GPSing with the Magellan GOLD
by Fred Thorlin

My handheld GPS (global positioning system) has become integral to my travel strategy.  I no longer know the frustration of getting lost.  When I use a rental car out of town, I note in the GPS the location of the rental return site and don't need to worry about noting landmarks and reading maps to find my way back.  I just follow the GPS arrow.  This worked perfectly until on a recent trip to an unfamiliar area.  Returning to the airport I discovered I forgot to note the rental return site.  Panic!  Fortunately I had just received a review unit of Magellanís,, newest line of personal GPSs, Meridian.  I knew it had a built-in street map of the entire USA, but how detailed could it be.  By George!  It showed the location of the airport and that was all I needed.  UPS and GPS saved me.

The general availability of GPS signals is a huge technological opportunity. I just learned that Steve Wozniak, the Apple Computer founder, has started a company to capitalize on it and is getting VC funding.  Magellan is a leader in the consumer GPSs market.  Magellan, now a division of Thales Navigation, announced the Meridian line of GPSs in November.  The models are designated GPS, Gold, Marine and Platinum.  The GPS has only a 2 MB built in map whereas the others have 16 MB.  Only the Platinum has a true digital compass, recording thermometer and barometer built in.  The Marine's built-in database focuses on marine navigational aids instead of the streets and highways of the others.  These are the only differences.  I field-tested the Gold unit.

Earlier Magellan GPSs have recorded your path on a featureless background.  The Meridians display it on the street map.  The built-in map of the world is amazing.  In the USA it doesn't just show major highways; major streets are included.  For example it shows the intersection of 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. as well as Westheimer and Hillcroft in Houston.  To enter a destination into my old GPS I had to look up its latitude and longitude and enter that data by scrolling up and down a list of characters.  With the Meridian I can scroll, zoom in and out, and pick the destination off of the map with a press of the GOTO button.  This makes GPSs more viable as standalone, general use consumer products.

All of the Meridians can be expanded with SD memory cards. Magellanís MapSend Streets and Destinations USA program enables you to load complete street maps of any area of the USA into these cards via the data cable packed out with each Meridian.  Using a 32 MB card I loaded a section of the national map that covered all of Houston, TX.  That consumed less than a fourth of the available memory. I then added Austin, TX and the northern half of California! The information I requested was not just streets but also all of the points of interest, POI.  This includes restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions and many other categories.  Unfortunately gas stations and medical facility categories are not provided.  POIs appear as icons on the map display.  Move the cursor over a restaurant icon and the restaurant's name appears at the bottom of the screen.  Press Enter and the street address, Zip code and telephone number appear.  A related feature of the Meridian is determining the dozen or so nearest category members, e.g. restaurants, to any location.

New with the Meridian line is altitude profiling.  This feature records the altitude along your path.  You can display your altitude chart from any screen.  I enjoy checking this during airplane flights to see the altitudes I have been flying. On long flights I often see interesting features below I would like to get information about, but in the past I didnít have a clear idea of where I was.  By marking the location with the GPS I can locate the feature on mapping software when I return. Delorme Street Atlas, Road Warrior Edition is particularly good for this activity.  Another reassuring thing I do with a GPS on flights is verifying the flight is going where I want to go as well as estimating the arrival time.  The use of GPSs during flights is permitted by many airlines.  A stewardess challenged my using it on a Delta flight.  Later the captain apologized to me for the error noting their procedures manual explicitly permits their in-flight use. A Continental pilot told me that many pilots use handheld GPSs as backups in the cockpit.

When I give it to some one to play with the first complaint is ďthe compass isn't workingĒ.  This is only a misunderstanding.  But you must be able to walk and read a compass at the same time.  This is because GPSs, except for the Meridian Platinum, (and the Garmin Summit,  VISTA, and GPS-76S),  use changes in the users position to determine the direction of north relative to the direction of motion.  Walking, or moving, at 1.5 mph is fast enough to get the compass to register accurately.  That is a little over two feet-per-second, not even a fast walk.  Magellan has heard this complaint so often that they have elected to install a, for real, digital compass in the Meridian Platinum model.  This device uniquely uses a 3 axis compass sensor so that the user does not have to hold the Platinum level when using the compass mode as in Garmin models.  To determine location  using GPS satellites,  it must still be outside like all GPSs.

The only weak point in the Meridian is the User Manual.  Spelling, grammar and factual errors are troublesome.  The Help built into the device is surprisingly helpful, although not context sensitive. Fortunately the device is so pleasant to work with that you wonít be giving the manual much of a workout.  Further, Thales was prescient in distributing the manual in CD-ROM format.  This will make corrections easy to distribute.

The refinement of the Meridian units over prior products is easily seen.  The screen is larger and easier to read.  The display is easily legible in direct sunlight; a serious problem in most Personal Handheld Computers.    These units function well with rechargeable batteries that produce lower voltages than disposables. Data entry is now done with a two-dimensional keyboard map with upper and lower case.  This is a big improvement over the earlier Model 315 I used where you scrolled up and down through the all capitals character set..  Almost as important as the gee whiz functionality is the attention paid to the package.  The rubberized enclosure grips well when placed on a dashboard.  The double latched, O-ring sealed battery compartment is seriously waterproof, easily opened, well labeled, and also holds the SD memory card. The only thing I missed was a lanyard ring.

I trust that I have made it clear that I believe GPSs in general, and the Meridians in particular, are extremely useful devices.  With a GPS in hand, experiencing the intense frustration of getting lost is no longer a possibility.  If I miss a turn or get faulty directions it just doesnít matter anymore.  My GPS will always point to my destination.  My Meridian will even show me the path.

Fred Thorlin is a contract software developer working with Visual Basic and Palm computer environments. He also writes columns on Visual Basic programming and computing on the road.  He can be contacted HERE.

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