Friday, April 13, 2012

The Miracle of GPS

Last fall I was looking over budgets and trying to cut any fixed monthly bills out of the equation, even if it meant spending a little more money in the short term.

I had been paying $40 a month for portable broadband, using a device called a MiFi hotspot. This was a great deal, but I really didn't want to pay it if I could find a way around it. I looked at the reasons that I had that bill: to process credit cards on my iPod and to give me Google Maps when I was in unfamiliar places.

I started asking other vendors how their credit card systems worked and found a great one: North American Bancard. The fee was the same as I paid to for my iPod-based system, and they don't require you to buy the terminal. When new terminal hardware comes out, you can upgrade for free.

Poof! One reason to keep my broadband bill evaporated immediately. Now, the maps. I decided to spend the money and try a dedicated GPS.

Holy Cow!

I searched around for the best deal I could and ended up getting one from an online electronics company running a hefty sale so it cost me about $150 with no monthly fee. That's less than four months of broadband, meaning that I'd own it free and clear and have an extra $40 in my pocket every month after January.

Now that it's paid off and I've had some experience with it, I'll give a little review.

If you travel to unfamiliar places very often, a GPS is worth its weight in gold. Instead of having to look at a tiny iPod screen while I drive and pull over to get new directions every time I veer from the route, I've got a talking navigator who sees my "variations" from the route and gives me clear spoken directions to get me to my destination no matter what.

It also has a useful feature that helps a lot when I have to make multiple stops along the way. I can program every destination into a "trip list" and it will speak out to direct me to each place in order. Do you know how many times I've arrived at a show site and then remembered that I was supposed to stop at Home Depot on the way to get some little booth part? Well, not any more. The GPS directs me to Home Depot, and when I turn it back on, it resumes the directions to get me to the show.

An added bonus to the trip list is that you can tell it how long you expect to be at each destination, and what time you need to arrive, and it will tell you when you need to leave.

And these time estimates aren't based on things like speed limit. In my understanding, one of the privacy trade-offs that we make in using a GPS is that it reports the actual travel speeds of its users back to satellites. This allows the GPS companies to know how fast people actually drive down every road in their databases. These estimates are continually being updated, giving us incredibly accurate trip timing estimates.

There are other nifty features that aren't essential, but sure are nice to have. If you've read my blog for a while, I'm sure you've noticed my inclination to see as far into the future as I can. When I'm traveling, this means guessing how long it's going to take me to get there (or trusting Goole Maps) and continually calculating my arrival time in my head while I drive. Well, guess what!? The GPS does it for me. It's got little programmable indicators off to the side. I have them set for "Current Time", "Arrival Time", and "Elevation". (This helps me see if the straining sound on the engine is a problem or just the fact that I'm climbing up a mountain that somehow looks level compared to the surrounding mountains. On this trip, the GPS showed me that this is why I had one of my boil-overs last year.)

And then there's the gas mileage calculator. Every time I stop for gas, I fill the tank and tell the GPS how much gas I put in. It knows how many miles I've travelled and calculates the gas mileage for me. I'm always in a hurry, but if I wasn't I could set the GPS to calculate routes based on efficient gas mileage. I did this for a while, but found it taking me on winding country highways to avoid faster mountain passes.

Overall, the GPS is like having a passenger along to help make sure I remember where I'm going, look at the map for me if I get lost, and give me clear directions when I'm driving somewhere I don't know.

In choosing a voice for the device, I went with the highest quality voice that it came with, in this case an Australian man whom I've named Dave. When he gives me bad directions, like the time on the way to McMinnville when he didn't tell me that I needed to merge across three lanes of traffic to get to an exit less than 1/2 a mile after getting onto a highway, I can calmly respond to his direction with, "I'm sorry. I can't do that, Dave."


Alsan said...

Mine is named Priscilla only because then I can call her Prissy!

Blossom Merz said...

Hmmm... I wonder if it's something about craftspeople that we feel compelled to name our tools...