Why cell phone GPS is the best kind

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- Yesterday I upgraded my old-and-busted BlackBerry Pearl for the new hotness: The BlackBerry Pearl 8110, which has built-in GPS. So far I've found the experience of using the GPS feature superior to my expensive stand-alone GPS devices. 

About four years ago I bought what I thought was the Mother of All GPS devices: The Garmin GPSMAP 296. It's a gadget optimized for aviation (I was learning to fly an airplane at the time), but also supported marine navigation and, with an expensive add-on kit, driving in a car. The whole shebang set me back -- are you sitting down? -- about $2,200.

I've certainly got a lot of use out of it, and I've used it hundreds of times for driving and carried it all over the world. It's got a nice big screen, and rubberized, ruggedized buttons. Garmin nickel-and-dimes you to death with maps, and it's pretty slow. For driving, there's no connectivity or option, to the best of my knowledge, to update the database of businesses. So when I look for a Starbucks, it only knows about the stores build before 2004. The device is about the size of -- and almost the weight of -- a brick.

Fast forward to yesterday. I upgraded to the BlackBerry 8110 (the one with built-in GPS) and signed up for the $10-per month TeleNav service (something I thought I'd never do). The phone itself (for a variety of reasons, including the data plan I use) set me back -- are you still sitting down? -- $73 (after a $50 rebate).

Today I've been driving around and using the AT&T Navigator application to get turn-by-turn directions. It works better than expected on all counts. It understands my voice commands, shows me directions in any of several modes, including 3D. This $73 gadget has five important advantages over my $2,200 GPSMAP 296:

1. Size. The BlackBerry Pearl 8110 is significantly smaller than any GPS device Garmin makes, with the exception of its Forerunner wristwatch sports gadgets. If you've never seen one, all BlackBerry Pearl models are about the size of a box of Chiclets. Plus, of course, it's a full-featured smartphone with camera, etc. That means I can use it anywhere, anytime, even for walking or when I wasn't expecting to use a GPS device.

2. Connectivity. Both the GPSMAP and the Pearl 8110 let you search for businesses, using either the name of the business ("Giovanni's") or the category of business ("pizza"), and will list matches in order of which is closest , then give you turn-by-turn directions. However, the GPSMAP database of businesses is set in stone, and gets staler and more obsolete every day. TeleNav's database is online, and is constantly being corrected, updated and expanded.

3. Voice command.  both devices talk to me, but only one listens. The TeleNav system lets you say what you're looking for, and it's really good at understanding you. Obviously this is nice when you're driving.

4. Traffic. Without any action on your part, TeleNav goes ahead and checks for traffic problems along your route, and offers to change the directions to avoid them. Nice!

5. Cost. Obviously the GPSMAP is expensive because of its aviation maps and capabilities, and also because I bought it a few years ago. And, equally obviously, the 8110 is cheap because it's being subsidized by my monthly data fees. And I'm not bothered by the $10 per month TeleNav, because the company gives you a way to pay for it. A Cheap Gas Finder application lists all nearby gas stations listed in order of which has the lowest prices -- you can even search for the type of gas you use. The way I figure it, if the application saves me an average of 10 cents a gallon, I need only to buy 100 gallons of gas per month, and the TeleNav services is paid for.

Something occurred to me today as I was using the 8110 and TeleNav: Unlike other devices that have been "converged" into cell phones -- calculators, PDAs, media players and digital cameras where the phone versions have been largely inferior to their stand-alone counterparts -- GPS is actually improved simply by integrating it into a phone. By taking advantage of the contacts database and mobile broadband connection, even a cheap little GPS phone is better than an expensive, stand-alone GPS for basic use.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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