I’ve long craved having a GPS device for my car. But the prices seemed too high so I was waiting until they dropped. I hadn’t realized how far the prices had dropped until last month when I was browsing at Radio Shack and came across the TomTom series of devices. Only $400 for a portable four-inch LCD touch screen unit pre-loaded with maps for the entire United States and Canada? Hmmmmm. And it comes with built-in Bluetooth and an integrated microphone to let you make or receive calls hands-free with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. Yeah, this is starting to make sense. What else? Oh, you can control your iPod playlists directly from the touch screen. Okay, I’ll take one.
When I got home I told my daughter Bridget that I got this device for her, since she was learning to drive and often had trouble finding her way around town. Of course, that was true as well. But let’s face it: I had suffered a major ‘impulsus purchasum’ and now I was getting ready to have to face the truth that my new device might be something I rarely used, other than on road trips or out-of-town ventures.
I pulled the small device out of the package and turned it on and it was ready to go. I selected a lovely female British voice to read me my directions and set off to tool about town. I chose a route to the local hardware store and noticed that Amanda picked a route I wouldn’t normally take, but I followed it anyway since the display said that was the ‘fastest route.’ It worked out fine. After I finished shopping I got in the car and selected the big ‘HOME’ icon. The proposed route was not one I wanted to follow so I decided to ignore Amanda’s directions and drove to Magazine Street. At first Amanda kept trying to steer me back to her preference. But once I got to Magazine Street (a main artery) she immediately adapted and offered me the route that I wanted to take.
There is a lot to say about how amazing this device is. The "points of interest" feature deserves special mention, because it turned out to be something that I use a lot around town. Basically, you can tell the device to keep track of various kinds of POI’s such as restaurants, gas stations, casinos etc. You wouldn’t think that this is a feature you would use in your familiar surroundings. But you actually might.
I use it when I’m looking for a restaurant to go to and can’t think of some place to go. Just ask to see restaurants nearby and review the list. The only bad thing is that it lumps together fast food places with regular restaurants, but I’m sure that they’ll fix that in some future edition. And I noticed that the device didn’t have some of the newer restaurants. That required tweaking as well, but it’s not a big problem to tweak the device.
You can update the mapping information by simply downloading it from the TomTom website. The first update is free, and after thatn you pay a small fee. You can also download maps for Europe for a fee, although the higher priced models come with European maps pre-installed. Also, you can download ‘celebrity voices’ such as John Cleese’s to use as your preferred voice. Can you imagine driving around in London with John Cleese giving you directions? Come on. Does technology get any better than this?
The GPS devices are nice in your own city, but when you take them on the road they totally rock. And, frankly, this is the reason I would never buy a built-in GPS for my car. I want to be able to take my device with me wherever I go, and use it in rental cars if I want to.
This week I’m driving in the Southeast looking at colleges with my daughter Bridget, and having the GPS is a godsend. I’m glad that I got familiar with the device before I took the trip though. As I said, it’s easy to use (you could almost just plug it in and take off on a road trip, but some things take getting used to). The device is good at warning you ahead of time that you need to be in the right lane or left lane to make an exit, but it’s nice to have a good feel for how it works so that you have a maximum level of comfort when you are in a completely unfamiliar place.
Yesterday I was on the phone with a client who happened to call just as I was reaching a critical turn point. I had no problem listening closely to what he was saying and also following the directions given to me by the device (although I turned down the voice volume and just followed the visual cues on the display). Having used this tool for a couple of days now I can safely say that I will never take an out of town trip without one of these devices again. I rank GPS devices up there with cellphones and wifi technology as far as life-altering innovations go.
I will say this, though. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably get the Garmin Nuvi. It’s a little more expensive but it seems to be the clear preference of a lot of techies out there. And I’ve noticed that my TomTom often takes too long to find the satellites when it first powers up. So, there you have it. If you are even remotely contemplating getting one of these devices then here are my recommendations:
- Don’t get a car with this device permanently installed
- Check out the Garmin Nuvi devices
- Consider getting a device that you can use in the car or hold in your hand (so you can use it in places like New York, or Chicago where you are walking around etc.)
- Practice using it before you take it on the road.
- Bluetooth is nice, but not essential. I don’t really need to listen to my iPod through my GPS device or make hands free phone calls. But maybe you do.
Last night I was talking to a fellow who is a pilot for the Air Force and flies, literally, all over the world. We were talking about how cool GPS is, and yet how it does diminish your sense of ‘situational awareness.’ By that he meant that he often flies across places in Eastern Europe and has almost no sense of where he is because he doesn’t have to know. I experienced that sensation as we left the University of Georgia yesterday. The device powered up as I was lost in the middle of the Athens campus and quickly guided me out of town toward my destination of Charleston, South Carolina.
I went from a strong awareness of being in the city of Athens, which I knew was an hour east of Atlanta, to having no idea where I was as I weaved along a lovely two lane highway. On the other hand, I felt safe and was left free to admire the scenery. The display constantly updated to tell me how many miles I was away from the next turn point, how long until I arrived at my destination, and what my estimated arrival time would be.
Being on a backroad highway is heaven, but it’s even more celestial when you are aided by a state-of-the art GPS display.