Feb 142010
 

I’ve used GPS since the early days when they degraded the signals to keep non-military uses from being as accurate.  I’ve had several automobile units and my present unit is a Garmin Nuvi.  What I’d like to do in this article is provide non-users with a good idea of what this technology provides, and to give some useful tips to others based on my practical experience.

The upside of having a GPS in your car is that you’re never lost.  The downside is that you’ll be lost without it.  Increasingly you’ll become dependent on this electronic guide and pay for it by degrading your “sense of direction.”  Marshall McLuhen described this phenomenon in his 1967 best-selling “The Medium Is the Message.”  One of his illustrations was use of the microphone.  The microphone greatly extends the power and range of a speaker or singer’s voice.  But in the process the person becomes a microphone-dependent and will need one each time she speaks or performs.  I pay this price gladly with my GPS.

My GPS is a portable unit.  The advantage of a portable is that you can keep it when you trade cars and you can use it in multiple cars, including rentals. You can carry it in your luggage on airplanes and then use it in a rental car upon landing.  Built in units generally have larger screens and are less prone to theft.

A GPS draws on information from two main sources.  It communicates with satellites to determine location, and it draws from a database of its own to display roads, lakes, restaurants, and many other points of interest.  The satellite information is constantly updated.  The map information stored locally will get out of date unless it’s kept current.  For my unit, a one-time update with the current road information costs about $50.  You can also purchase lifetime updates for about twice that.  Updates are conveniently done over the Internet through a USB connection to your computer.  You can also download and install newer versions of the software and different voices for giving you directions.  I’m partial to the lady with the British accent, although the Australian man is good for a change.  One thing you need to figure out early is how to mute the sound.  There can be times when the spoken directions are both unneeded and distracting.  The on-screen directions are enough for many occasions.

If you do get a portable unit, I suggest you experiment to find the best location in your car.  My unit came with a sandbag mount and a suction cup mount that sticks to glass.  After trying the locations those would allow, I searched on Ebay and found a suction cup mount with a long flexible stem that would let me position the GPS right below my rear view mirror.  It also placed it closer than the other options.  Then I came upon my present solution, again from Ebay, that mounts the unit on a device that clips to one of the air vents.  Bingo.  Having placement options are another advantage of the portables.

The most obvious and common use of a GPS is to find your way to an unknown address.  You put in the address, touch “go,” and follow the directions to get there.  If you make a wrong turn, the GPS detects it and immediately recalculates and tells you what to do.  Fast recalculation is one of the big improvements from the early models.  You can use it to your advantage when you know things about your route that the GPS may not.  You may know that the proposed route has construction going on.  All you need to do is start out another way and the GPS will soon adjust everything based on your insistence.  Remember that it is working for you and not the other way around.

Your GPS will likely have more features than you want or need.  But you may be missing out on some really useful stuff if you don’t try these out and at least see what they can do.

The main menu of my unit is pretty typical.  “Address” is where you set up a location you need to go to.  You can later name and save the location for use at a later time.  “Go Home” allows you to set up your home address and then be directed there with one touch of the screen.  I like to use this feature to see how the GPS proposes to get me home, even when I know quite well how to get there myself.  The route I would take may not be the best.  I have learned many shortcuts and saved time and gasoline by using the GPS routinely in territory I’ve been traveling for years.

“Food, Lodging” gives you a search for restaurants, gas stations, parks, and anything you can locate with a key word such as “hotel” or “stage” or whatever.  You can even search on partial words.  There’s a built in hierarchy for commercial locations that lets you, for example, search on all restaurants or just for those listed under “Chinese food.”  Search results are returned already sorted with the nearest locations first and the distance already calculated.  An arrow also shows the general direction from where you are.  When you click on one of these results you will often have a phone number in addition to the street address.  Being able to call ahead with the phone number can be really useful.  My wife is a knitter and sometimes when we are traveling will type in “knit” and see what nearby shops come up.  She has learned to call ahead and get information before investing in a 10 mile detour.

“Recently Found” is a highly useful function.  All of the results of your previous searches are saved here for future use, sorted with the latest being at the top.  This helps you out if you need to go back to a location you forgot to save for future use.

“Favorites” is where you do save locations for future use.  I think my GPS will keep 500 or so of these.  As with your computer, when in doubt SAVE!  It’s easy to do and you can always delete any saved locations.  By default, you can quickly save using the street address only.  But taking the time to save as “Joe’s Garage” instead of “35112 Broad Street” will be better for future reference.  “Intersections” may be helpful in getting you somewhere you don’t have an address for, but can get close by defining a nearby intersection.  The small “Near . . .” prompt is extremely useful in planning advance travel.  If you search on “Marriott” the GPS thinks you want the one nearest your present location.  Using “Near . . .” you can ask to see those in Nashville or Denver.

This brings me to a use of the GPS that by itself is worth the cost of purchase.  Before I go on any vacation or travel involving an automobile, I do research and set up everything I can in advance using the “Favorites” feature.  The most convenient way to do this is to remove the unit from the car and take it inside where your computer is located.  (A portable GPS will run on its own rechargeable battery for several hours.  It doesn’t need to be attached to a car to fully function.)  Then you can do Google or Travelocity or other searches and input the results as GPS favorites.

For example, our last vacation was to British Columbia.  We flew to Vancouver, rented a car, and took a ferry to Vancouver Island.  We stayed in Victoria, Ucluelet, and Courtenay before crossing to the Sunshine Coast, lodging in Sechelt, then driving up to Whistler, and finally back to Vancouver.  I made reservations and marked the locations of all our lodging, researched nearby attractions and points of interest and marked them.  I carefully marked the location of the car rental location at the Vancouver Airport–highly useful on the return.

These marked locations are not only useful for initially finding places, they also assist in “free roaming.”  I love to head off like an explorer and do just that–explore.  With the GPS you can do this and never be lost.  Take any turn you wish, follow any signs to something that sounds interesting, and when you’re ready to go back, just select your motel from the favorites and instruct the GPS to take you there.  Since we have plans to return to BC again, I’ve saved all these marked locations in case we revisit some.

My GPS came with maps for North America.  You can purchase and install maps for other parts of the world as well.

I guess you can tell I’m sold on this amazing technology.  I seldom leave home without it.

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