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Kevin ClemensNotes From the Road

Are We Lost Yet?
By Kevin Clemens

One of the really cool things about long-distance travel by car in the old days was the maps that you would get at service stations along the way. Although nearly impossible for all but the most fastidious to refold once they had been opened, road maps would guide you on your way and could be used to find interesting sights and attractions. Best of all, when you were lost, you could navigate your way back home with a bit of luck and a keen sense of direction. That is unless you were traveling with another person whose contrasting sense of direction would lead to some lively discussion...and long periods of silence.

Road maps are still around today, but if you want to know where you are or where you are going, an in-car satellite navigation system is the way to go. Previously found only on high-end luxury cars, new portable aftermarket units are bringing electronic navigators to a price that nearly every driver can afford.
 
Global Positioning
By now, most people are familiar with the idea behind Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems that use satellites in space to determine, with a high degree of accuracy, the position of a special GPS receiver here on earth. Hunters, sea captains, pilots and the military all use GPS systems to navigate their way around the world.
 
Most early hand-held GPS units weren't that useful for drivers because they simply provided latitude and longitude coordinates that could be plotted onto a map. Several years ago, however, the ability of GPS to determine your exact location was combined with computerized maps stored on compact discs to create navigation systems that were of real use to drivers. After a destination was selected, a synthesized voice was added to talk you through a set of directions while the GPS kept track of the progress that was being made.
 
Although these in-dash systems are useful and easy to use, they are expensive (an option that can cost up to $3,000) and often must be ordered from the dealer when you buy a new car. What was needed was a simpler and less expensive system that could be moved from vehicle to vehicle. Today, we have many more choices.
 
Today's Choices
There are basically three types of in-car GPS navigation systems available for drivers:
 
In-Dash
Usually factory-installed and often integrated with the audio/entertainment system. Priced up to $3,000.
On-Dash
Self-contained units that temporarily mount on the dashboard or windshield. Priced between $500 and about $1,500.
Portable
Computer-based systems that add a GPS unit to a laptop or personal digital assistant (PDA). These are often priced less than $500.
 
All of these systems share some similarities. Each uses an antenna to receive signals from satellites in orbit around the earth. These signals are compared and used to calculate coordinates relating to your position, which is then plotted on an electronic map and used to translate your location into a street address. Each system allows a destination address to be entered and then several possible routes to be selected. As your vehicle follows the route, each system will automatically keep track of your progress, plotting new locations on the map and announcing upcoming turns (and alerting you when a wrong turn is taken).
 
By function, at least, they are all pretty similar. However, they vary markedly in other ways.
 
In-Dash Advantages
In-dash systems have the obvious advantage of being fully integrated into the vehicle. When the system's synthesized voice announces an upcoming turn, the radio volume is muted so that the navigation system can be heard more clearly. These systems are also less obtrusive since they don't have any temporary suction cup mounts or power cables to deal with. Some offer voice control while others tie into a vehicle's speed sensors to give navigation information even when large buildings block satellite reception or while in a tunnel. The audio quality of these in-dash systems is often very good since they work through the existing entertainment system speakers.
 
Because in-dash systems have to work within the existing vehicle structure, however, their display screens are often limited in size, although some get around this by using larger screens that pop-up out of the dashboard. While many in-dash systems come directly from the factory, they can also be installed as aftermarket units, often for less than the cost of the original factory system. Their main disadvantage, however, is their price.
 

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