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Monday, November 24, 2008

What Can A GPS Do For Me?

We all hate the feeling of driving for an extended period of time in any given direction that we are not entirely sure is the right way. Not completely lost and yet not exactly sure either can create a very uncomfortable feeling. Especially when driving alone this can be down right scary depending on your situation or location. For me I would normally have three different maps and directions with me so I can feel fairly secure where I was going but throw in an unexpected detour and that panic feeling can set in quick. Good Times? I think not. For some asking directions is not a problem, for others it is a matter of pride. We won't even bring up when your spouse or significant other is beside you....yikes.

Fortunately those aggravating days are now a thing of the past for both passengers and the driver. Modern necessity has provided us with GPS devices to help us on our way. GPS stands for Global Positioning System which is nothing more than a bunch of satellites in orbit around our planet that send down a signal for a GPS device to read and understand. The device usually has a map of which you can tell where you are. Then the device reads the signal from the satellites and figures out exactly where you are on the map. It can be so accurate that the difference is only a few feet. So as you move to where ever you want to go from one place to another it will show your exact position on the map.

People often ask me if someone else can “see” where they are because of the GPS and my answer is no. The majority of GPS devices are receiver only which means they get the signal from the satellites but do not transmit a signal. So big brother is not watching over you. There are however transmitters for sale that do send a signal out for just that purpose but again you have to special order it. In fact for GeoCachers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts that type of locator can be a real life saver. One of our biggest fears is to be off trail in a woods or mountain terrain and have something bad happen. How would people know where you are? So one person's big brother is anothers angel from above.

Now that we are starting to realize that having a GPS device is a pretty good thing lets dig a little deeper and ask ourselves, “What can a GPS do for me?
Let's keep with the basics in this article. There are many different functions that are available to just about everybody but if you do not know how they can be helpful to you what good are they?

Let's look at the initial usability.
  • General Location and Searches
  • Walking/Biking/Hiking
  • Geocaching/Advanced Outdoors Activities
  • Driving in a Car/Boat/Plane
Keep in mind that many modern GPS devices can have multiple functions that overlaps so some may be good for more than just the functions described below.

General Location and Searches – Now a days many phones come with GPS technology built right in and there are several FREE applications that can fill your needs without costing you a dime. What? Free? Did I mention that those satellites I talked about before have been payed by you – Joe Taxpayer? Yeppers, the US government has been using it for years but gave permission to you and me back in the early 2000s. So the cost of using those satellites is nadda, nothing, zippo. So if your GPS phone can run applications like Google Maps, Y! Maps and other freebies it costs you nothing to use the GPS functions.

Getting back to the point. Why would a phone GPS be good for you? If you are driving around town and suddenly need to find the closest gas station, fast food, or shopping center then this is the gadget for you. The device will tell you where you are and all you have to do is search for the place you want to go. It will not only give you multiple choices to decide from but how far away it is and step by step directions to get there. This is great if you need this convenience only once in a while. If you are constantly needing guidance to go from one spot to another there are better options.

Walking/Biking/Hiking – If you are the type of individual who likes to take walks in the park or do light biking or hiking on trails then you might be interested in a GPS watch. Why? I know from past experience that on many park trails they criss cross all over the place and even though you are in a relatively save environment it is sometimes easy to get turned around. There are quite a few GPS watches that track your path as you go. Then the pointer shows where you are on that route. When going back to your car or starting point you simply look down at your watch to see if you turn left, right or go straight. There are no complex maps per say but having your exact route shown in some form can be a great comfort. On the more advanced GPS devices this “tracking” ability is built right in but if you want something portable and it fills your needs this is the way to go.

Geocaching/Advanced Outdoors Activities – Without getting too technical I want to break the following GPS usability into two types. They are almost identical except for How and Where you use them. If you really like the outdoors and enjoy boating on lake, biking, hiking the woods, climbing mountain trails or into geocaching then a more rugged hand held GPS is for you. You want to use a hand held because it is just that, something you want to hold in your hand and can easily go in a pocket or backpack when not used. They are all very portable and many models out today are waterproof, durable and have a good antenna when under trees or hilly areas. Just an FYI to remember, good clear line of site to the sky gives you the best satellite receptions. Many times tree cover, tall buildings or hilly ares can give GPS interference and should be a factor when deciding what GPS is best for you. That will be another future article I promise.

Driving in a Car/Boat/Plane – As stated above the next type of GPS has many of the same functionality that you can find in the hand held models. Many come with very in depth maps and nice useful extras. These bad boys can stick to your dashboard, windshield or now a days fit right into the dashboard of your car. They are not waterproof nor drop proof but they have much larger screen displays which is great when driving. A car mounted GPS usually has large fully utilized maps and their POI or “Point Of Interest” selections are much more vast. This means you have more choices of stores, parks, cool places, addresses, etc. to choose from. The more modern GPS units now receive real time information like current traffic conditions and accident reports. Want to know which station has the cheapest gas, no problem. Need the fastest route to the hospital, can do. Mounted GPS devices are true powerhouses but should be in-car only.

Yes, yes I know what you are thinking. In my day people could go from sea to shining sea without all these new fangled gadgets. Couldn't agree with you more and we still can. We don't necessarily need to have mobile phones, computers, and GPS devices to get from point A to B, but let me ask you this. Doesn't the piece of mind of having the ability to know exactly where you are and how to get to any other destination bring you a sense of better security? I know for me I am no longer limited to my own reservations of driving somewhere. I now have a new freedom of saying “Lets go!”, no matter where I am and I no longer have to ask strangers for directions. That makes it worth it in my book.

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