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Pocket PC Navigator - Product Review

Posted in Features on November 1, 2002
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GPS Navigation in the Palm of Your HandFor the longest time, if you wanted to use a GPS plotter off the highway, you needed a computer in your rig. And if you had an open-top rig, you needed a daylight-readable display. Now, Maptech has a real-world solution that works: the Pocket Navigator. With this system running on your Pocket PC, you can navigate, plot routes, view topographic maps, and, with a GPS, place your location on a map and navigate from waypoint to waypoint along a route that you've planned yourself. And best of all, it works great outside, in the sun, where we play.

We have tested a number of handheld GPS plotters in the past, with disappointing results. This system works because it starts with suitable hardware. Unlike many PalmOS-based navigation systems, the Pocket Navigator requires a PocketPC. We tested Pocket Navigator on a current Compaq iPAQ, which uses a transflective color screen; it reflects ambient light just like a piece of paper. Unlike liquid crystal or cathode-ray tube displays, the iPAQ does not require a backlight to be daylight readable. The display reflects regular sunlight. If it's hard to read, just turn it into the sunlight for a better view. The PocketPC also uses a Windows-type of operating system that supports complex software.

Maptech's Pocket Navigator uses the same USGS topographic quad and 1:100,000 area maps from its outstanding Terrain Navigator personal computer-based plotter. In our opinion, the maps offer the highest resolution quality of any topo map available in the retail (read: reasonably priced) market.

Pocket Navigator (PN) does a number of nifty things. First, it supports the downloading and viewing of the Terrain Navigator maps into your PocketPC. As we mentioned, the PocketPC operating system is fairly robust for a handheld computer, so PN allows you to load the maps directly into the PocketPC's internal memory or to any of the various memory cards the PocketPC supports.

To use PN, you begin by loading maps into the PocketPC (the number of which is limited only by the size of the memory you have in your PocketPC). You can create waypoints and routes either in your PC or in the PocketPC. Routes and waypoints created in one machine can be easily transferred to the other.

GPS navigation is accomplished by hooking up your GPS to the serial port of the PocketPC using a patch cord Maptech offers. Another, more elegant, solution is the one we used. Maptech sells a Navman GPS sleeve for the iPAQ. This sleeve is not only a GPS, but it also has a compact flash card slot to hold map data. We found this set up to be really slick.

One might think the 2-1/4x3-inch display would be too small for real-world use, but the graphic quality of the display, coupled with the superior quality of the maps, allows for very clear images, even when zooming. As you zoom out to see more detail, many mapping systems become cluttered. With the Maptech system, though, you simply switch to the smaller scale 1:100,000 map.

Operating the Pocket Navigator is extremely simple. Once the PocketPC is loaded, slip the iPAQ into the Navman sleeve and boot up the computer. Starting the Pocket Navigator software automatically boots up the GPS sleeve. In a minute or two, the GPS will have acquired sufficient satellites and data to locate you on a map.

One feature of the display that we could not show here is the time vector display. As you move across the map, a vector line extends from your current position in the direction of travel. You can set the display for the number of minutes of travel you wish the line to denote. We found this feature to be very helpful, both when hiking and in the vehicle.

We have not yet mentioned one of the best features of this system: portability. The entire iPAQ with the GPS sleeve measures 3-1/2x7x2 inches. When you don't need the system, simply drop it in your pocket. The down side? Well, this system is not cheap. An iPAQ suitable for off-highway outdoor use is about $450 street price. Pocket Navigator with the Navman sleeve is $375 from Maptech. Pocket Navigator software is about $100. And Maptech's Terrain Navigator topo maps range in price from $100 to $200, depending on the size of the area you want to visit. All in all, you're looking at about $1,000. Not cheap, but this is an honest, daylight-readable, topographic navigator that really will fit in your pocket.

Sources

Compaq Computer Corp.
Houston, TX 77269-2000
Maptech Inc.
Andover, MA 01810-1122

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