GPS: For the Car, the Trail and Fun!

By Daniel Saltzman


The Global Positioning System has been keeping people from getting lost for 10 years … Is it time you jumped on this satellite-based bandwagon? More than just a techie toy, today’s GPS devices offer lots of practical uses.


In 1994, the U.S. Air Force completed a system of 24 satellites computerizing the process of earthly navigation. To be sure, the USAF didn’t set out to help us drive across the country without getting lost, but in the end, we can do that and much more at a very reasonable cost with personal Global Positioning System receivers (“GPS” for short).


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GPS … Not Just for Geeks Anymore

When I first reviewed a handheld GPS device back in 1999, I marveled at what it was able to do. It told me exactly how fast I was moving and in what direction. It indicated my height above sea level and even the exact moment the sun would set. Knowing it accomplished this feat by interpreting signals from four satellites 11,000 miles above made my hair stand on end. But I am an admitted techno-nerd. The question was … would this technology fly with the rest of the consumer population?

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">According to Pete Brumbaugh, a spokesman for Garmin, one of the leading GPS manufacturers, the technology has indeed caught on in a big way. Since 1991, more than 10 million GPS units have been sold, with 60 percent of those sales occurring since 2000. In the 1990s, GPS units were found in sporting goods stores and specialty shops. Today, they are common in Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">This is no surprise, as current GPS devices can do all of the aforementioned, as well as find detours around traffic or construction, lead you to the closest Chinese restaurant, and countless other feats. Some units install in place of your car radio and play DVD movies, while others fit on your wrist like a watch. Aside from leading you to the lake, some GPS units even indicate what time the fish like to bite!

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Nowadays, Brumbaugh notes, “people go shopping for other things and end up with a GPS. It’s not just a niche market anymore.”

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">But is it right for you? Read on, and we’ll see.

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">What’s It All For?

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">GPS technology teamed up with some common sense virtually guarantees you will never be lost – whether you’re driving, hiking, boating or skiing.

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">When preparing for a road trip, I spend less time worrying about directions knowing my GPS will guide the way. On a hike, I feel more comfortable traveling solo. Some units, like the Garmin Rino series (starting at about $175), even incorporate a two-way radio that’s great for taking the grandchildren to the amusement park or a fair. Each Rino unit sends its position to the others so you can not only keep in touch with everyone via the built-in walkie-talkie, but also see where they are on your Rino’s display.

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Advanced automobile GPS units, such as the Pioneer AVIC-N1 (about $1,900), incorporate huge databases that provide relevant travel information such as what food is available at the next exit or where the closest gas station is located. Voice-enabled features allow for GPS guidance without even looking at the display as the unit speaks directions out loud. The AVIC-N1’s display doubles as a rearview mirror with an optional camera installed and as a DVD movie-player for in-trip entertainment.

Brumbaugh explains that Garmin’s StreetPilot series (starting at $1,200) incorporates algorithms to intelligently lead the way. Garmin researched traffic patterns (rush hour vs. late night, weekend vs. weekday) and routes you according to your choice of either the fastest or shortest route.

If you’re a science aficionado, GPS adds an educationally fun dimension to traveling. Its fascinating technology never gets boring. Sometimes on long car trips I’ll just play with the GPS for hours.

Ready to Take the Plunge?

While GPS technology is really nothing short of astounding, it is not for everyone. Despite advances, using a GPS is not intuitively easy. Simpler units costing as little as $100 require a thorough read of the manual. But maximizing the benefit from GPS technology requires more complex units, usually in the $200 to $400 price range, including much thicker manuals. So if your VCR still blinks “12:00,” you should probably think twice before buying a GPS.

And, while GPS displays have improved, not all are easy to read. If you have trouble seeing smaller objects, you may need a larger, color display, which increases the unit’s cost. Such GPS units, selling for $400 and up, also include more comprehensive feature sets. So again, they tend to be a little harder to learn and operate.

But if you don’t mind reading documentation and enjoy technology, today’s GPS devices have fallen in price and exploded with features to the point that you should seriously consider one of these gloriously geeky, yet profoundly practical gadgets.


Trimble Navigation is a high-end, industrial manufacturer of GPS units. They have an excellent tutorial of GPS technology at It gets rather technical, but if you’re really curious about GPS, this is a great place to learn about it in-depth, without an advanced degree!