General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Road Warrior

Advice for the High-Tech Traveler

We might have titled this column "Gizmos and Gadgets and Toys: Oh, My!" I will start out by pleading guilty to my status as an inveterate gadget freak. In both my personal and professional lives, I love being the first one on the block with a new toy. I thought of seeking counseling for this syndrome, but I have had so much fun with it, I elected to continue to enjoy it. In this column we will share some of my experiences and my evaluation of new electronic wizardry that you may find useful in the course of your activities.

Getting There Is (at Least) Half the Fun

I regularly travel to locations with which I have only passing familiarity. It is easy to get lost driving in areas which you do not know well. Many people have commented on the differences in male and female psychology respecting stopping and asking for directions. It appears reasonably well established that the female of the species is considerably more likely than the male to stop and ask for help when she is unsure of where she is or how to get where she is going. The exploration of the psychological characteristics giving rise to this phenomenon exceeds the scope of this article. Instead, we will focus on modern day technologies to help us all avoid the issue.

You may be familiar with the term GPS, or Global Positioning System. GPS works by triangulating your position at any given point in time through information transmitted by a series of satellites that continuously circle the earth. The triangulation process allows the GPS receiver to lock in to your location (depending upon the sensitivity of the device, often within 100 feet of it). Originally, the GPS devices operated with gross maps that were of value only to hikers, experienced trekkers and the military. More recently, the systems have evolved to include more-detailed maps.

Several manufacturers have offerings of GPS systems for consumers. One of the best-known of those manufacturers is Garmin, which calls its newest, hottest offering the Streetpilot. Small enough to carry in a brief case, the Streetpilot is at its best on the dashboard of moving vehicle. For a list price of $599 (often reduced by $50 to $100) at the retail level), the Streetpilot comes with a built-in nationwide highway mapping system. You can purchase additional cartridges for major metropolitan areas at prices generally between $99 to $139 (but sometimes discounted 10 percent). The highway system monitors travel on the highways from one city to another. The add-on cartridges introduce street-level mapping of major metropolitan areas that enables you to monitor travel with in the city. You can mount the device in your car permanently or temporarily. Permanent mountings come with it, but you can purchase a weighted portable mount as an optional accessory ($19). I strongly recommend the temporary system, for security reasons and because it allows easy relocation of the Streetpilot from one vehicle to another. You will want the device with you in rental vehicles and if you regularly have more than one car at your disposal.

I found the device relatively easy to read during daylight and especially easy to read at night, due to its bright orange backlight. Significantly, for those who find that as age increases, the ability to read without glasses decreases, I found that the size of the display made it easily readable for me without my glasses, when I mounted the device on the passenger-side dashboard.

The Streetpilot operates from AA batteries or through a 12V DC (cigarette lighter) adapter. If you use the backlight often, it tends to drain the batteries fairly quickly. Accordingly, you will find that the DC adapter proves to be a wise investment.

The Streetpilot includes the capacity for assisting with turn-by-turn directions; the problem is that you have to calculate the directions manually and input them into the device–it does not calculate them itself. I found this process both tedious and time consuming and after trying it once, I will not do it again. It simply does not justify the effort.

Instead, the Streetpilot also allows you to select a start and end point manually. It then superimposes a straight ("as the crow flies") line over the map running from start to end points, that remains visible throughout the trip. As you move, the Streetpilot continuously tunes in to the GPS satellite system and pinpoints your vehicle’s location. You can easily compare your location to the line to ensure that you have not wandered off course. This feature is particularly useful if, impatient with traffic congestion, you turn off the main road and try to find an alternate route. Remember that the street-level mapping will show you the layout and names of the streets in the area, so you have additional help in your quest for an alternate route.

In case you or your car requires sustenance during the trip, the Streetpilot, mapping cartridges, will identify many restaurants, gas stations and other amenities for you. It will also identify certain landmarks and tourist attractions. And, if you are going to use a particular location as a base, you can input it into the Streetpilot as a landmark for easy returns.

I have found the Streetpilot both useful and fun. It has also served as a great conversation-starter. It has proven safer for me to read the screen of the Streetpilot without my glasses as I drive, than to try and move back and forth between wearing and not wearing reading glasses. For safety considerations, please do not try to program the Streetpilot as you drive; do this before you leave or pull off the road while you program.

If you think the Streetpilot’s price is a bit steep, try the following exercise: (1) guesstimate the amount of time you wasted trying to find destinations last year; (2) multiply the lost time by your standard hourly rate. If you do much travelling into areas you do not know well, I suspect you will find that the Streetpilot can easily pay for itself in a relatively short time period.

Those of you who want turn-by-turn directions, either in addition to or instead of the Streetpilot’s assistance (or to program into the Streetpilot), should consider buying one of the many mapping programs available on CD/ROM that provide this capability. Additionally, most major Internet search engines have a mapping facility that will provide turn-by-turn directions for you. Log onto Excite (www.Excite.com), Yahoo (www.Yahoo.com) or Lycos (www.Lycos.com) (or any other search engine that has this feature), select the driving directions option from the main screen, follow the instructions and print out the map and directions. One final suggestion: experiment with different search engines. Often they provide different directions between locations, and you may find that you prefer the mapping format of one system to another. I will often combine turn-by-turn directions downloaded from one of the Internet search engines with the Streetpilot’s assistance. I got my Streetpilot about six weeks ago and have since purchased three metropolitan-area mapping cartridges. I have not had problems locating any place since I started using these aids. I am confident that these devices have saved me considerable aggravation and time.

Happy trails. n

Jeff Allen has a private practice in Oakland, California, oriented towards real estate and business. He is editor-in-chief of the GPSSFL/ Technology & Practice Guide, chair of the GPSSFP Section’s Technology Committee, and a former member of the Section Council. Jeff has written articles for several journals and frequently serves as a presenter at continuing education programs. He travels extensively in connection with his work, for vacations and as a result of his participation in ABA and other community-service activities. He regularly works on the road. In fact, he drafted this column on a laptop computer while flying back from a meeting in Chicago.

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