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How to find and review a GPS

January 1, 2003

in All Articles,GPS

Remember that time you were lost in the Congo? Stumbling through the jungle, sweat drooling down your face, slapping at indestructible mosquitoes, you were terrified you’d never find your way back to civilization. Or what about when you were cruising around rural Indiana, looking for cousin Muriel’s wedding with two whining flower girls in the back seat? A GPS would’ve been terribly handy.

A GPS, or global positioning system, is a device that uses government satellites to triangulate your position and altitude. Since you can map exactly where you are anywhere on Earth, you’re never lost.

There are two big players in the GPS scene, Garmin and Magellan. When picking out a GPS, consider the following:

The target audience. Will the GPS be for car travels or hiking in the wilderness? For auto use, get the bigger color devices that talk to you while you drive. If you’re going to be hiking, biking or camping, a color display isn’t as important. Get a smaller, waterproof, rugged GPS.

Memory. All GPS units come preloaded with a “base map”, usually a highway map of North America with common landmarks and national parks. Additional memory or memory cards allow you to hold detailed topographical and street maps of where you intend to travel. More memory means you can hold more maps. While more memory is always better, be sure it’s at least 8MB.

Cost. Expect to pay at least $100 for a quality GPS. Cheaper ones are available, but lack many good features.

Batteries. Use rechargeables. When not near a 12-volt auto socket, most GPS units use AA batteries.

A computer. This is needed to exchange information and maps with the GPS.

Some GPS receivers are not standalone, but will only work when attached to cellphones and computers. Remember these are limited by the “parent” device, and may be more trouble than they’re worth. Do you want to have your laptop with you anytime you want to use the GPS? What will your phone’s GPS unit do to your phone’s battery life?

Finally, no GPS article is complete without mentioning the family-friendly, high-tech treasure hunting that is geocaching. Go to to find 1000+ hidden treasures right here in Michigan. With a GPS and some spare time, you can even create your own treasure sites and document them online for others to find.

For the few readers lucky enough to have never found themselves lost in the Congo, there are still plenty of real-world examples of why you’d want a GPS. Finding your way in or out of an unknown place can be anything from a nice convenience to a lifesaver. My own example is the day I got lost driving and needed to find my way out of a scary Chicago industrial park. A GPS saved me that day, and was far more exciting than any trip to the Congo.

For non-partisan GPS reviews and excellent technical information, see:

Readers Respond

Sheryl writes in with a correction:

The line, “All GPS units come preloaded with a ‘base map'” is incorrect. I have two different models, neither of which have base maps. Check for a whole section listing units without base maps. Are they what a tech-gadget-loving person wants? Probably not. Are they available? Oh, yes, lots are. And I’ll bet the $100 price you give is for those types of units. Many of us use them to find our way in the out-of-doors where no roads go, find their size, waterproof construction, battery life, and reliability are exactly what we want.

Over 275 geocache finds as FroggieGRmi…no GPS maps, no PDA.

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