Saturday, October 20, 2007

Buying a GPS

I've been meaning to write this for a while, but as you've probably guessed, I've been pretty busy. I had an experience a couple of months ago. I was teaching a Linux troubleshooting class in Santa Clara, and the client apparently decided that their instructors need better than average treatment. I was a little surprised when the girl at the rental car counter said, "well, it looks like you have a mid-size car reserved." She looked at the computer for a moment and said, not quite to herself, "let's see, what kind of car should we give you? How about an Impala?" (Side note: now that was a fun car to drive.) She asked me if I wanted a GPS and before I could answer she said, "actually, it looks like [Client X] thinks you should have a GPS. Oh, and [Client X] also wants you to know that you are to return the car with a full tank, rather than having us do it." As it turns out, [Client X] doesn't enjoy paying double for gas.

My GPS was a model by Magellan that I'm assuming was made specifically for Hertz. It was already mounted on the dashboard when I got to the car, and I spent a few extra minutes playing with it before leaving the rental lot. I gave it the address to my hotel and took off, not really knowing what to expect. By the time I left the rental lot, the voice was already giving me turn-by turn directions, generally with enough warning for me to get into the correct lane beforehand. By the time I got to the hotel, I was hooked. I arrived at the hotel just after 10am, convinced them to let me check in early, took a quick nap, and then spent much of the rest of the day driving around with the GPS.

Now, you should know some things about me at this point. I hate traffic. I also hate being lost. Being lost in heavy traffic really kills me. And unfortunately, I'm norotiously bad with dealing with more than one driving instruction at once. When I drove to New Hampshire, it took me 5 1/2 hours to get from the Vermont border to Dover, NH. That's pretty sad. How well does this work when I travel for work? Generally speaking I get a hotel close to the training center, so it's rarely an issue during the week. But high-traffic areas, such as California, stress me out just by thinking about them. Armed with a GPS, my stress levels dropped considerably (though I still hate heavy traffic).

I knew that when I came back from Santa Clara, I would be spending the next two weeks in Boston. Despite famously crazy traffic, I've loved Boston ever since I lived in New England. But I also knew that a GPS would be vital to my survival there. By the time I got back to Utah that weekend, I had already been doing research. Saturday morning became an extension of that research, as I drove from store to store to find out which GPS I would be buying that day.

Before long it became obvious that regardless of which model I bought, I would be doing so at Best Buy. I hate them like poison, but not nearly as much as certain "W" stores, so at least I am willing to buy from them on occassion. My first salesman knew next to nothing about the products, and I probably took a little too much delight in hazing him:

Me: How do I update the maps on this unit?
Salesweenie: Oh, you can just pick up the latest map software on CD.
Me: I'm seeing that this software is for Windows or Mac. How do I update the software on my Linux box?
Salesweenie: Well, um. I'm sure that, um. Well, you might be able to run this anyway under, um, Linux.
Me: You are familiar with Linux, right?
Salesweenie: Well, yeah! Of course! Um. I don't know how well this works with Linux.
Me: Well, this unit also has a memory stick slot. Can I buy an SD card with the new maps?
Salesweenie: Oh, um. No, I think that's only for photos. And maybe MP3's. No, wait. This unit doesn't do MP3. I think it's just for photos.

After a few stores and a little online research, I decided the following, based on what is likely entirely biased opinion: Garmin is the best, with Magellan being a very close second. Third is Tom Tom, which was largely considered to be a joke by every salesperson I talked to. One recounted that a customer told him that if you followed Tom Tom's directions blindly, then you would end up in a ditch. Other brands were barely worth mentioning to them, and they seemed almost embarassed to be carrying them.

I went home and thought about GPS units. It finally occurred to me that the best way to decide was to taken them for a test drive. Unfortunately, these stores all seemed to have a very strict return policy, and then chances of any store letting me borrow a GPS for half an hour were pretty slim. In fact, it was starting to look like buying a GPS was a pretty serious (and expensive) gamble. I thought about the most important features to me, what my price range was, and which models were actually supposed to be in stock.

The most important thing to me was turn-by-turn voice navigation. Having to look at something other than the road while driving, especially in places like Boston, is pretty dangerous. The directions needed to be accurate, and that was going to be a gamble. I also needed a decent interface, which was just about the only thing I could experience firsthand at a store, other than pricing and availability. I also wanted a stand-alone unit that was thin and easy to pack in my luggage. My boss loves his unit that plugs into his Treo, but that just seems weird to me. Until my Treo can manage windowing, I'm not interested.

I eventually decided upon the Garmin Nuvi 200, which was advertised on Best Buy's website and on their shelves at about $300 (though I couldn't help but notice that the Best Buy website on the in-store computers priced it at about $350). When I went back to Best Buy to pick one up, I decided to test the grey matter of another salesperson. This one fared a lot better:

Me: I don't have Windows or Mac, I'm runinng Linux. How can I update the maps?
Salesguy: Not a problem. Head over to Garmin's website and pick up an SD card with the updated maps. Then platform won't be an issue at all.
Me: I thought the SD slot was just for photos.
Salesguy: No, of course not. That would be kind of useless, wouldn't it?

Unfortunately, they did not have the Nuvi 200 in stock. They did however have the Nuvi 200W for about $500. It was, as near as I could tell, exactly the same unit but with a screen that was an extra 2 inches wide, at about $100 an inch. Fortunately, the Best Buy 12 miles up the road claimed to have a Nuvi 200 in stock.

It took me nearly 10 minutes to track down somebody there to actually sell me a unit, and then they told me that they were out of stock. I pointed at one on the shelf and asked about it, and they gave it a surprised look and told me that they guessed they could sell me that one. With the box in hand, I checked some last minute specs and discovered that a car A/C adapter was listed as one of the contents, but not a wall adapter. I asked if there was a wall adapter available and after three associates that knew absolutely nothing about any of their GPS units in general, I was assured that there would be a wall adapter inside. I was also reminded that I had 10 days to return the unit, and they would only take it back if it were unopened or defective, and that there would be a restocking fee in either case.

The plastic shell was nearly impossible to penetrate, and I was not able to play with my new toy until I had gotten home and pulled out the sharp instruments of my kitchen. By then it was late, and I had to get to bed so that I could wake up in time to get to the airport. I did notice immediately however that there was no wall adapter. I also noticed that the car adapter was USB-based, so I was probably okay anyway.

I didn't get the chance to play with my new toy on the way to the airport. In fact, my first test with it was from the Manchester, NH airport to Westford, MA. It took a few minutes to pick up any satellite reception, and then promptly directed me to the nearest toll road, even though I had the option to avoid toll roads selected, and there was another route available. The voice-based navigation worked well, right up until I actually got to the hotel. Then it told me to take a turn that didn't seem to be there (it was almost midnight, and the turn was actually there). The next few frustrating minutes the voice almost seemed to fight with me as I ignored her seemingly-inane promptings and got increasingly lost. As it turns out, Massachussetts roads in general aren't the friendliest in the word, and my GPS was doing its best.

The next day worked better. I got more used to the directions, and we got along well. At one point I discovered that there was a voice language option for "British English", and I never looked back. The woman's voice took on a slight accent, and suddenly she seemed to have a voice that was appropriate to the situation. She became a British dominatrix bent on consuming my soul, a woman so evil as to make Angela Lansbury in the original Manchurian Candidate look like Angela Lansbury in Beauty and the Beast. And yet, we now get along. Mostly.

Her directions aren't always the best. And yet, they almost mirror the directions that I get from Google Maps. This denotes to me a flaw in the local road system, more than in the technology. As you may recall, my first trip to Houston began in horror, as I painfully worked my way around I-10 with its series of exits which had all changed in the few months between the release of my maps and my time in Texas. This was not Garmin's fault. I also don't believe it was Garmin's fault when in West Monroe, LA, the evil woman informed me that I had arrived at my hotel as I pulled into the parking lot of an IHOP. I called the hotel and told them that I was lost, and that I was sitting in an IHOP parking lot in West Monroe. With no other information, the woman at the hotel told me to turn right as I left the IHOP and keep driving until I saw them. There were only two or three blocks away, obscured by other buildings. When I checked Google Maps later, the hotel's address also pointed to the IHOP.

The unit is still largely useless in Houston. She always tells me to take the toll road to and from the airport, despite two other routes which even the locals recommended instead. When driving on a service road, she will often decided that I am on the interstate (or vise versa) and give me directions that are essentually useless to me. But in Louisiana, she was dead on about everything, except for getting to and from the Monroe regional airport. Again, that's not her fault. The roads to and from that airport seemed to have been designed by sadists.

I still wish I would have had the chance to test other models. This one has been worth every penny, and I don't regret having bought a GPS in general. But I can't help but wonder if I could have done better at my price range, or if GPS units don't really get good enough to be proud of until you start spending about double what I did.


  1. I laughed at your description of the Best Buy salesweenies. It kills me how they use the great service and knowledge of their sales staff as their big sales pitch these days. We have yet to encounter one that was very helpful or knowledgable. It likes like you found one. One.

  2. Joseph, I have a question for you. I'm sure you are really busy, but I just wanted to know what you thought of Windows Vista. We just got a new comp. with Vista on it and are getting all kinds of errors. The more I look around, the more I hear stuff about it and none of it's good. (We are going to take it in and have it looked at, but now I'm afraid that anything they do to try and fix it will only make it worse.) What do you think about it?


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