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For the Executive Geek On the Go

By George Spafford

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As a consultant, I travel a great deal and that includes driving in unfamiliar areas. One of the dubious pleasures of consulting is getting lost when you are in a rush to a client or trying to catch a flight.

To compensate for this in the past, I used online mapping services to try and chart directions before leaving home. Inevitably the plans would change, I’d leave the printed maps in the last rental car, etc.

After much internal debate, I finally decided to purchase my own global positioning satellite (GPS) receiver to improve my efficiency.

Over the years, reports of inaccuracy and high prices held me back from purchasing a unit, plus I knew that if I waited, costs would come down and there would be improvements in receiver reliability and accuracy. With my frequency of travel on the upswing, the decision was really forced as I had to find a new means to navigate given a constantly flexing schedule. Thus began my journey to purchasing a portable GPS receiver.

My requirements were for the new GPS receiver seemed straightforward. The new unit had to be small and very portable but also with a large-enough color screen that could be read while driving. It needed an accurate U.S. roadway map and have a means to be expanded or upgraded with new data, plus it had to support both an internal rechargeable battery and 12-volt car power.

While researching, it quickly became apparent that the challenge would be due not to the limited number of choices, but instead in selecting the correct unit, as there very many different vendors and models.

(As an aside, one legal issue I encountered is that the states of California and Minnesota do not allow suction cup mounts for anything on windshields. Many GPS vendors offer alternative mounting methods ranging from permanent to portable and this legislation was definitely something to bear in mind.)

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As with many projects these days, the research began by using Google and searching for product reviews, user opinions and so on. I quickly ruled out units with monochrome screens as too hard to read and further re-affirmed my need for a color display. While browsing the web and local electronics stores, two different markets became readily apparent -– units that would only work in a car due to needing to plug-in to the cigarette lighter and portable units really aimed at hikers or infrequent users. My goal was to try and find a GPS that bridged those groups.

Customer Service Counts

Reports on reliability and how well the firms handled customer service factored heavily into my decision-making process. It’s pretty much a given that electronic devices will have problems for one reason or another. How a vendor treats customers and handles issues can make or break a purchase and some vendors were quickly eliminated using that criterion.

After digging for several days, I selected the Garmin Nüvi 350 for my use. With a suggested retail of $857, the price seemed steep, but I quickly found out that Amazon sells the units for $609.95, which is a steep discount.

Regardless of which vendor you buy your unit from, please heed one piece of advice -- use the Garmin website to understand accessories and only then purchase what you need. Resellers don’t always do a good job of explaining dependencies. For example, I needed a specific mounting head to use the friction mount I selected to use in cars. I didn’t realize the dependency until after the first piece arrived and then I had to place another order and wait for it to be delivered.

From a technical perspective, the Nüvi 350 supports a GPS-based location resolution of less than 10 meters, and with Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) enablement it improves to less than 5 meters. The exact accuracy will depend on the number of satellites the receiver can lock on to plus errors introduced by atmospheric interference, receiver clock discrepancies, angle to the satellite, and signal bouncing off objects. I found the internal antenna to be surprisingly sensitive. When others lose signal, the Nüvi frequently can maintain a connection. With that said, being well inside a building definitely blocks connectivity.

From a navigation perspective, the unit supports 400 waypoints and tracks trip information including odometer, timers, average and maximum speed plus estimated arrival time. Moreover, one feature I really like is that it can dynamically reroute to the destination. If I take a different route, then the unit continuously updates its suggested route to get you to your destination given then current location. This is great for missed turns or when just driving around looking at the vicinity of the destination.

One feature by which to judge GPS receivers is how quickly they can acquire a signal. With “warm acquisitions,” meaning little has changed in terms of time or location, the signal can be acquired in less than a second. My unit recovers seemingly as fast as it turns on in those situations. For “cold acquisitions,” wherein there has been a fair amount of delay since the last time the unit was on and/or a lot of travel while off, Garmin reports there may be a 38-second delay.

In my experience, the cold acquisition time with the internal antenna seems to be longer. Moving several hundred miles on a plane and then turning the unit back on at the new airport car rental facility really seems to throw the unit off. In all fairness, that is a subjective observation on my part and not a hard measurement.

The Nüvi is just a tad larger than a pack of cigarettes at 3.87” wide x 2.91” high by .87” deep and fits in a nice, slim leather case. The size is ideal as I can readily carry it in my pocket or computer bag. It has an internal battery that Garmin says can last 4-8 hours. I’ve only used the unit maybe 2-3 hours without plugging into a car or AC outlet so I haven’t reached the limit yet. This has proven very useful in cases where I needed to park the rental car and then walk to the final destination.

Software Upgrades Via Web

Despite its small overall size, the screen is a relatively large 2.8” wide by 2.1” high and is very readable because the screen has a nice 320x240 resolution, plus Garmin does a very good job with using readable fonts and a simulated three-dimensional view of the road. To expand on that, the user interface is very well done and highly intuitive. In fact, other than skimming the manual, I haven’t found the need to read it. The screen is touch-sensitive and the user merely points to what he/she wants to do. This is a strong selling point of the Nüvi.

The software in the Nuvi can be easily upgraded by using Garmin’s Web Updater software that queries at an Internet site for updates and then downloads them to the Nüvi via a USB cable.

In addition to the GPS functionality, the Nüvi differentiates itself with a number of travel-oriented features. In addition to being a MP3 player and JPG picture viewer, the unit includes an elegant world time clock, currency and measurements conversion plus a calculator. Additional data storage and expansion is handled via a SD memory card slot that can be used to hold songs and pictures plus is where additional functionality such as language guides can be loaded. These all serve to reflect that the Nüvi was designed with a traveler in mind.

One final feature to note is that the Nüvi can dynamically reroute the user based on traffic if the user purchases one of the traffic antennas enabling what Garmin calls “Traffic Services.” I just purchased one of the GTM-12 portable antennas and haven’t used it enough to issue an opinion yet, but based on the performance of everything else, I have high hopes for it. The GTM-12 uses the Traffic Message Channel (TMC) from ClearChannel and includes a 15-month subscription. Only certain cities covered, so be sure to investigate this option before purchasing it.

In short, I am very happy with my Nüvi 350 and have used it now for several months in a number of U.S. states and cities without any incidents. My stress level has definitely gone down knowing I can get to where I need or find my way when lost. In my case, the investment has already proven itself to be very worthwhile.