Pilot to Co-Pilot

If you believe the current crop of TV ads, you have to own a new Lexus or a Beamer to have access to bleeding edge car navigation technology. Truth is, for as little as a few hundred bucks, you can have a sophisticated GPS (Global Positioning System) unit that will even read your travel directions for you.

There haven't been many earth-shattering advances in consumer GPS technology over the past year, but the systems have gotten much cheaper, smaller, and a number of useful features have been added. Here are a few of our favorite units, from the cheapest to the most expensive.

DeLorme's Earthmate is a tiny box about the size of a cigarette pack that plugs into your laptop, Palm Pilot or Windows CE handheld. Once connected to your computer and the included mapping software, the Earthmate begins to scan the skies to "acquire" three of more orbiting GPS satellites. The Earthmate uses these sats to fix your position and to display your location on a digital map. As you move, a series of arrow trails on the map show you where you're headed. The laptop version of the Earthmate's mapping software can actually speak directions to you (in that synthesized voice that sounds like Stephen J. Hawking is your co-pilot). For the Palm and WinCE versions, you have to use a special program to transfer the maps for the areas you're going to be traveling through from your PC to your handheld. And Stephen J. Hawking doesn't come along for the ride. One of the best features of the Earthmate is that it's portable so you can use it in your car with a laptop and then use it in the great outdoors via your handheld computer. The Earthmate for laptops is $200. The Earthmate with all the additional hardware and software for Palms and WinCE handhelds is $220.

Garmin, a pioneer in consumer GPS, sells a wide variety of handheld and dash-mounted navigation systems. StreetPilot ($500) is a (removable) dash-mounted unit that has maps of all the major US highways, rivers and lakes built into it. Additional maps can be purchased on CD-ROM and transferred to the StreetPilot via your PC. The screen on the StreetPilot is, unfortunately, black and white which can make the maps hard to read at a glance. For an additional two hundred dollars, the ColorMap version can help brighten and clarify your routes.

If you're more interested in street cred than penny pinching, the Clarion AutoPC will not only help you navigate, but will diagnose your car troubles, keep your address book and nab your email. All of this built into a high-quality car stereo radio/CD player. The problem with the AutoPC is the price. The basic unit sells for around $1300. That basically buys you the stereo and the base Windows CE computer. All of the other features, including the GPS navigation, will cost you from $60 to $400. It's also a Windows machine and an early edition of a new technology, so it's not without its limitations and frustrations.

Regardless of which GPS device you buy, you can't get help but feel like you've truly entered the future as you tool down the highway following your progress on an on-board computer. These navigation systems are far from fool proof though, so whatever you do, don't ever forget to read a good ol' "tree skin" street map.

-- Gareth Branwyn