The Joys and Perils of GPS

While navigating to and fro across the streets and freeways of the Phoenix area in both our Navion and new Ford Focus tow car, I've been thinking about how blessedly removed I've become from the hassle of studying a map and puzzling out directions. Now, we can get to an unfamiliar movie theater, ballpark, grocery store, restaurant and back to the RV park like an accomplished city native. It's liberating. And that's the upside.

But there's a downside too which is why many people find using GPS so frustrating - you actually have to learn how to use it.

When I say GPS I'm painting a very wide swath from cell-based systems like Google Maps and Apple's Siri, to dedicated units like Rand McNally, Garmin, Magellan and TomTom. Then there's a tier of dedicated automotive solutions like our Ford's vastly improved Sync 3.

Probably the most evolved GPS devices are the phone-based solutions from Google and Apple. Instead of a tedious process of entering first a city, street, and address, you simply talk into the phone and say, "find 1605 Sherman Steet" and the massive computers on the other end of your cell request will figure out where you are and calculate the most reasonable response. It's great when it works, and voice recognition is increasingly getting better and better.

But phone GPS has it's downsides, too. It only works when you've got good cell and data service. Running a GPS route is a big drain on cell batteries. To minimize battery drain the cell phone screen will dim after time. That's why I always travel with a 12 volt adapter so I can keep the cell phone plugged-in while using it as a navigation device. When plugged in, my iPhone screen stays on so I can continually watch the route. If you're using a cell phone for navigation in a car or RV, the next question is, where can you place it for easy viewing? For that there are many solutions like dashboard clips, setting it on your lap, or having your co-pilot hold it in your viewing area.

Because all the "smarts" of cell-based mapping and routing data live in the cloud, they will have the most updated navigation information. Dedicated units require periodic software downloads. And if you're like most folks who don't back up as often as they should, taking ten to thirty minutes (or more) to update your GPS is. . . well. . . about three levels further down in importance.

Now you'd think that the case is clear that cell-based GPS is the way to go. Uh, not so fast there Johnny Quest. Dedicated GPS systems, when used correctly, still are superior. They offer the driver fuller feedback, generally larger screens, no dependency on a cell signal, and in the case of optimized RV GPS systems, safer routing for larger rigs.

Using dedicated GPS units, like the class-leading Winnebago infotainment system with the Rand McNally GPS software, often elicits howls of pain and complaints from users. So how can it be that something so powerful is so reviled? It comes down to this: nobody wants to read the manual. Let's be honest here. Probably the first time you sat in front your GPS unit was when the engine was running and you were about to pull out of the drive. To set your destination you thought it would be as easy as switching radio stations. Guess again. You probably rolled down the block with divided attention (admit it driver - you didn't ask your co-pilot, did you?) trying to figure out how to program the $#%!!!! thing! No such luck.

This is probably the last piece of advice you want to hear, but it's the unvarnished truth: if you want to get the most out of any GPS device you're going to have to take the time to learn it. And that's especially true with dedicated units. If you are to "become one" with your GPS here's the six step program to becoming a Jedi master of the highway.

Step 1: Actually read the manual. Take a good look at the manual that came with your unit. I recommend skimming it the first time, playing with your unit, and then reading it more closely a second time. Tedious as it may be, I can guarantee you that your abilities and understanding will increase by 100%.

Step 2: Play while parked. Whenever I get a new tech device I explore every screen and every button to discover what happens. Fire up your unit and spend a half hour or so exploring. You'll find ways to customize map views, icons, and alerts.

Step 3: Make a test route. While still parked, try searching for and entering in a destination. All GPS units have large POI (Points of Interest) databases. A POI is a name like, Applebees or Walmart. GPS units are programmed to tell you what's close, so if you find yourself in a POI category called restaurants, tapping on that item will display the closest ones around. You can also search by address and that process usually involves putting in a city, street name, and then street address. Searching in Winnebago's Rand McNally software is very powerful because Rand uses more RV optimized databases than Garmin. The downside of this power is that (unless you practice) the search process can be confusing.

Step 4: Make a cheat sheet. Think about your travel style and how you might use navigation. If your primary objectives are locating diesel truck stops or commercial campgrounds, write down the steps of the menus you need to tap on to get to the right input screens. If you're a seasonal RV user, the cheat sheet really can save time in relearning software you don't use every day.

Step 5: Take a NAV test drive. Set out a simple route with a destination a mile or two away. Start routing and follow the voice and visual prompts. Some people are visual, others like the spoken commands. For maximum effectiveness you should get used to paying attention to both. A classic happened yesterday when, entering a roundabout, the GPS said, "take the second exit." Because there was a freeway entrance off of the roundabout, visually it looked like an exit, but in reality (and seeing the blue navigation line) I realized I should drive past that turn and keep going through the roundabout.

Another thing you need to get used to in your test drives is how far the GPS alerts you to your next turn. More than once I've not sensed the moment of the turn and driven past it. This is where it takes a little skill to assess the road ahead with your own eyes and factor that into the GPS alert.

Step 6: Actually read the manual. As it was foretold in step one, after doing all these other steps, re-reading the manual will make a lot more sense and probably reveal a couple of other cool hints that might not have stood out at the first reading.

I love using GPS and, over the years, I've gotten very adept at it. I often think of navigating with GPS is like a pilot learning to use instruments. It honestly does take a leap of faith to start trusting the technology. I'm lucky that I've got a very good sense of direction and remembrance for landmarks. However, what I've noticed, with my comfort in using GPS, is that I'm paying less attention to landmarks and streets than I used to and trusting my little blue (or sometimes green) line. I now spend little or no time planning or worrying about how I'm going to get from A to B, and coming into a completely unfamiliar area I'm very confident that we can always find ice cream and the camp spot for the night. It's all about priorities.

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