Tools that Travel

By Jim Louderback  |  Posted 2003-05-01

Tools that Travel

The last time I traveled to Europe, I felt like I had just stepped from the pages of Mark Twains Innocents Abroad. I couldnt speak the language, hadnt a clue where I was, and couldnt even figure out how to call anyone back home. Needless to say, I had a blast.

But this time, on a recent trip to France and Spain, I was taking my father, so I needed a little more, well, structure—decidedly not my natural state. But I vowed that technology would save my bacon. So I wrapped up a bunch of new devices in my suitcase, and put them to the test. These tools are designed for both business and leisure travel, and ought to help ease the pain whenever you set out on the road.

Today were going to talk about the first of the tools, a handheld GPS receiver from Garmin called the GPS V. Over the next few weeks, Ill bring you more tools that either did, or did not, make the grade.

So lets turn the page and get started with the Garmin GPS V: So much for getting lost! Two weeks in Europe, and I never had to ask for directions.

A little bit bigger than a deck of cards, this pocket-sized GPS device offers a perfect balance between portability and power. Its internal memory holds 18 megabytes of fairly detailed maps—enough for a country the size of Spain, or a good part of the U.S. It runs on four AA batteries, and works as a handheld or—using the removable mount—an in-car unit.

While walking or driving, the GPS V constantly updates the map displayed on its small screen, so you know where you are and where youre headed. It also calculates driving or walking directions—and gives you turn-by-turn instructions on getting from point A to point Zed.

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Its not without some quirks—theres no "On button," and its occasionally difficult to navigate the user menus. The small 4" monochrome screen, which displays maps and your relative position, isnt always easy to read, and it plows through batteries pretty quickly—a set of 4 alkaline batteries lasted for about 12 hours of continuous use.

Youll need a PC to get the most out of it. The GPS V connects easily to a Windows computer, and thats where you load all of the maps from the U.S. or Europe. I made a point of creating what Garmin calls Waypoints, using the software on my PC, of all the hotels, wineries, castles and all the other places I wanted to visit. I also preconfigured "Routes", step-by-step directions from one point to another. I then downloaded the Waypoints and Routes to the device, along with the maps Id need. You can do your route planning with the device alone, but the tiny screen and limited processing power make this much more laborious and painstaking

However, I found the ability to create ad-hoc waypoints very useful while traveling. In Bilbao, Spain, where parking is a mess, we jammed our tiny rental into an illegal spot about a mile from the Guggenheim Museum. I set a waypoint, and used the GPS V in handheld mode to navigate the maze of twisty streets to the museum. After hours of touring Bilbao, wed forgotten completely where wed left our car. Luckily, the GPS V remembered, and quickly guided us back to our vehicle—and we didnt even get a ticket!

There are a few really neat features as well. Along with guiding you along in your journey, it also lets you know how fast youre going, and when youll arrive. It cant take into account traffic jams—unlike a system now deployed on Londons highways—but it proved fairly accurate on our trip. And it was particularly fun to use the speed feature on Frances high-speed train the TGV—I clocked it at over 140 mph.

At $500 for the base unit, and $100 or more for a set of maps, its not cheap. But if you cant read the language, and dont like asking for directions, its great. Frankly, its ideal for just about anyone venturing out into a foreign land, even if its just one state over.

Its even good for quelling those backseat drivers, who always insist that youre either going the wrong way, or driving too fast. It provides more than enough neat facts to distract from your wild driving.

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Im also really excited about a new product due from Garmin in the next month or two. Its a Palm PDA with integrated GPS, a much better screen and a nicely integrated interface. Although it doesnt take AA batteries—which makes it less than ideal in some areas of the world—it looks to be a perfect mix. Check out our preview for more information.

Alas, not everything on the trip turned out as well as the Garmin. Next week Ill fill you in on a few failures—magnified by being miles and miles away from home, and by Dads distressed demeanor.

Jim Louderback is editor in chief of Ziff Davis Internet. He can be reached at

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