By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 19, 2009
A typical GPS unit has its eyes on the stars and its feet set in concrete: It can fix its location anywhere within reach of Global Positioning System satellites but then must refer to maps that are months or years out of date.
That's good enough to guide a trek along the Blue Ridge, but it may not work as well in a city with shops and restaurants opening and closing all the time. Nor does it reveal a highway's most important feature: the number of cars on it at any given moment.
Web-connected smartphones can do those things, but most of their screens and controls are too small for safe use behind the wheel. So if you can't draft a passenger to serve as your navigator, what other options do you have?
A new GPS receiver from TomTom, the Go 740 Live, fuses both devices by including a wireless modem to fetch traffic reports, the locations of new businesses, weather forecasts and other fresh-off-the-Web tidbits.
Some of these functions have been available in GPS receivers that use an FM radio receiver to tune into data services, but they offer only limited traffic updates and can't do any Web searches for nearby points of interest.
The extra features of the Go 740 Live don't come at a discount, however. It lists for $399.95 with three months of data service included, after which you pay $9.95 a month. (Another Internet-connected GPS unit, TeleNav's business-travel-oriented Shotgun, sells for $299, plus $11.99 a month after the first three months; prepaying for a year of service will lower that rate.)
When you punch in a destination -- as on other GPS units, you can type an address on an onscreen keyboard, search a points-of-interest directory or select a previous endpoint -- the 740 will factor in traffic to choose the fastest route, then advise you on how many minutes congestion will add to the trek.
These updates come from Madison, Wis.-based TrafficCast, which collects and consolidates data from such sources as highway sensors, incident reports, construction schedules, weather forecasts and historical traffic levels.
If the road ahead clots into a river of brake lights, the 740 will place an estimate of the added delay -- in too-small type -- at the right of the screen. A minute or two later, it will speak your new arrival time in a synthesized voice. If it's bad enough, you'll get the option of an alternate route.
But two things can keep you from this happy future of automated traffic avoidance: TrafficCast may not know about the delay, or you may not have any options.
For example, on a drive to New Jersey over Easter weekend, the 740 didn't warn me about stopped traffic on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway north of the Beltway -- though at least the cars got moving again relatively quickly.
On the return trip, the 740 correctly forecast the usual delay where the New Jersey Turnpike's lanes merge. But as Turnpike veterans will attest, there aren't any great alternatives to that highway around the merge -- a fact the 740 reinforced by noting that we were "on the fastest route."
My colleague Greg Schneider, who drives to and from Woodbridge every day, did not have a better experience in his test. The 740 offered no warning or alternative to a backup that started at the west end of Alexandria and stretched to the 14th Street Bridge, then failed to suggest a common detour up 12th Street SW.
The 740's Google-search function may be a lot more practical in day-to-day use. Its internal database listed only one of five recently opened restaurants in and around the District, but by switching to this Web lookup, it quickly located all five.
TomTom's Web-assisted gas-price check is equally practical, with its choice of gas stations on your route, near your location or in the area. And its weather lookup is even more flexible in its choice of locales.
(Note that the 740, unlike the GPS units built into many cars, will let you tap away at the screen in a moving car. So it's up to you to not be an idiot while using this thing.)
But the last item on the TomTom Services screen, the "TomTom Buddies" service that lets you look up designated pals on a map and send them text messages, looks like gimmicky excess. It invites too much distraction on the road -- and besides, do we have to turn everything into a social network?
The 740 suffers from other issues that hold it back as an everyday GPS. Its directions failed to warn about the HOV restrictions on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway and missed a turn on the way to a Home Depot in Seven Corners. The device also needs physical volume buttons and an onscreen keyboard with a delete key at the top right, where you'd expect it, not the bottom left.
Meanwhile, smartphones keep getting smarter. They already do a good job with walking GPS guidance, and one or more manufacturers will eventually get around the limits of their screens and buttons -- maybe with an entirely speech-driven interface. Then we may not need a standalone GPS receiver, much less one with a separate wireless-data bill.
In the meantime, devices like the 740 can provide a good look at that future -- but not the route we'll probably take to get there.