Earthmate GPS with Street Atlas 2003

Review by Crile Carvey


This package seems to be a pretty good value. Is it just me, or are you amazed at the falling prices for GPS solutions? Simple GPS has somehow become a commodity item. At this rate, you may soon have GPS hardware embedded into your kid's Gameboy!

Included for around $129 is a GPS receiver, a USB cable, and street mapping software that covers the entire U.S. Not included, and absolutely necessary, is a portable computer with an available USB port. The receiver has no display. It is a small, simple yellow box about the length and width of a credit card and one inch thick.

The unit also works with popular PDA's, with either Palm or PocketPC operating systems. This review does not cover the PDA integration or software - but stay tuned, because it seems like a natural fit due to the small form factor.

Form Factor

The GPS unit, which this review will henceforth refer to as the "cookie", is compact and small enough to haul around without a problem. It weighs a measly 2 ounces. Here is what it looks like, sitting on my plastic laminate desktop. I dropped a quarter in there for sizing. Rather diminutive, eh?

Hmmm... I can't figure out what the suction cup is for. There is no mention of it in any of the documentation.

It sure won't stick to anything in my car, except glass, and sticking it to the windshield just hangs the cord up where it blocks your vision, so who knows? I suspect the engineers had a good reason for demanding that it be included in the box, but apparently the documentation and marketing people never caught on.

Interfaces and Configurations

There are a refreshing number of ways to set things up. In a nice modular sort of way, the DeLORME (yep, that is the officially capitalization) folks have most of us covered. You can use a laptop or PDA for display and input, and you can use USB, serial, or Bluetooth for connectivity. There are also interesting-sounding combinations of these that can be set up. For example, how about setting the GPS cookie on the dashboard, then sitting in the back seat with a Bluetooth-equipped PDA grabbing real-time positioning data from a Bluetooth adapter hooked up to the cookie?

The most common hookup, and the one that we tested, is to plug the cookie into the USB port of a regular old laptop. The unit then gets its power from the USB cable. If your older laptop does not have a USB port, you'll have to purchase a separate cable ($30) that also includes a cigarette lighter adapter (oops, I mean a "12 volt power takeoff") plug for power.

If you connect to a PDA, the cookie can't get its power from the USB cable, so there is a battery-powered pack that ships with the handheld bundles (about $100 more than the laptop bundle). It uses either 4-AAA batteries (said to last about 10 hours) or a rechargeable Lithium battery pack (another $50) that lasts 7-12 hours. The optional Bluetooth unit uses a little more power.

If you will be using the Bluetooth capabilities, you will find the battery pack integrated into the Bluetooth cradle.

Be Careful Out There

There are warnings in the packaging reminding us that it is not a good idea to use this while driving alone. It is more suited to use by a dedicated navigator than it is for quick glances by the driver. I've got to agree - unless you can pull over and stop, you won't get much out of this except a general idea of where you are on a highway. There is, however, a largish green arrow that highlights your current position on the screen, and it is probably reasonable to glance over once in a while - no worse than reviewing your fuel gauge.
Unfortunately, the included voice navigation feature is not ready for prime time, as I explain below. If the voice navigation worked as advertised, you could just set the laptop in the passenger's seat and navigate by following the voice prompts.

DeLORME also sells a flexible easel that installs in your vehicle and holds a laptop. They call it a "jotto." Kind of a cool idea, but we didn't test it.

From their sales materials, it looks like you'd have to give up the passenger seat to install it, but take a look here if you are a professional road warrior.

Installation hassles

The installation program was not as well written as it could have been. I encountered several annoying bugs, inconsistencies, and general poor installation practices while setting up the software. But overall, the installation works ok, and if you can ignore the awkwardness, you'll end up with a functional installation.

1. The installation program presents you with a confusing choice between two options, with a very poor explanation. This radio button implies that if I ever want to use non-DeLORME software, I need to choose option 2. So wanting future flexibility, I choose that option and continue.
Oops! Shouldn't have done that - now they throw a scary warning at you. What the heck does it mean? If I have both DeLORME apps and non-DeLORME apps, which do I choose? I sure don't want all those nice features disabled, so I cancel out and have to start over. Yeccch.

There were several more similar problems with the setup program, including being forced to register twice, an odd configuration choice concerning something they call the "Handheld tab", and most troubling, the program insisted on overwriting system files with older versions.

The latter problem resulted in an endless loop that required a reboot. Also of note - this reviewer was unable to get a good install on Windows Server 2000. Things finally worked on Windows XP Home. It is unlikely that too many folks are running W2k server anyhow, so we'll let this slide...

Techie Details

I am not a qualified GPS engineer or Electrical Engineer, but I was impressed with the claims on the manufacturer's web site. This is a nicely miniaturized product that still does the good things that we have come to expect from modern GPS hardware. It is 12-channel, WAAS-capable, and consumes little power.

"At the heart of the new Earthmate is the SiRFstar IIe low-power chipset, with cold-start times of less than 45 seconds and special technology providing improved GPS tracking in weak signal conditions. This chip set requires 75% less power to operate than comparable chips."
... say the DeLORME engineers, and it sounds good to me. More specs can be found here.


When you start the application, as you'd expect, a map covers most of the screen real estate. That's just as it should be. But what you don't expect, and what you also get, is a small sort of control panel area at the bottom of the window, organized by functional groups into nine tabs like this:

The tabbed interface is a little unusual but works well. Unfortunately, there is no Windows menu at the top of the pane, and the familiar "File/Open" isn't there to get you started. Nor is it the now equally familiar web-style interface with hyperlinks and graphics. Oh well, with a little adjustment, the tabbed "dashboard" works fine. The functions on the tabs are grouped logically, so it is straightforward to find what you are looking for.


The coolest thing about this software / hardware kit is to watch the little green arrow keep track of where you are on the road. It can optionally auto-center the display so that your location is always in the center of the display, or rotate the map so that your direction of travel, rather than North, is at the top of the map. The unit also calculates your speed in real-time.

One thing that was not immediately obvious was that you must press a button on the "GPS" tab to "start" the GPS unit. This seems obtuse, as the primary purpose of this software, from the kit purchaser's perspective, is to interact with the Earthmate GPS unit.

The GPS tab will also optionally keep a log of the GPS tracking values, as well as display graphically which satellites are locked in at any given moment.


Your experience may vary, but the metadata provided with this software does not have a very good idea of secondary roads where we tested the unit. Practically speaking, it is enough to know that unpaved roads are unlikely to be anywhere near accurate enough for practical use of this software in a rural environment. For example, as we traversed a 17-mile section of a highway in Southern Wyoming, we passed over 25 non-existent roads that showed on the map, yet did not correspond to any feature we could see within a mile.

On the other hand, accuracy for navigating Interstates, highways and city streets is fine. We were able to find any street in each of the three test cities we visited. For the technically inclined, a review on this site explains the map data sources that DeLORME uses.


Route generation is simple using the "Route" tab. There are several methods to specify a start and a stop location, including place name searches and a simple click-on-the-spot method. A "calculate" button then puts together a route based on your preferences. The route generation is fully parameterized, allowing you to enter preferences for a whole host of things from start times to fuel tank capacity.

The planned route includes suggested fuel stops and overnight stays. It does not seem to have up-to-date road construction information, which this reviewer has found to be a helpful feature of competing products such as Microsoft's Streets and Maps.

Voice Navigation

The program comes with support for Microsoft's speech generation and recognition system. A "Voice" tab even lets you choose the personality of the speaker, from "female whisper" to "Mike in stadium".

Unfortunately, the navigation system does not work very well. Consistently, the voice would tell us to turn at inappropriate times. This feature holds a lot of promise but does not seem ready for prime time. We did not test the speech recognition, which purports to understand voice commands that control the software. Unless you have a very quiet interior, it seems unlikely that this feature would be useful while driving.


All in all, this is an unbelievable bargain to get a usable navigation system for your next big road trip. The user interface is intuitive, the maps are amazingly complete, and the bundle price can't be beat.

Although rural coverage is poor, most folks aren't going to be hauling this on their backcountry trips anyway.

For anyone willing to lay a laptop on the front seat, the DeLORME / Earthmate provides a simple, inexpensive route to GPS-enabling your vehicle. You could pay this much for a simple set of maps!

Questions? Comments? Corrections?  Please email Crile Carvey