GPS for the Masses
Who knew that our GPS device would lead us to Santa Claus? The town in Indiana, that is, where our satellite-guided gizmo suggested we try a restaurant, 15 minutes off the interstate, that was decorated with a giant St. Nick and reindeer. Kitschy, yes, but the kids were delighted with the break on a long trip—and the detour made us converts to the world of portable GPS.
Global positioning systems are hot—and the technology is fast expanding to all sorts of uses beyond plain old mapping. Annual sales of GPS devices will jump about 50 percent this year to about 28 million worldwide, according to market tracker iSuppli. And they'll more than double in five more years.
For those still fumbling with printed directions, here's the lowdown on GPS: A modest system can store 3 million points of interest, with as many as 14 million at your fingertips if you're getting directions over a cellphone. But destinations are just the start. Newer models are multipurpose tools that store and play music, and display digital photos or video. Some even offer live traffic reports. The multitasking devices are getting so distracting that some officials are sounding safety concerns—so keep your eyes on the road.
Most models help with that, since audio prompts offer directions out loud, giving turn-by-turn guidance with advance warning of what's coming. Higher-end versions also announce the names of streets on your route. The digital maps change as you drive, and even kids enjoy watching a car's progress on the screen.
To keep up with new construction and road changes, almost all of today's models can get map updates through the Internet—you just connect them to your PC with a cable. What can't be updated are the guts of the navigation system, although most new models use the "Star III" receiver from a company called SiRF. Even with the new receiver, some units can take five or 10 minutes to get an initial fix on your location and are less accurate, so thoroughly test a new one while you can still return it. (Tips for testing and buying are here.) Consumer GPS began as expensive in-dash technology installed in new cars. They're still a popular new-car feature, but the systems cost $1,000 and up, and you can't take them with you to another car. Besides, the basic technology is getting so cheap that most consumers are likely to go portable. Manufacturers plan to widely install GPS tracking devices into music players, digital cameras, and even shoes. Before long, anything mobile might offer directions.
Other location-based services are already appearing, such as the ability to find nearby friends and family members who also are GPS wired and transmitting their location. Not far behind: the inevitable advertising, as marketers salivate at the notion of making pitches based on where we are. For now, the uninitiated will be thrilled enough with basic GPS mapping and directions to an undiscovered restaurant, even if Santa isn't there.