The Global Positioning System that helps us navigate the highways was a brilliant idea. So brilliant that industry watchers at ABI Research Inc. in New York say there will be 900 million such devices in use worldwide in another five years.
But many GPS devices aren't very bright. Yes, they can tell us how to get where we want to go - but not much else. Travelers need lots more information - the latest traffic conditions, for instance, or the weather.
Such data is easily available over the Internet, but that's not much use when you're rolling down I-93 unless you've got a GPS with a wireless communication system. Then you can tap into those databases for real-time information on the road.
A growing number of GPS devices have gone online. We tried out three: the Dash Express from Dash Navigation Inc.; the Go 930 from TomTom International BV; and the Nuvi 780 by Garmin Ltd.
The Dash Express, cheapest of the three at $399, lacks some of the attractive features of the other two. For instance, the Go and Nuvi have FM transmitters, so they can relay their spoken driving directions over your car radio. They also have Bluetooth technology.
But the Dash leads the pack when it comes to Internet integration. Users pay $12.99 a month to subscribe to the Dash online service. Now you can add new maps and software upgrades, or punch in your favorite addresses, by logging onto the Dash website.
The Dash Express contains Wi-Fi networking. Just bring it within range of your home hot spot and turn it on, and the software upgrades install themselves. It also has a built-in cellular modem that works in most parts of the United States and downloads information as you drive. It gets the latest traffic data, warning when there's gridlock ahead.
Some of the traffic data may come from fellow drivers. Dash uses anonymous information about your car's speed and location to map traffic on the road you're driving. This data is relayed to every other Dash user in the area. Dash says this will enable its service to provide much better real-time traffic data.
Dash also lets you search for your destination through the Yahoo Internet service.
The Garmin Nuvi 780 costs $749, nearly twice as much as the Dash Express. In exchange, you get a much more compact unit, not much bigger than a full-sized iPod. The Nuvi also has FM radio and Bluetooth features, an MP3 music player, and access to the Audible audiobook service, for an additional subscription fee.
But the Nuvi's data network isn't as sophisticated as the Dash system. Garmin uses a service from Microsoft Corp. called MSN Direct, which broadcasts data over unused FM radio frequencies in major US cities. Plug in the Nuvi, and it receives a constant stream of data, including traffic updates, weather, and news headlines. But the user can't punch in requests for new data.
On the upside, MSN Direct provided accurate data about congestion on Boston highways. Besides, it's exceedingly simple; just turn it on and it works. It's not overwhelmingly expensive either - $49.95 a year, or $129.95 for life. But your subscription doesn't include map updates. You'll have to pay $100 apiece for those.
The TomTom Go 930 might seem a better value than the Garmin. At $499.95, it offers a similar set of features - hands-free phoning, an FM transmitter, and music player. But using the TomTom's wireless features can be costly and confusing.
The Go 930 has two wireless options. For $50 more, you can get an auxiliary antenna that links to a wireless service called RDS-TMC, which broadcasts traffic data in many US cities. The RDS-TMC service is free for the first year, $60 a year thereafter.
The Go 930 can also pull data from your cellphone. You need a cellphone account that includes a data plan and a compatible Bluetooth phone. Then you can get traffic updates, weather, and even a guide to the lowest gas prices.
But it doesn't work at all with Verizon phones, and service is extremely spotty with Sprint. If you're a T-Mobile or AT&T customer, you should be all right - unless you've got an iPhone. Apple has deliberately limited the iPhone, so that it can't be used to relay data to other digital devices. We needed a much cheaper Samsung phone from AT&T to try out the service. It performed pretty well, but we hardly cared after so much hassle.
Besides, heavy use of TomTom's data features could jack up your phone bill. And then there are all the fees - $29.95 a year for traffic data, and another $14.95 a year if you want the latest fuel price data. And of course, map update - $100 for all of North America, or $80 for the US.
It's too much hassle at too high a price. The Garmin Nuvi is much simpler and boasts a lot of appealing extras, but not enough to justify its $749 price. That leaves the Dash Express. Relatively cheap and absolutely simple, it's online GPS done right.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.