In my family, we still get a chuckle when someone mentions our first experience with a GPS navigation system, 10 years ago this month.
The "system" consisted of a plastic blob containing a GPS receiver that sat on the dashboard, attached by cable to a laptop computer loaded with mapping software. With my wife holding the PC in her lap and my kids and mother in the back seat, we set off on a 10-mile drive to a friend's house -- which normally takes about 15 minutes.
In the interest of science, we agreed to follow the system's directions explicitly, wherever they might lead. After 45 minutes, innumerable turns and at least 25 "recalculations," we were sitting at a dead end, in sight of our destination, but blocked from it by a stream -- and no bridge in sight. This GPS navigator definitely was not ready for prime time.
A decade later, everything about GPS systems has improved by orders of magnitude. GPS devices are sleek and portable. Their digital maps are far more current and precise, while improved public access to GPS data have made the devices far more accurate at determining your location, speed and direction. Once-laughable routing software -- which never seemed to pick the best route in early versions -- has also improved markedly.
The databases underlying today's systems are packed with thousands of points of interest -- the most popular of which seem to be pizza parlors. On the road, most GPS navigators can display beautiful three-dimensional maps or the regular, two-dimensional variety. They can "talk" you through your trip, turn-by-turn, and calculate new routes in seconds if you make a mistake or run into a detour. High-end models can receive FM traffic-jam alerts in many cities, and some double as MP3 music players.
As good as these stand-alone devices are, the Internet and cell phone carriers may already have shortstopped some of the market. If all you need is directions, free Web-based mapping services from Google, Yahoo, MapQuest, Microsoft and others are a click away. For casual travelers, a properly equipped cell phone will grant access to maps and directions on demand for a couple of bucks a day.
That has not stopped people from buying GPS gadgets, however. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that sales could top $4 billion this year, with the average customer spending about $410.
If you haven't tried one or you wonder how they work, GPS stands for global positioning system -- an array of 24 Defense Department satellites that transmit precise time and location data.
GPS receivers lock in three or more of these signals and use triangulation to calculate the user's exact latitude, longitude and altitude -- within 50 feet under ideal circumstances. This is a spectacular feat of American engineering that the whole world uses free of charge.
With our wedding anniversary and a couple of trips approaching, my wife thought an up-to-date GPS navigator would be a great present to ourselves, and I set out to find one. That was fun because there are so many good models from manufacturers that include Garmin, Magellan and Tom Tom (the big three), along with Mio, TravRoute, Cobra, NavMan, Nextar, Sanyo, Pioneer and others.
Portable automotive units -- most of which attach to a car windshield with a suction cup mount or to the dashboard with an adhesive disc -- fall into two general categories and range from $200 to $1,000 or more.
Bulkier devices, generally wedge-shaped, are aimed primarily at automotive users. Some have hard drives that can be updated from a computer. They typically have 3.5-inch or 4.5-inch diagonal screens. And while many have rechargeable batteries, they won't run very long once you unplug them from your cigarette lighter.
Lightweight models have comparable features, but they are less than an inch thick, so you can easily slip one into your pocket when you're on foot. Lightweights have a longer battery life and store everything in flash memory, usually an industry-standard SD (secure digital) card. As with everything else in gadget-land, smaller size means a higher price tag.
Within each category, you will pay more for a larger display and more features. With touch-sensitive screens (a major improvement from the early models I tried), all make it easy to punch in an address and specify the type of routing you want (fastest, shortest, local roads, no-toll-roads, etc.).
Better units make multistop trips easier and contain more POIs (points of interest). That way, if you're driving through the Mojave Desert and suddenly have the urge to fax something back to the office, you can easily find the closest Kinko's.
An important feature that sets models apart is speech. Although a GPS gadget mounted on the windshield is not as distracting as you might think, life is much easier with a navigator who talks to you. And once you have that feature ("Turn right, 2.2 miles ahead"), you'll probably want true text-to-speech. That means the navigator pronounces the names of the streets, as in, "Turn right at Reisterstown Road, 2.2 miles ahead." Text-to-speech adds about $100 to the price and is well worth the money.
Another feature that separates low-end models from fancier ones is traffic report capability. Some units have FM receivers to capture third-party Traffic Message Channel (TMC) broadcasts if they are available in your area. With other units, the traffic receiver is a $50 to $100 add-on. In any event, you will pay a monthly fee of $10 to $20 for the traffic update service.
After giving all these factors more consideration than necessary, I settled on Nuvi 350 -- a midde-of-the-road, lightweight unit with a 3.5-inch screen and text-to-speech capability. With an AC charger as well as a cigarette lighter adapter, it cost about $500 at a local retail store. You'll find it for less online.
I don't have space for a full review here -- let's just say that after a couple of hours charging, it took us about 10 minutes to figure out how to set the gadget up and punch in our first set of directions. Over the next couple of weeks, we used it on a variety of trips and it was remarkably accurate. Aside from navigating us in circles once in Rehoboth Beach, Del., the Nuvi was pleasantly transparent to use.
The one thing we could not figure out was how to force a recalculated route in case of a traffic jam. But when we lent it to our son, he found the feature right away and used it to save an hour sitting in a traffic jam. Maybe we're just getting old.
Now a caveat. Since I do most of the driving (and it was my wife's idea to get the GPS gadget), she became the default GPS operator. Also understand that we made a pact on our first road trip 36 years ago: She doesn't criticize my driving, and I don't criticize her navigating. It is one reason the marriage has survived.
Being a complete dunce, I forgot that the pact applied to electronic navigation, too. So men, if you take the GPS plunge and your wife is going nuts trying to figure out how to operate the gadget and turning the air blue because the driver left the manual at home, remember this: She does not want unsolicited tech support from the clod behind the wheel.
For an excellent introduction to GPS navigation, visit CNet.com. Click on Reviews and scroll down the page till you find GPS. Click on that link, and then click on Buying Guide.