PDA Pundit: Palm Add-On Gets GPS Right, Mostly

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As someone fortunate enough to have a two-block commute to work, I'm not in my car very frequently, let alone lost and in need of direction. But when I do drive, it's occasionally to a place I've never visited before--and then you'll see me clutching detailed Mapquest printouts, with most of the little optional turn maps. I just hate not knowing precisely where I'm going, and maps provide a measure of security you don't get from a friend's well-meant but usually imprecise verbal instructions. ("Turn right at the second Burger King--or is it a KFC now?")

Of course, an in-dash GPS navigation system would be even better: no more worrying about whether you're properly matching up the real-world streets to those printouts. My friend got one of these systems when he bought a new car a while back, and now whenever he gives me a lift to someplace new, I am green with envy over its large color LCD display, the comforting, authoritative manufactured speech with which it dispenses real-time guidance ("In. 100. Feet. Turn. Left."), and the menus that make it easy to identify a location, be it a street address, an attraction, or a business. But the cost of installing an after-market system in my going-on-13-year-old Honda would probably exceed the worth of the car itself--and as I said, I don't drive around enough to justify the expense.

Still, I was intrigued when a Palm representative called to ask if I was interested in reviewing the Palm Bluetooth GPS Navigator, a new Global Positioning System kit intended for in-car use with Bluetooth-enabled Palm devices. I was even more intrigued when I heard the cost: $249, which includes maps of the United States. The price seemed right, but would the thing actually be usable, in the real world, with my Palm Treo 650? What about battery life? And would the maps be readable on a fairly small screen?

Blast From the Recent Past

I received a preproduction version of the kit for evaluation. It arrived on my desk in a plain white box, about the size of a slightly wide shoebox, and didn't inspire much confidence. When I opened it up, I found a tangle of equipment, cables, and software, but not much in the way of documentation. I did find a fold-out multi-language guide to charging the device, either through a PC using the included USB cable or in a car using the included automotive charger, which plugs into the cigarette lighter. The shipping product has a printed manual, however.

(Time out for a rant: Why don't car manufacturers just bite the bullet and call the "cigarette lighter" a "charging port"? Then they could offer an actual cigarette lighter as an extra-cost option, which would delight nonsmokers, make a little extra money off the smokers, and reflect the increasing real-world use of the port. End of rant.)

Palm's GPS receiver, about the size of a squished hockey puck, was one of the smallest items in the box. It bore the recently discarded PalmOne logo; apparently the first batch of units was manufactured before the company changed its name back to Palm.

Anyway, before I could get going I had to install the included software on a PC in order to get it on my Treo. The software is TomTom Navigator, a well-known and respected GPS application for handhelds. It comes with a half-dozen CDs' worth of maps covering the United States and Canada. Unless you own a Palm device with an enormous amount of storage, like a LifeDrive or a Tungsten T5, you'll need a Secure Digital Card or MultiMediaCard to hold the software and maps--the more maps you want to carry with you, the more space you'll need. The TomTom Web site has a page listing the available maps and how much space each one requires to help you calculate the extra storage to buy.

Installation of the desktop software went smoothly. I didn't have to transfer maps since Palm kindly provided me with a 128MB SD Card with maps for the West Coast preinstalled, but I did need to sync up my Treo so I could launch TomTom Navigator from the home screen. (It starts automatically every time you insert the SD/MMC card with the maps).

TomTom Navigator installed two icons on my Treo's main menu. The new Navigator icon to launch the app was self-explanatory; but a day or two later I noticed that I had two icons labeled "Contacts." Both still had address-book images, but on the second one TomTom had superimposed its red handprint logo. It turns out that the software turns all your contact entries into destinations, even the ones for which you don't have a street address. The idea is that, instead of launching Navigator and then using its menus to input an address that's in your contacts database, you can simply tap the TomTom created-Contacts icon and select your destination from the list: If it has a street address, Navigator launches and guides you to that destination.

Once the desktop software is installed, it's time to hook up the GPS receiver for charging through the USB cable; alternatively, you can use the automotive charger if you don't mind waiting 20 minutes or so for the charge to complete.

After that, you must partner your Bluetooth-enabled Palm device with the GPS unit. You do this through the Bluetooth utility that came with the Palm. Without documentation, the process was a little confusing: You must choose to install the GPS as a "trusted device," which requires supplying an unlock code. However, once the Palm PR guy walked me through the process it was a snap, and the manual that accompanies the shipping kit has screens to help out.

On the Road

Now I was ready to try out the kit. The kit includes a cradle that fits on the end of a gooseneck with a suction-cup base that attached easily and firmly to my windshield. (The kit also provides a smooth plastic base that you can affix to your dashboard so you can attach the gooseneck's suction cup there instead.) I slipped my Treo into the cradle, which has adjustable sides to accommodate a range of device widths. I never felt the Treo was in danger of dropping or being dislodged. The adjustable gooseneck allowed me to position the Treo well within eyeshot, without covering up a lot of the world outside. The holder never showed any signs that it might come loose.

The final piece of hardware was perhaps the smartest: The recharger that plugs into the cigarette lighter has two attached cables, one for the GPS receiver and another for my Treo 650. This eased my concern about excessive battery consumption.

As I was hooking up the GPS unit I noticed it has yet another port, for an external antenna--but I found no such device in the kit. After spending a couple of hours trying to figure out if I'd misplaced it, I called the Palm PR guy and found out that the antenna isn't included, and Palm isn't offering one. Supposedly you can buy a standard third-party antenna for $20 to $30. But I placed the GPS receiver on my dashboard, and it seemed to work fine without an external antenna--once it started working, that is.

Easy Setup

When I turned on the GPS receiver and launched the TomTom software on my Treo, the first thing I noticed was that it won't run unless you've already put the SD Card with the maps into the Treo's media slot. There are a couple of basic setup screens in which you choose your preferred language (the software includes at least two dozen options), system for distance measurement (e.g., miles, as opposed to kilometers), and the voice that provides spoken navigation guidance.

Once you've set these preferences, the app goes into moving-map mode--but initially the map is grayed out and stationary because the GPS receiver hasn't acquired the satellite signals it needs to determine where you are. In my tests, this process seemed unnecessarily time-consuming: As my husband's longtime copilot in a small plane, I am used to using handheld GPS devices, and I know it takes a minute or two for these gizmos to pick up signals and start doing their job. But for minutes on end, Palm's GPS unit showed no signs of picking up signals, let alone establishing my location. Eventually the GPS kicked in, the map began displaying colors, and I was in business--but it seemed to take at least 3 to 5 minutes, and sometimes I had to cycle the power a couple of times to kick-start the thing.

I asked the Palm PR guy about this, and he said that when you turn on the GPS it's best not to move while it's acquiring satellite signals. It's true that I typically launched the application while in my indoor parking garage, where satellite signals can't penetrate, and that I didn't stop when I pulled out of the garage (hey, I didn't want to block traffic!). Still, the GPS receiver I tested seemed to take an awfully long time to pick up signals.

Extras Aplenty

Maps displayed in TomTom GPS software are easy to read.
Maps displayed in TomTom GPS software are easy to read.
When Palm's GPS receiver finally began working, however, it worked wonderfully. I liked my virtual guide Lori's businesslike voice. I loved the moving map display with its clear turn arrows and written instructions--as a backup, of course, but large enough to see without eyestrain. My fears about the Treo screen being too small were groundless.

A couple of minor problems slightly marred the experience. When I reached my destination, often I had to drive a little more to search for parking. I would have liked being able to continue to consult the map without getting a lot of further instructions (the unit always seemed to think I'd gotten lost again). Why not include a "Done" button on the navigation screen? Right now I either have to exit the app completely or go to the application's menu, which can be awkward when driving solo. Also, if you either intentionally or inadvertently exit the application, there's no easy way to get going again--you have to relaunch the Navigator application. I would have liked a way to return to the application with one tap or one button.

TomTom's software includes optional extras, called TomTom Plus services, such as real-time traffic reports, weather reports, and even funny navigator voices. These generally are available only to an Internet-connected Palm device. Some of the extras are available by subscription only; some are free; and some just eat into your data minutes or bandwidth allowance, if you're connected via a cellular network. And speaking of cellular networks, if you're connecting the GPS to a Treo, you cannot make calls while you're using the TomTom software: The Palm PR guy says this is a safety feature.

I appreciate that it's not a good idea to make phone calls while driving, with or without a GPS navigation system. But what about Treo apps that aren't as dangerous on the road? You might want to use your Treo as a portable audio player, for example, but you cannot use it to play music while you're running the navigation software.

Overall, though, I'd rate Palm's GPS kit as a strong candidate for drivers who want their handheld to double as a navigation tool. TomTom's software is a strong incentive--and if you already own a Bluetooth-enabled Palm, it's certainly cheaper to buy the Palm kit than to purchase a dedicated GPS system such as Garmin's soon-to-be-released StreetPilot i3, which at $429 is actually relatively inexpensive for such a system.

I wasn't surprised to hear that Palm's online store has already sold out of the first batch of Bluetooth GPS Navigator GPS kits; at this writing, you can only get it bundled with a Tungsten E2. But cheer up--Palm will eventually restock the kit.

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