A boom in high-tech tools to help you find your way
Satellite-positioning devices work on roads, hiking trails
Try to figure out the best driving route between Burlington, Vt., and Albuquerque, N.M.
You can drag out the road atlas, or go online to a point-to-point route-planning service such as MapQuest.com.
But for those who like to marry portability and high tech, the latest way is to slip a tiny memory card into the back of newer Palm Pilot personal digital assistants, or PDAs.
Rand McNally has now put its road maps of the continental United States on what it calls The PalmPak Travel Card ($39.95).
"It features over a half million miles of US highways and major roads, the most of any Palm hand-held mapping application to date," says Kevin Hell, senior vice-president of product management at Palm Inc.
After slipping the card into a PDA and tapping on the screen with a stylus, a full US map appears on screen. Three small buttons on the left allow you to find directions, view a particular map, or find a city, town, or state.
To get directions, you pick a starting city and a destination, and the program indicates how long it will take to determine the route.
Our test from Burlington to Albuquerque took 8 minutes and 50 seconds. The device measured the trip as 2,194 miles with an estimated driving time of 40 hours and 7 minutes. There were 25 route changes. Less complicated trips are calculated more quickly.
Detailed maps of American cities come on another card. Those who want maps of European cities can use a card produced by guidebook company Lonely Planet. It can take the place of several guide books, though not with as much detail.
"Applications such as maps are making the personal digital organizers more than just electronic address and date books," says Bruce Kasrel, senior analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
He adds that online map services, such as MapQuest, have some advantages over the PDAs.
"Internet maps have more information and can be updated," he says. But "the PDA is portable, and some come with GPS [global positioning system], so you can find out where you are."
Such devices can help you when you're lost anywhere in the world.
San Dimas, Calif.-based Magellan builds a family of GPS-armed portables. One, the GPS Companion ($200), converts the Palm V and Vx as well as the Handspring Visor into a GPS mapping system. The modem-type device clips onto the back of the Palm or Handspring. It has a large, bulky antenna to download material.
Magellan also offers full-time GPS units that don't piggyback on a Palm Pilot. The MAP 330x ($300) is a self-contained unit, a bit bigger than a Palm, with a thick antenna to lock into GPS coordinates. It comes with a CD-ROM of US maps, and has a car kit and power adapter to run off the lighter.
The company just introduced a Meridian line of handheld GPS systems. Each unit weighs 8 ounces, is 6-1/2 inches long, about 3 inches across, and about an inch thick. The antenna is built into the frame and doesn't show. The Platinum model ($389) includes an electronic compass and barometer.
"It's for the serious navigator," says Angela Linsey-Jackson of Thale Navigation, the parent company of the Magellan brand.
Another portable machine not only lets you know where you are, but also where you've been. The 5-1/3 ounce eTrex can trace a route, even in the wilderness. A bit thicker than a Palm device, it measures 4 inches by 2 inches. Made by Garmin, it also uses the GPS system.
The base eTrex model ($125) can tell you the distance and time needed to get to a destination at a given speed - as well as the direction to go. It includes a compass that can be displayed on its large screen. The top-end model ($349) gives detailed maps of major cities around the world.
"I bought it for two reasons. I was fascinated by the technology, and I do a lot of snowshoeing in the winter, so I don't want to get lost in a snowstorm," says Donald MacDonald, a Toronto lawyer who spends his spare time at a lakefront cottage north of the city. He also takes the device in a canoe to map the shoreline of the lake.
Soon many people will have GPS technology, even if they didn't intend to buy it. The location technology is now appearing in cellphones. Samsung, for example, offers a cellphone ($149) with GPS. It is also available in some parts of the Sprint PCS cellular-phone network.