Navigation made easy: PDAs for dummies
Marc Winkelmann | April 7, 2004
It seems that everyone is talking about navigation systems for
Yet pedestrians also get lost sometimes, and that includes at
enormous trade fairs such as the CeBIT technology exhibition in
That's why Deutsche Messe AG, the operator of the fair, offers a
"fairgrounds guide." In connection with a handheld computer, it
shows visitors their way around the enormous property. But the
technology works in other settings too. When linked up with a GPS
sender, a PDA can show its owner his exact position, even in
strange cities or the forest.
Personal Digital Assistants have long since made their move out
of the realm of mere notepads. The once clumsy devices have
developed into elegant mini-computers priced between 90 and 1,500
euro. Depending on what options they include, they can turn on a
stereo, take photos, answer e-mails, and play back music. Some
current models can also offer maps for finding the right way.
This last function actually works quite well, says Oliver Stauch
of the Stuttgart magazine "Connect": "Most map materials are
intended for cars, and don't show every curb you might encounter."
According to the expert, however, "The maps will also do for
pedestrians and hikers."
A selection of digital pathfinders can be found on the Internet,
on sites like "pdassi.de." The site's homepage promises more than
250 city maps. Downloading the atlas for a region costs between 10
and 20 euro, depending on size. The software can search for exact
street numbers, calculate the distances between two locations, and
show points of interest. These include train stations, restaurants,
museums, and dance halls.
The number of recommendations and points of interest are
naturally strongly dependent on the size of the city. It's also
important to note whether the program can harmonize with the
operating system on any given device (Palm OS, Pocket PC, or
"Our maps are between 4 and 64 megabytes in size and require a
corresponding amount of space," explains Marcus Polster from the
provider envi.com. That is not a problem for most current models.
Only the popular Palm Zire model with its restricted capacity
cannot handle it, says Polster.
Another provider is Falk Marco Polo Interactive. The publisher
offers around 40 city guides on its home page, each intended for
use in the inner city. The software, priced at a cost of about 15
dollars per city, provides addresses and can show the shortest path
to a desired goal. It can also provide information about hotels,
restaurants, cinemas, and shopping malls on the way.
For those who prefer even more comfort, it is possible to expand
a PDA into a real GPS receiver. The Global Positioning System
contacts satellites every few seconds to determine its current
location and then shows its findings on its display. This may work
flawlessly in cars, but requires somewhat more compromise when used
"Portable GPS receivers require a lot of power," explains Thomas
Mittmann, product manager for Falk. Oliver Stauch confirms this as
well: "You can't take a power cable with you while on the road.
It's crucial to determine how the receiver is powered."
One good option is batteries that can be swapped while on the
move if they run out. For those who want to take a longer hike in
the country, a "standalone" device may be a better option.
These hand-held devices with a built-in GPS receive can be
purchased at reasonable prices - starting at 150 dollars - but are
unable to depict a map on their own. The PDA handles that. In
exchange, a standalone's batteries last much longer, indicates
Tobias Bischof. He operates a German Web site,
www.pocketnavigation.de, that has been testing GPS devices for
three years now.
Another good alternative are so-called GPS mice, Bischof
reports. They use Bluetooth wireless technology to keep in contact
with the organizer. These receivers can be found for around 200
dollars in sizes and shapes comparable to a computer mouse,
although they shouldn't be kept in a pocket.
"GPS receivers must be affixed on the outside of a jacket or
backpack or else they can't maintain contact with the satellites,"
Bischof says. There are already a number of applications of this
celestial remote control.
Many hikers, for example, can record their exact routes while
they are still on the move.
Other GPS fans, so-called Geocatchers, have turned proficiency
with GPS navigation into sport, organizing digital scavenger hunts.
Nor have all the possible urban uses been exhausted. "I believe
that down the road it will be possible to offer virtual city tours
for PDAs, with spoken information," says Tobias Bischof. Finding
the right way to the sights will be handled by the GPS system, of
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