Personal GPS: Well Worth It

Find out why personal GPS is well worth the cost.
By Zach Bowman

The Garmin Nuvi series: a
brave new world.

The newest tech gadgets tend to fall into one of two categories: fun wants and blah needs. The ones that everyone wants to see for their birthday or as a Christmas gift are the ones that manage to bridge the gap between the two. Take the Apple iPhone. The reason Steve Job’s newest techno-wizardry is selling better than cotton candy at the circus is because the company managed to take the largely boring phone and turn it into something fun. The gadget is packed with all kinds of surprising innovations that make life in general more enjoyable. But that’s beside the point, except for fishing for one as a gift.

A total of 27 GPS
Satellites orbit the

I recently located to a new city, and after spending more than a few hours doing my best impression of a lab rat bouncing off labyrinth walls, I realized I had a new need. If I ever wanted to arrive home in a timely manner again, I needed directions to my house from wherever I was at the time. I needed a GPS.

For a long time I’d scoffed at the sweater-vest crowd clicking in their destination on the dash as they whiled away the time listening to Kenny G in their car. Me, I was a pioneer. I blazed a swath across the land the way my ancestors did it - atlas sitting shotgun on the passenger seat, eyes set forth on the horizon. The romance started to wear off when the inset in my atlas refused to give me any useful information. You know, like which streets are one way and which aren’t. Let’s just say coming face-to-face with the front grille of a garbage truck is a life altering experience.

So I did what any enterprising young lad with a laptop would do. I Googled GPS units, and after a few solid hours sorting through reviews, I ended up with a Garmin Nuvi 255WT. According to the bountiful information on the Web, it was worth it to go for a larger screen (hence the “W" designation) and a feature that reads out street names as well as turns. I got the whole kit and caboodle for just under $300, including a windshield mount and power charger, and the bargain hunter in me felt pretty satisfied. Boundless directions and information at my fingertips for just $300? Game on!

Then the box arrived at my doorstep. It was tiny. As in, I could barely fit my hand inside. I just paid $300 for this? Really? I tried my best to reassure myself with clichés about good things in small packages, swallowed my doubt, unpacked the gizmo and stuck the little sucker to my windshield. After a quick loading screen I was asked to input my destination, starting with the state. From there, the Garmin asked for city and address, with the screen offering a few options to select from after I plugged in a few characters. Then—bam—instant directions, complete with drive times, speed limits for the current road and all kinds of restaurants, gas stations, hospitals and just about anything else along the way.

That took care of the need bit alright, but after plinking around on Garmin’s site, I found out you can download a vast array of different vehicles to represent you on screen. Wanna drive a tank down the freeway? No problem. How about a World War II Spitfire airplane? Absolutely. Suddenly, getting from point A to B isn’t so much of a chore. What’s more, this particular Garmin can reroute me when I get stuck in traffic (it’s not an “if" in these parts).

After just a few days with the new GPS riding shotgun, it’s hard to think about driving without it. There’s no guessing when it comes to how long it’s going to take me to get somewhere and no worry about printing out directions or bouncing my eyes off the map and the road in front of me. Talk about better living through technology - and having a little fun along the way.

About halfway through my first trip across town, I got to wondering exactly how this little gizmo works. Does it have detailed maps of the entire continental U.S. stored inside? Does the info get beamed from space? Are there satellites tracking my every move? Turns out yes and no. All GPS devices are actually GPS receivers that use up to four global positioning satellites to determine the device’s location in space.

The U.S. military originally developed global positioning for use on the battle field—launching 27 satellites for this purpose alone. The chunks of tech are positioned so that at any time, at least three of them can be picked up anywhere on earth. So, as I’m rolling down the road, the Garmin on my dash is chatting it up with three or four satellites hovering above me. It takes in information on its location given up by those satellites and then uses the mathematic principal of trilateration to determine my location in space, er, on Earth.

For example: if the first satellite says I’m 13 miles from its location, the next one nine miles and the last one 15 miles, the GPS unit can figure out that I’m at the intersection of those three distances. It helps to imagine a giant ball surrounding the first satellite that’s 13 miles from center to edge. If the GPS had only that information, it could surmise that it could be anywhere along the exterior of the ball. It needs the information from the other two satellites to figure out exactly where on the ball I am. Since all those spheres meet in two places (one on earth and the other way out in space), the GPS can deduce that I’m probably not piloting my Porsche to the moon, and give me the exact location of the other point down here on Earth.

Great. So the little box on the dash can figure out my exact location on earth. How does it tell me how to get to another spot down the street? For that, most GPS units rely on pre-loaded maps, which is why I have to update mine every so often. Plug in your destination, and the unit calculates the exact location via the method above. After that, it researches its maps to figure out how to get me there without driving through a duck pond. Before I know it, I’m sitting in front of Krispy Kreme with a mouth full of chocolate glazed doughnut. Sweet, delicious technology.

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