a cliche: How can you get to where you want to be if you don't know where you are? Paper maps are often provincial, offering a limited geography: When your proud New Hampshire map quits at the border, you'd better have a Vermont map, or you'll be taking unplanned sightseeing trips. But what the heck, Vermont's a pretty place.

The GPS, global positioning system receiver, is the way we find our way from here to there in the 21st century. No longer do we have to fear Glebe Road. The GPS has made Glebe road our friend. Unlike any map --even a map with easy-to-fold creases-- a GPS will, with a few button presses, show you the nearest hotel, restaurant, hospital, sightseeing spot, or gas station. Paper maps are pretty, but pretty won't find you the nearest bathroom.

There are three kinds of GPS you can get: A stand-alone GPS, a GPS that's built into your car, or a GPS application for your cell phone. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and what I'd like to do is offer some thoughts on how to choose among these three options.

Many cars come with the option of having a factory installed GPS. Factory-installed GPS systems are hard to steal and easy to use. Integrated GPSes work in conjunction with the car's speaker system, have relatively large screens and don't have to be removed every time you park on a street where GPSes are prone to theft (which is to say just about every street in North America.) Built-ins are the most expensive to update with the latest map and point-of-interest data; this updating usually has to be done at the dealer. If you don't mind paying about what it costs to buy a stand-alone GPS every time you want to update your maps, the option of getting a GPS with your car is worth considering.

What about a stand-alone GPS? These are several features that favor a stand-alone GPS: They're inexpensive, portable, and easy to use. Portable GPSes come in a variety of screen sizes. Updating the maps on a portable GPS isn't all that expensive, but the price --and complexity-- of updating the GPS' map varies considerably by manufacturer, so be sure to read some reviews before you plop down $100 - $200 for a GPS. If you rent cars often, having your own portable GPS to take along and use in the rental car can save you money because rental car companies charge extra for cars that have a built-in GPS. There are a few downsides to stand-alone GPS devices. First, you have to reattach the suction cup holder to the windshield and wire up the GPS every time you want to use it. Yes, you have to. GPSes are among the most frequently stolen devices in cars. A GPS on your windshield is a magnet for thieves. You also need to wipe off the ring that your suction cup holder leaves: That ring is a sign to would-be thieves that there's a GPS hiding underneath a seat or in the glove compartment. They will break into your car to look for the GPS if that telltale suction cup ring remains behind. And it gets worse. Some thieves don't just pawn stolen GPSes. They use your own GPS to rob your house: The Go Home button helpfully tells the thief how to navigate to your house -- a house that's probably empty since your car is at the mall.

If you opt for a stand-alone GPS, consider getting one with real-time traffic information.

The third option is to add GPS software to your iPhone, Android, Blackberry or other smartphone. Turning a smartphone into a GPS is handy: If you have your phone, you always have a GPS with you. As with the other GPS options, there are plusses and minuses to using a smartphone GPS application. Accessibility is at the top of the plus list: One device, your phone, does it all. You can use your GPS for walking directions, too, once you have a GPS program on your phone.

The software is easy to update on a smartphone GPS. Because you're not buying any hardware, this is the least expensive GPS option. There are lot of different GPS applications; if you don't like one, you can easily try another.

The same minuses that apply to stand-alone GPSes afflict smartphone GPSes. You need a way to install the GPS in your car, and that often means a break-this-windshield suction cup holder. (You can buy a custom car mount that attaches to the interior of your car at http://www.proclipusa.com ; a mount that doesn't attach to the windshield isn't as visible to passersby.) Another downside to using your smartphone as a GPS is battery life: Turning on the GPS will suck the life out of your smartphone's battery, so if you plan to navigate any greater distance than from Cleveland Park to Glebe Road, you'll need a car power plug.

With many smartphones you have a choice of two different kinds of GPS software. There are apps that download the entire map and point-of-interest data to your phone -- these apps can exceed a gigabyte in size. Alternatively, there are apps that use your phone's cellular network to send your phone the map data as you drive along -- these apps are about 100 times smaller. So consider the amount of memory on your phone when considering GPS applications. One disadvantage of using an application that sends your phone map data as you need it is that if you lose your cellular connection, the GPS won't work. On-demand map apps cost less than the apps that fully download to your smartphone, but they require a (usually modest) monthly fee. But you never have to update the map data --that is, you don't have to pay for new software-- with an on-demand GPS application because the maps that are sent to your smartphone are always up-to-date. Both kinds of GPS smartphone apps can offer live traffic information, but not all GPS applications have that built in.

Car GPS systems are worthless if you don't arrive at your destination safely. Pilots prioritize their actions according to the principle: aviate, navigate, communicate. Navigating and communicating are secondary to flying the airplane safely. The same is true for driving: Your attention belongs on the road. At 60 mph, it takes less than 3.5 seconds to travel the distance of a football field, and 1.75 seconds for two cars traveling in opposite directions to arrive at a head-on collision midway though that football field. Somebody's world could end in the time it takes to glance at your GPS or program it. Your GPS probably has a soothing voice. Listen to it, and look at it only when you can do so safely.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, http://www.cleveland-park.com , and the author of over 20 books including "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," and "Outwitting Squirrels."

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