First Look: Two Sides of GPS

Tracey Capen
PC World
Saturday, April 14, 2007; 4:32 AM

Handheld GPS units fall loosely into two categories: those for street navigation and those for use where the pavement ends. Two of the latest examples of this Paris Hilton-Grizzly Adams split are the stylish Pocket Loox N100 from Navigon (codeveloped with Fujitsu Siemens Computers) and DeLorme's rough-and-tumble Earthmate GPS PN-20.

I tested a late preproduction version of the Loox. Silver and white, and roughly the size of a classic iPod, the device looks like a GPS that Apple might produce. Not only can this 4-ounce unit tell you how to get from here to there, but it can simultaneously play digital music to enhance the journey; the occasional voice directions play over your music. With GPS navigation off, the Loox lets you view photos and video or kill time with a couple of included games. You might be wondering: Is this a serious navigator with some multimedia features thrown in, or a multimedia player with GPS added on? Based on my experience, I'd say the former--the Loox has good navigation but is pretty thin as a multimedia player (all of the media has to reside on the included miniSD Card, which holds the map data as well).

As a navigation system, the Loox is about average compared with competing units. It's accurate and includes detailed street maps and points of interest (POI) for the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Digital maps look great on the sharp, 2.8-inch, color touch screen. The main faults of the Loox: The text is too small to read while you're driving, and the screen is difficult to read in bright light. Judging from its performance in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'd say that its points of interest are thin and dated, too.

The touch-screen interface is a mixed bag: Entering an address was quick and easy, but finding a POI involved many menu layers, and I found the clock setting under the Utilities menu instead of Settings. The well-equipped $499 kit includes a secure car-windshield mount, a car power adapter, and a USB cable.

I give the Loox passing grades as a multimedia device: Audio sounded fairly good through the included earbuds, but the audio controls were rudimentary. (I can't comment on how it handles photos and videos, as those capabilities were not enabled on my preproduction unit.) One drawback: You can store multimedia only on the miniSD Card, and even though my test model came with a removable 2GB miniSD Card, 1.6GB of that was occupied by the maps, leaving little room for media.

The Pocket Loox is cute and compact, and functional as a portable photo and video viewer; but unless you need something that can slip into your pocket, you have better GPS options.

DeLorme Earthmate GPS PN-20

DeLorme's Earthmate GPS PN-20, unlike the Pocket Loox, lacks svelte styling and multimedia entertainment features. This yellow-and-black brick is sturdily built and waterproof, and designed for use in car or in hand. DeLorme gave the unit big, knobby buttons that should work well when the cold outdoors dictates gloves.

What separates the PN-20 from the crowd is its ability to store and display topographic, aerial, and satellite images--all of which you purchase and download from DeLorme. While this feature is attractive and uncommon, at this point it's more concept than practical application. For example, I downloaded images for Yosemite and had great difficulty picking out familiar features (like large, distinctive peaks) on the PN-20's 2.2-inch color screen. The USGS Quad topographical maps I downloaded were far more useful.

The unit comes with top-level maps offering world and U.S. coverage; you can download more-detailed maps via the included DeLorme Top USA 6.0 DVD PC software. The unit comes with $100 worth of Free Aerial Data Packet downloads, or about 154 square miles, for the specific region of your choice; these maps have more detail than the ones in Topo USA. The one thing the included maps are not optimized for is driving instructions; for that, you need DeLorme's Street Atlas USA program.

While the Pocket Loox comes with all of its available maps preloaded onto a miniSD Card, the PN-20 lets you download only the maps you want. The unit has 75MB of on-board memory and an SD Card slot for additional storage that you provide. The number of maps you can simultaneously store in the PN-20 depends on the type of maps and images you download. For example, my full Yosemite map package (assembled from maps in Topo USA, Quad, and satellite images) was about 40MB altogether, but the Mount St. Helens package, which included (not very useful) color aerial photos, was about 103MB. Coverage of the Central Sierras with DeLorme's Topo USA topographic maps took about 85MB.

Aside from the aerial images, the PN-20 is a fine navigation device. I found its color screen exceptionally easy to see in bright sun, and the display showed travel stats in large, readable text. In addition, the unit has all the features you'd expect for use outdoors, including waypoint and track recording (for keeping a log of where you've been), point-to-point navigation, and an easy-to-use menu system. I especially liked the graphical tide-phase screen.

Exchanging maps, waypoints, track details, and other mapping information between the PN-20 and the Topo USA application is a snap: A small, Explorer-like window on the PC displays a list of mapping files on the two devices, and you simply select a file and click Send or Received.

My gripes with the PN-20 are few but significant. The Find button, which allows you to input addresses or place names, found my home address but not Yosemite. Downloading satellite images from DeLorme was a bit more cumbersome than it should be, requiring multiple steps: You select the area, upload the request to DeLorme, accept a license agreement and payment receipt, wait for an e-mail from DeLorme declaring that the package is ready, download the package to your PC, and then download it to your PN-20. I would have liked a built-in magnetic compass, too (the unit has a digital one only). On the plus side, battery power is always an issue with backcountry GPS use, so I was pleased to see that the PN-20 uses two AAs or one rechargeable CRV3 battery. A windshield mount for using the device in a car costs $50.

The PN-20 should appeal to kayakers, hikers, hunters, mountain bikers, and other outdoor-sport enthusiasts. At 7 ounces with batteries, it feels a bit heavier than I'd like to carry on a multiday backpacking trip. Would I use it in wilderness areas without a paper topographical map? Not on my life.

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