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GPS on a netBook

Article written: August, 2004

Download a copy of this article in zipped EPOC Word format here: GPS.zip  (64KB)


Introduction:


I'm a comparatively late newcomer to the world of GPS (Global Positioning System) but have been pleasantly surprised at its usefulness so far. Of course, I'd been aware that it was possible to plug a Garmin-type handheld unit into a Psion via the serial port and a special cable for years. I'd always been put off however for a couple of reasons: 1) Cost - it never seemed possible to do this for less than about 150 (240 / US$270), and 2) Hassle - I didn't want to have to carry another self-contained unit (the GPS) around together with connecting cable and my Psion-du-jour. I discovered reasonably recently however that it was possible to get GPS CF (Compact Flash) cards that would work in a Series 7 / netBook. There are three units that I'm aware of reported as working 'out of the box' with these machines: the GlobalSat BC307, the Pretec CompactGPS-LP, the Haicom HI-303 MMF CF Receiver.

If you buy either of these either via a specialist retailer or through online retailers, you'll still pay over 100 (160 / US$180). However, I discovered that you can buy new units via eBay if you hunt around (although of course caveat emptor applies as with all purchases via eBay to a certain extent). In the event, I found a GlobalSat BC307 for 73 (117 / US$131) - although I've heard of them going for as little as 42 (67 / US$76). In any case, mine came with a PCMCIA adaptor (essential since you can't use a non memory card CF in the CF slot on the 7 / nB - they have to be used in the PCMCIA slot) and an external antenna (useful for any situation for where the antenna in the CF GPS might not be in an optimal position for a clear line of site to the satellites it needs - e.g. in a car).

Software & Testing:


Whilst the unit came with PC software, this isn't much use on a Psion! Fortunately both of TomTom's route-planning programs - Routeplanner (previously Enroute) and CityMaps (previously Streetplanner) support data via the PCMCIA slot (Comm: 1).

Probably one of the geekiest tests you can do is on a commercial flight to somewhere (although a private one might be even better!). I gave it a shot recently on an Air France flight to Paris. Of course, you can get quite a few odd looks from fellow passengers when you start plugging external antennae to your 'little PC' and attaching them to the aircraft window (to get the best 'view' of the satellites). I could just see the train of thought going through my neighbour's increasingly uneasy mind as he watched me fiddling with the wiring and attaching it to the plane: "private communications system?, no..., Missile Control System???, no..., Remote Control For A BOMB??!?!?......". Perhaps fortunately, his internal panicking was interrupted by one of the stewards who - very pragmatically I thought - simply asked, "Wot eez dat Monsieur?". One good thing about GPS is that the terms is more or less universal in any language. My one-word response ("GPS" - with French phonetics of course!) was immediately met with a broad grin and the follow-up question, "Zo, are we going in zee good direction?!?"...

Flying over France


This first screenshot taken from Routeplanner with the GPS extensions switched on shows us flying over France towards Paris. One might be forgiven for simply suspecting that I was actually just driving down a side road in the correct direction - were it not for the compass indicator in the top left hand corner. Not even my somewhat adventurous driving skills can manage quite that speed however (never mind my car's engine)!

At altitude!


This second shot is similar but showing the GPS information screen in Route with details about the satellites in view, position, height, etc.

Perhaps a more practical test however is when driving a car in unknown territory. I took the kit with me on a recent holiday in Western Tuscany (Italy) to try it out:-

Satellite technology meets Western Tuscany!


What's interesting to note from this map (on its highest magnification setting) is that we were actually on the main dual-carriageway road shown in bright yellow - not in fact on the side road shown a few hundred meters away. Just as well considering the speed we were going at at the time! ;)

Satellite technology meets Western Tuscany!


That was probably the worst case accuracy I saw (the system tended to improve its accuracy the longer it was on) but even so it wasn't unusual for it to show us a couple of hundred of meters away from the road! And this in spite of us having a fix on 5 or 6 satellites at a time typically. Of course, this really wasn't an issue in the middle of rural Tuscany - but I could it easily imagine it being a major problem in the middle of a city like Rome (or London, Paris, etc.). One other minor quirk: note the satellite information being given in feet and mph - despite the main display being in km and km/h to suit the local measurement system. No idea why.

Conclusion:


I suppose the ultimate question is: will I be using it frequently? And my honest answer will probably have to be... No. It's a great demonstration of what the technology can do and if it were an integrated system (either built into a car itself or like in the box that TomTom now sell) then I would seriously consider buying/using it. However as a combination of netBook, GPS card, and external antenna it suffers from 2 main problems:-

1) The netBook's screen is not suited for outside sunlight conditions (especially in places like Italy!).
2) It's a fairly clunky combination. Essentially you have to have a passenger in the front holding the Psion and making sure that the external antenna stays stuck to the inside of the windscreen, etc.

Of course, there will be situations where having the kit handy will help - for example when I get lost in the middle of somewhere I've never been before and need to find out where I actually am! And hence I'll probably leave the GPS kit safely tucked away somewhere in my car. But I doubt that I'll regularly set off with the intention of using my netBook to guide me anywhere...

Martin

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