Technology for the rest of us: GPS units

Technology is getting more and more complex, but at the same time, amazing technological benefits are available to us average Joes without too much fiddling around. That is what this column will be covering.

Every Monday, right here on WalletPop, I'll feature an easy-to-use hack, gadget or service that can really make your life better, saving you time, or saving you money. Geeks, technophiles and early adopters have plenty of other places to look for hot new technologies to try. Here you'll find technology for the rest of us.

There used to be a time, whenever my family visited the U.S., when I sat in the back of the car with the massive road atlas and followed where we were with a finger. My stepdad had mapped out a route ahead of time, and I would call out directions. Now some parents have DVD players and video games to keep the kids quiet, and businessmen on trips in unfamiliar cities don't get to enjoy a 13-year-old kid in the back with a Rand-McNally atlas to call out the turns.

It's no surprise, then, that the popularity of Global Positioning Systems have skyrocketed, particularly now that the cost of buying one has come tumbling down to earth

The first GPS unit I ever encountered was while living aboard a boat in the Caribbean as a kid, and all it did was display the latitude and longitude of our location. It was up to you then to sit at the chart and convert that into a location, and then figure out from there where to aim. Now GPS units integrate a map complete with roads and interesting businesses nearby.

And they're getting even easier to use.

More importantly, this holiday season, they're getting cheaper. Drops in prices of up to 50% or more have occurred as GPS unit manufacturers engage in a full-on seasonal price war. Which means these units are finally not extravagant technological purchases, but affordable ways of helping you navigate.


Who hasn't seen the somewhat twee TomTom commercials with the driver of a car calling their passenger by their name twice and then asking for directions ("DaveDave, where should I turn now?"). Despite the annoying commercials, the TomTom does have a solid reputation as more than just a well-promoted GPS with a cute name.

Originally the TomTom was a European sensation. TomTom offers a nifty three-dimensional look, as if you're flying over the road. It features a touch screen interface, but more useful is its spoken instructions which allow you to focus on the road ahead rather than staring at a screen.

The screen on the TomTom ranges from a 4-inch, 480/272 screen to a PDA standard 3.5 inch, 320/240 pixels depending on the model you choose. The TomTom ONE, the smallest and cheapest, is well spoken of by consumers online, with high ratings at For this season, the TomTom ONE third edition is being pushed, with prices as low as the $140s.

Another interesting feature that the TomTom brings to the table now is that it allows user corrections of its maps. Say a local business has closed, or moved location, you can correct this on your GPS. Not only will your GPS keep that change, you can opt to upload it the next time you plug the TomTom into your computer, thus sharing your information with other TomTom users, who can choose to accept a number of levels of corrections ranging from TomTom approved and researched changes, to accepting any change by any other TomTom user.

There are some downsides. One is that TomTom's maps come from a European publisher, Tele Atlas. Most U.S. GPS units use NAVTEQ. What's the difference? NAVTEQ has more of a reputation for having points of interest and more up to date mapping data. Google maps uses NAVTEQ as well.

Interested in finding out more about NAVTEQ versus Tele Atlas, Nat Torkington at the O'Reilly Radar does a good rundown of the difference, and the discussion in their forum provides more details.

Garmin Nuvi

The second device that gets accolades for user-friendliness is Garmin Ltd.'s Nuvi series. The Nuvi 330 first came to my attention via author J.A. Konrath the summer of 2005 as he was doing a massive book tour, when he noted it came preloaded with 5 million business addresses, making it easy to find bookstores by just typing in the chain name and seeing the nearest ones pop up in the GPS.

The Garmin offers a similar screen (320/240 pixels), touchscreen interface, voice guidance, and uses an SD slot just like the TomTom for you to add updates. You can find a 330 for prices that rival the TomTom device.

The later Garmin Nuvis have gotten all the way up to the 670 series, which bundle ebook readers, bluetooth technologies, and all sorts of stuff only peripherally related to getting you from point A to B. But the Nuvi still gets a lot of user love for being great and easy to use, particularly by users on Amazon, who rate it highly and who have purchased enough units to put the Nuvi 350 at the #3 item in Electronics at, no mean feat, as it puts it up there with the Apple iPod.

This season you can find the Nuvi 350, which is the lowest entry point for the Nuvi now, in the high $200s or low $300s.

Wrap up

All these devices occasionally seem to have trouble at times locating the satellites that let them figure out where they are, something that might be alleviated by adding a better antenna. Tunnels and other major obstacles can impede their ability to find a satellite signal. Both units will occasionally steer you wrong, but heck, so did I with a map of my own calling out directions from the back of the car as a kid.

And no matter how much you trust your GPS, following the directions without paying attention to your surroundings could be dangerous.

You might end up in a river or something.

Tobias Buckell is an author, freelance writer, and professional blogger.
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