For a female salmon to return to her precise spawning ground of its birth after meandering through thousands of miles of ocean is a feat of astonishing navigation. Scientists believe salmon use various techniques to find the way home: sensing gentle variations in the magnetic field of the Earth and tracking the unique chemical brew trail that came from birthing streams.
I often contrast the female salmon's astonishing evolutionary miracle with my lovely wife, Lisa, when I'm navigating with her in a car. For this lovely female I married has an unerring ability to point me precisely in the wrong direction at every possible juncture. Like most males of my species, my faculties have sadly not evolved enough to ask any nearby gas station attendant where the heck I am. My happy solution: get a GPS (shorthand for "global positioning satellite") receiver.
Below, let me share with you some cool recent innovations in consumer GPS technologies. Now, there are functional GPS devices on watches, embedded in walkie talkies, even in a handheld PDA (personal digital assistant.) They've become as compact as a pack of cigarettes or able to dictate directions in six languages. A new sport, called "geocaching" has allowed tens of thousands of GPS users to engage in weekend treasure hunts where booty is hidden and uncovered by strangers who only know precise "lat-longs."
When the Clinton Administration terminated "selective availability" almost immediately the accuracy of GPS devices was enhanced from 150 to 30 feet. That day, some fellow in Oregon put some trinkets behind his house, put the coordinates on line, and the sport of "geocaching" was born. Geocaching is a back-to-nature-meets-high-tech-hide-n-seek game anyone can play. Now, as many as 250,000 GPS owners around the world go to a variety of websites and post locations where they've hidden trophies. Geocachers track down these treasures, exchanging them with other treats or just signing written logbooks left behind.
The first truly integrated PDA with GPS is Garmin's brand new iQue. This handheld uses Palm's latest operating system and features all the usual applications you would expect in a personal digital assistant: contacts, notes, appointments, etc. But, armed with a slender built in GPS antenna and receiver, maps and other location information is tightly integrated in this well designed compact handheld. The large bright TFT screen is perfect for displaying maps but there's a downside: battery power on this PDA only lasts about two hours between recharges with heavy use of the battery-hogging GPS. Still, Garmin's usual meticulous craftsmanship is readily apparent in this hot new gadget. (Now available at about $580.)
Garmin has several other innovative new GPS products I must mention: Rino walkie-talkies and the tiny Geko. The Rino 120 is a full featured GPS combined with two-way communications. The waterproof device lets you transmit your exact location two-miles away to another Rino user. Built-in is a base map of the US with capabilities for downloading other maps. Ideally, the Rino is great to use on family outings or between outdoor workers who need to stay in touch. I had a tough time getting these back from the kids who played a fun game of "hide and seek, find and flee." The Rino 120 retails at about $250.
For other GPS games, I also liked Garmin's miniscule Geko 201. This 3 oz GPS is inexpensive ($139), waterproof, and features WAAS capability (which assists making this device considerably more accurate than older units without it.) One downside: the tiny unit doesn't come with the embedded maps of the US which are now standard in most GPS units. But the unit does come with four location-based interactive games that will have you running around. I may not recommend the Geko for navigation, but you can easily use it for "geocaching."
Magellan SporTrak Color
Magellan has been a leader in GPS technology for more than a decade, but my favorite addition is their new handheld SporTrak Color GPS receiver. The bright, backlit color screen is large and easily readable. The unit features a built in 10 MB database of the United States, which includes street maps, marine buoys, and critical landmarks. For more precise navigation, you can add other map data. I really liked the SporTrak's rugged design, waterproof construction, and ease of use. There are a host of other useful features, including the built in barometer and digital compass. The SporTrak Color costs about $499.
Suunto's Amazing GPS Watches
For full disclosure, let me first confess an abiding love for the Suunto company… for their skill at making affordable timepieces with amazing technology. These include heart rate monitors, compasses, weather stations, dive computers, all in robust and stylish wristwatches. Suunto now daringly attacks the most ambitious technological challenge: getting a functional GPS into a watch. Other watch companies have had similar ambitions resulting in conspicuous failures. (Other competitors' watches never acquired satellite positions or quickly lost battery power.) Suunto figured that if they make the watches rechargeable they could avoid the battery dilemma. They also wisely understood that if the function of the watch was narrowly defined they could be more assured of satisfied customers. Thus, two new models of watches: the Suunto M9/> (a "personal boating instrument") and the Suunto G9 (for golfers.)
Both of these watches feature barometers, thermometers, stopwatches and the like. But Suunto's M9 boating watch is for competitive sailors who want to get the jump on fellow racers for the shortest and most direct routes. The G9 golf watch attempts to provide avid golfers with a tool to precisely measure and analyze their game. Both watches work with supplied computer software to help enter or analyze data (like the course of a sailboat race or of golf courses.)
To be fair, these watches do acquire locations and narrowly achieve what they are designed to do. But after extensive tests, I have to conclude that you must be completely and demonically possessed with either sailboat racing or golfing for these watches to significantly enhance your results. Several avid and technically adept golfers found the G9 particularly difficult to program and almost impossible to use. If data for most golf courses were available online one of the most glaring difficulties with this golfing watch would be solved. Still, I feel these watches, priced at about $750, are an astonishing technological achievement.
Navman's ICN 630
Finally, anyone driving around the West Coast will surely be as astonished to discover how many autos are already enabled with GPS devices. Many custom installations of automotive GPS devices cost about $3000. One less expensive and more flexible alternative is Navman's ICN 630 Voice system. Choose a male or female voice for turn-by-turn directions in any of six languages! The 3.8" colorful and bright TFT screen is great for viewing full color maps showing street level data. The built-in SD expansion slot gives you the option of adding additional map data. What I like about the Navman ICN 630 is that you can easily move it from one car to another without expensive installations. Lists at $999 but expect the street price to be a bit lower.
By Daniel Dubno