Relying on satellites instead of good old-fashioned maps to find your way around California wine country or to locate the Uffizi in Florence once seemed ridiculous. True, the devices that made use of satellite navigation, known as the Global Positioning System (GPS), were initially hailed as a boon for travelers, but because of technical challenges (not to mention high price tags) they turned out to be a must-have accessory only for mountain climbers and boat captains-not the casual traveler. Now, however, that's changing. GPS products have become more user-friendly and less expensive-and, because of a welcome move by the federal government earlier this year, the system itself is significantly more useful.
What happened?Until recently, the GPS signal was scrambled by the government in the name of military security. This scrambling, called selective availability, severely curtailed the accuracy of consumer GPS devices: users on a city street, for example, could locate their position only to within about 330 feet. But thanks to the lobbying efforts of GPS-device manufacturers and support from the Clinton administration, the government stopped distorting the GPS signal in May. Signals are now 10 times more accurate, which means you can track your position to within 30 feet.
The change comes at a time when the GPS market is exploding with new products (see for some of the latest). Consumers once could get only basic devices that had to be held in a fixed position; your location was indicated on a black-and-white screen with a large arrow. New devices are equipped with color screens and practical tools such as databases of restaurants and points of interest. Instead of an arrow floating on a screen, you can now access full-fledged electronic maps that show highways, streets, and even alleys.
The fastest-growing area of the $8 billion GPS market is car navigation systems, which give you driving instructions after you enter your destination's address. Car buyers can often add them as an option (or purchase them separately), and many rental-car companies now make them available for an extra charge (see below for our test of Hertz's system).
Current models have some drawbacks-they don't reflect obstructions such as highway repairs or traffic congestion when configuring a route, for example, and typically come with only one set of maps for a specific region. But that's set to change, with GPS/Internet/wireless devices in the works that will deliver new maps for anywhere in the world, plus up-to-the-minute data on the state of roadways.
Beyond car systems, handheld GPS devices are also getting more sophisticated: expect to see more add-on models that work with personal digital assistants, such as your Palm Pilot or Handspring Visor. Others will be multifunctional, like a forthcoming pager with built-in GPS receiver from Glenayre. There are even cell phones with GPS capability—although the usefulness of Garmin's current model is limited because it operates on an analog rather than the more advanced digital system.
NeoPoint, which made one of the first Internet-ready cell phones, has developed the NeoTracker GPS receiver attachment (it's not yet on the market). It will work in tandem with MyAlladin.com, a wireless service that sends local information straight to the phone, allowing you to pull up, say, a list of barbecue joints in Kansas City and be automatically directed to your choice.
Taking NeverLost for a Test-Drive
Hertz has put itself at the forefront of rental-car companies by equipping about 30,000 cars in its fleet with the NeverLost GPS navigation system — a Magellan 750NAV device that retails for $2,300. Although NeverLost costs only $6 a day, you also have to rent a midsize car or better to get it. Is it worth the trouble?
I started my test of the NeverLost system one June afternoon—during rush hour, in New York. Getting out of Manhattan unscathed is a miracle under any circumstances. After picking up the car, I punched in my destination—a B&B some 100 miles east on the North Fork of Long Island—and set off, driving as directed by the system.
The device itself has an easy-to-read color screen (about the size of a paperback book) and is attached to the dashboard. A series of straightforward menu options makes entering your endpoint a breeze. And because NeverLost uses voice prompts to give you directions, it's perfect for anyone driving alone. Commands are helpful and easy to follow: if you go off track, the voice alerts you to your error and redirects you; unlike most back-seat drivers, it announces turns before you reach them ("right turn in point-five miles").
Other features are less useful. A search for the nearest restaurant in Woodbury, New York, gave me options in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. While I could easily locate the address for a Citibank ATM, finding directions to it required going back to the main menu and entering the address from scratch.
And you definitely need to stay alert and use common sense. In the city, the system mistook Third Avenue for the FDR Drive, three blocks away. When I exited the Queens Midtown Tunnel after passing under the East River, NeverLost died. To get it up and running, I had to restart the car and punch in the route again (luckily, traffic was at a standstill). At a roundabout on the way to Long Island, NeverLost directed me to the fourth right, when what I actually needed was the second one. Although I successfully found my B&B, the return trip wasn't all smooth sailing, either: NeverLost took me to East 24th Street in Brooklyn, rather than East 24th Street in Manhattan. The mistake?I had entered "New York" instead of "Manhattan" as my destination.
Despite the glitches, NeverLost is still a useful tool. Although it didn't always get my route right, it's also true that I was never lost.
Forget bulky GPS receivers that scream geek. Today's models are portable and easy to use, and come in a variety of snazzy new packages.
The portable Garmin StreetPilot Colormap car navigation system covers the United States, Canada, and Mexico, with information on gas stations, restaurants, and hotels near exits. It has no voice commands, making it riskier for driver use but cheaper than most car models. $891; 800/800-1020; www.garmin.com.
The one-inch screen of the Casio GPS Pathfinder wristwatch is too tiny for maps, but you still can see your latitude and longitude, your direction of travel, and the distance from your destination. In addition, you can mark up to 200 points along your route for backtracking—great for hikers. The newest Pathfinder, out in November, will do even more. $500; 800/962-2746; www.casio.com.
Light and small, with a screen that's unusually large, the Garmin eMap Deluxe is more than a standard route-finder. It also provides detailed info on sights, hotels, and restaurants—all with phone numbers. $300; 800/800-1020; www.garmin.com.
The inexpensive handheld Magellan GPS 315 lacks flashy graphics, but with all these features you probably won't care: in addition to having the usual GPS bells and whistles, it can lead you to some 500,000 museums, sights, and ATM's worldwide. $149; 800/669-4477; www.magellangps.com.
Connected to a Handspring Visor, the GeoDiscovery Geode delivers GPS-powered maps that you can customize with more street names and points of interest such as museums and area landmarks. $250; 888/206-6444; www.geodiscovery.com.