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Digital Holiday Trends 2007:
GPS Navigation Goes Mobile (12/2007)
by Douglas Dixon
GPS Navigation articles in the Manifest Tech Blog
This looks to be another tough holiday season for retailers, with sales trending lower through the fall, stressed by rising fuel prices, falling property values, and recalls of tainted toys. Retailers like Wal-Mart held early "secret" sales on specific items, recalling the brutal competition last year, especially with price-cutting of digital televisions. This is good news in the short term for consumers, though, with continued dropping prices and more pre-holiday sales. Plus online shopping continues to give consumers more power to compare prices and find good deals.
Hot gift ideas this year start with portable devices -- media players, mobile phones, and portable navigation systems. But this is also the season of high definition -- digital cameras sport multi-megapixels, flat-panel widescreen televisions are finally dropping to a price point where you're ready to buy, and you can step up to shooting your own home videos in high-definition. But with these new opportunities come a sometimes bewildering variety of choices and associated technologies that require some serious thinking before you can make the best decisions for your needs.
So let's look at the trends in these areas, and some sample products that illustrate them. Just be warned that prices continue to change drastically, especially in the holiday season, so the numbers listed here are a snapshot as of early winter.
For "How-to" guides and tips on connecting digital devices, also see the Digital Tips site from the Consumer Electronics Association, covering digital televisions (HDTV), home audio, MP3 players, plus digital cameras and camcorders and accessories (www.DigitalTips.org).
GPS Navigation Goes Mobile
Car navigation systems using GPS (Global Positioning System) have become quite popular for taking the guesswork out of driving. But the new trend for the holidays is mobile navigation systems -- breaking away from the dashboard with a new generation of portable hand-held units that can get your car to your destination, and then detach to help you find your way on foot.
For example, we tried out the LG LN735 Portable Navigator this summer, in Princeton and our area, and then traveling the eastern seaboard: up through New England, on the streets of Boston, and winding our way along the shoreline of Cape Cod. It's not quite pocket size at 4.3 x 3.2 x 0.7 inches and 1/3 pounds, but it's easy to carry and easy to fit in the car, even when loaded up for a trip (http://us.lge.com/navigation). The LN735 is available for around $249; there's also a less-expensive LN730 with a smaller points of interest database, and an enhanced LN740 with a larger 4 inch display, longer battery life (6 vs. 4 hours), and access to traffic information service.
After all, navigation is not just for long exotic trips to new destinations. We found the system useful even around Princeton when we wandered onto unfamiliar back roads and were not sure which direction was which. And it was very helpful in finding several summer weddings, getting to an out-of-the way church near Philadelphia, and providing enough warning to turn left along a busy highway in north Jersey.
And even when traveling on known routes this summer, it was still helpful to have a reminder of an upcoming highway exit, just in case we were too involved in listening to the audio book and not paying attention to signs. The display also counts down miles to the next turn, which helps address the dreaded "Are we these yet?" syndrome.
If you're thinking GPS as a holiday gift, there are a lot of options available, from companies like Garmin and TomTom that are focused on navigation, and from major consumer electronics brands like LG and Sony.
In general, you should expect today's GPS navigators to work well -- They should start up quickly (in under a minute or so), get synchronized to the signals from the GPS satellites, stay on track, and recompute routes quickly when needed. The LG actually worked well for us even when sitting on the console (and not installed on the dashboard mount). It lost the signal occasionally, and took longer to lock on when starting up, but otherwise stayed on track.
Of course, you should not be relying totally on any GPS system, since you will lose the signal at inopportune times, especially when you need to make quick navigation decisions -- as in the tunnel underpasses in Philadelphia or Boston, in deep city canyons or under heavy tree cover, or even when pulling out of a parking garage and trying to figure out which way to turn first.
But it's really the interface that distinguishes these units, and that you should be comfortable with -- both for navigating while driving, and when entering new destinations.
When driving, these systems display live map displays for the driver, with voice guidance for upcoming turns:
- Map display: The LG has a good driving interface on the 3 1/2 inch touchscreen display, with options for 2D (overhead) and 3D (perspective) maps, plus a night mode with a darker display (there's also a brightness control in the menus). The display can orient to north, or from the car's current direction.
LG Navigator -- Night map
- Navigation guidance: Like other systems, the LG goes beyond text displays to speak voice prompts for upcoming turns, with warnings when getting near, and then when the turn is reached (and in multiple languages). Importantly, it also speaks the specific name of the road (and optionally the highway number).
- Re-routing: While these navigation systems are happy to tell us where to go, we also may have other ideas. They will notice that you did not take the suggested turn, and then re-compute the route and display a new plan (typically within 10 seconds or so). For example, in driving from Princeton to the War Memorial in Trenton, the LG's computed route was down Route 206, but we instead wanted to go on the highways via Route 29. Once it saw us head down I-95 and pass Route 206, the unit adjusted accordingly and lead us the rest of the way.
- Mapping and directions: Besides the dynamic map display, the LG also has screens to review the entire trip, with step-by-step directions. And you can scroll and zoom the map for more detail, or to adjust your destination.
For route planning, the process of entering destinations still can be rather clunky, so I find it easier to update the LG Navigator at home by entering new destination favorites, instead of trying to do it on the fly in the car. You can enter destinations based on address or cross streets. As you type, the unit will display matching names from its built-in database (the LG includes both the U.S. and Canada, plus you can download others). And these systems also have millions of points of interest in their database, from restaurants and hotels, to gas stations and ATMs, to entertainment locations like the War Memorial. You also can enter waypoints to pass through along a route, and download destinations from a computer.
But once you have a portable device with display and audio, in these days of integrated devices there's so much more it can do:
- Media player: With a nice color display and speaker, these navigation systems can do double duty as a portable media player. The LG can act as music player and photo viewer, with the files stored on an optional SD card. Just drag and drop media files though the USB connection. LG also includes software to install new and updated maps, back up settings, and import your own custom favorites.
LG Navigator -- Music player
- Hands-free calling: Using Bluetooth wireless, navigation systems can become the display and interface for hands-free mobile calling, routing the calls from your phone through a built-in speaker and microphone.
- Real-time traffic: Some GPS systems are adding real-time traffic updates and even weather conditions. This may use a separate receiver for digital data from FM broadcast stations in some major cities in the United States and Europe. Or it can use a wireless connection to your Bluetooth phone, plus downloads such as detailed city maps, additional voices, and points of interest. Some systems offer basic traffic for free, but the more extensive services require an additional subscription fee.
While dedicated navigation systems are best for extensive use, your mobile phone also can stand in for occasional needs. After all, mobile phones have become more and more the core integrated digital device in our lives, taking on more roles, as a music player and for Internet e-mail and even Web access.
ABI Research estimates that market for GPS-enabled mobile phones will grow from around 240 million units in 2008 to over 550 million handset shipments in 2012, from $50 to $100 billion in revenues. The companies in this market have been actively positioning themselves for growth, with Nokia's acquisition of NAVTEQ, and the battle between TomTom and Garmin to acquire Tele Atlas.
Your mobile phone already has basic location finding -- the carrier knows what cell towers you are near, and can triangulate your position with some accuracy. This technology was mandated by the FCC E-911 requirement to provide location information for 911 calls from wireless phones (www.fcc.gov/911, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E911).
And now, the new Google Mobile Maps with My Location service, currently in beta, adds your location to the Google Mobile Maps application on your mobile phone or smartphone (www.google.com/gmm). The location is approximated based on nearby cell towers, to within 1000 meters on average.
But since phones and smartphones have displays and processing power, another approach is to link them to a GPS receiver, as with Princeton-based ALK CoPilot Live (www.alk.com/copilot). To turn your phone into a navigation system, just insert the SD card with the software and map data. The phone can link wirelessly to the CoPilot Bluetooth GPS Receiver for positioning updates, and over the phone connection to access live traffic and messages via the Internet.
But the next obvious step is to build a GPS chip into the mobile phone, so applications like Google Maps and CoPilot Live can track you more accurately. And even on a phone display, the Verizon VZ Navigator service on GPS-enabled phones can provide full navigation, with routing, maps, and dynamic updates (www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/splash/turnbyturn.jsp).
However, the navigation processing and database are not local on the phone, so the service does require a delay as it transits location information over the cell connection and then downloads navigation updates. We found VZ Navigator helpful in a pinch, but obviously you can't rely on this king of solution for continuous use when you also will need to take phone calls.