For many, GPS (Global Positioning System) devices have been firmly embedded in our vehicles and our lives. Lauded as a miracle by some and “neat” by others, a GPS unit can determine your approximate location (within around 6-20 feet) on the planet by detecting the GPS signals generated by 24 orbiting satellites.
Some time ago I wrote an article about GPS devices after researching websites and speaking to GPS owners. Now, after more than a couple of years, I finally purchased my own GPS, and it has proved my hypothesis. For some people, the dashboard navigator is a luxury or convenience; for others, like myself, it is survival gear. This little piece of technology is now firmly filed under “things I can’t do without”. You see, although I love to drive, I am notoriously bad at getting to where I need to be. This has led to many fascinating scenic discoveries in the completely opposite direction in which I was supposed to be going. With a 50/50 chance at a fork in the road, I will choose the wrong direction 70 percent of the time. C’est la vie.
Well, after one of the famous “Where are you going?” discussions with my wife, I decided it was time. Armed with a coupon and a credit card, I decided all direction-themed arguments for all time. I came away with a Garmin Nuvi 200w GPS unit. It felt like my birthday. Immediately, I dug in and began browsing the menu, adding my home address, as well as those of family and friends. (No, I don’t get lost that often, but you do need a destination when mapping your way back from a long trip.) Then I found out you can change the look of the on-screen vehicle to more closely match what you are driving, whether it is a car, SUV, pickup, motorcycle, school bus, police car or fire engine. In my case, I chose a sleek and sporty futuristic spy car, because that’s what I drive.
After the initial “Woo-hoo!” stage of my new acquisition I was worried that I would only use it occasionally on infrequent long car rides. But since then, my dashboard hero has gotten me around traffic jams, to kids’ birthday parties and to the nearest gas station when the gas gauge was on E (not the bottom line of the E, just the middle line of the E, but when you are way up on I-83 it’s nice to know which station is closest). I’ll even use it on my commute, so when I get a call asking when I’ll be home for dinner I can accurately estimate “6:12”, give or take tunnel traffic. Oh, and about the tunnel – the GPS can’t see the satellites in there but I’m pretty sure you can find your way out. Another place the GPS might not work: a parking garage. (Luckily, I’ve never lost my car in a parking garage. No, really. Why are you looking at me like that?)
Another interesting feature when you are either near or far from home is to go exploring using the “Points of Interest” menu. You can get a list of all the Asian restaurants near you, starting with the closest. The same can be done for parks or entertainment. You can discover a lot of hidden treasures right in your backyard that you never knew were there. It is great if you are interested in trying something new. But be warned: the distances given are “as the crow flies”; that Wendy’s listed as being 1.2 miles away might be 5 miles along the road. Just follow the pink line – you’ll get there.
Speaking of hidden treasures, you can actually use your GPS to treasure-hunt. After writing about “Geocaching” I couldn’t wait to try it out for myself. Geocaching is when individuals and organizations set up caches all over the world and post the location online. You can then download the coordinates to find the caches. Once found, a cache may contain a log of those who have discovered it before you or provide a wide variety of rewards. (And if you wish to take something, be sure to plan to leave something behind as well.)
I went to the Geocaching website (www.geocaching.com
) and downloaded the location of a cache near my parent’s home. With just a few minutes of searching I found the tiny film canister containing a finders log. The next time I decide to go treasure hunting I plan to take along the kids. I’m sure they will love it.
Having grown accustomed to my new copilot I decided to try discovering some of its other features, like, “What’s that little slot for in the side?” Like so many other devices, the Garmin GPS accepts SD memory cards, which can be used to load other goodies on your unit like travel guides and other media. What media, you ask? Well, I asked myself that, too, and that is about when I started to get gadget-envy. I love my Nuvi 200w, don’t get me wrong, but if you want to spend a little more and are into that sort of thing, there are some really cool features available.
GPS units will let you load your favorite Music Mp3 or audio book for those long car rides. They can also give you tours of cities and other historic areas, plotting your course and playing audio snippets as you pass famous landmarks. You subscribe to a service that will warn you of traffic cameras in the area you are driving. You can get real-time gas prices, weather conditions, traffic reports to route you around delays and construction, local movie times, news and stock reports, and local event information for sporting events, festivals and concerts and preplanned scenic drives or weekend excursions. The new units even have voice-recognition for entering addresses. How cool is that?
With multiple ways to get where you want to go, your GPS will give you its best guess at the shortest route but won’t be able to take into account local conditions with which you might be more familiar. So, use common sense…even if you don’t have a common sense of direction.