Personal Navigators

Personal Navigators - Electronics - March 2003
Electronics March 2002
By Ben Ellison

Personal Navigators
The Joys and Sorrows of PDA Plotters.

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: PDA Plotters
• Part 2: PDA Plotters
• Electronics Q&A
• Transas Navigator
• Bluetooth Keyboard
• Garmin iQue
• Norcross Depthsounder

 Related Resources
• Electronics Column Index
• Electronics Feature Index

For more than a year now, I've been charting on a personal digital assistant (PDA) that's accessorized with a GPS. It's time I tell you about my experience, especially as various related products are coming to market. In a nutshell, these handy handheld computers have evolved to where they work as darn powerful personal plotters, on water or on land, but the overall technology is still in its chaotic adolescence.

After all, PDAs were not really viable products until 1996, when the Palm Pilot was introduced. The design succeeded by being simple, small, and fast--thus creating a real alternative to the paper day planner. Millions of folks on the go got used to having their essential electronic data synched by wire from PC to handheld, where they could call it up with a few control keys and a touch screen. Some even learned the shorthand needed to update an entry or write a note with a stylus.

Another reason for Palm's success was how the company encouraged independent developers to write additional applications; it even licensed its operating system (OS) to other hardware companies. A universe of programs and gear flowered. In the year 2000, mighty Microsoft entered the fray, introducing the considerably more powerful and feature-fat PocketPC OS and enticing several hardware builders to support it. A notable winner was Compaq, whose iPaq series featured a comparatively large color display and the ability to add sleeved accessories.

Thus the pieces came together for PDA plotting, and in 2001 Maptech introduced Pocket Navigator, the program I've been running on an iPaq equipped with a Navman GPS sleeve. It's a slick package. Before a trip, I boot up the software's PC module and select the raster charts and topos I want, build routes if needed, and download everything to the handheld's memory card. Once I'm outdoors or have the iPaq mounted to my boat or car windshield, the GPS acquires position, and the magic begins. Friends looking over my shoulder, particularly ones familiar with regular plotters and/or PC charting, are invariably astounded at how sharp the charts look, how fast they zoom using the control keys, and how smoothly they pan when dragged with a stylus pen or one's fingertip.

Now let me interrupt this geek reverie with some of the not-so-positive details. The iPaq's reflective display works okay in direct sunlight but washes out in muted or oblique light. The screen does have internal lighting, but I have to be miserly with it, as the unit's battery life, especially with GPS attached, is marginal (I use a power cord whenever possible). The device does not always synch properly with my PC, necessitating reboots, and when I upgraded its operating system, it ended up making three trips to a Compaq repair facility! I've also run into software incompatibilities and the need to update drivers, etc. In short, computer power comes with computer headaches. And, more generally speaking, you don't want to know how many types of memory cards, connectors, and processors there are in PDA land.

Next page > Personal Navigators continued > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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