Who Am I?

My photo
A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

25 January 2008

TomTom and Me

As a pilot, I've been using GPS navigators for well over ten years. "GPS" stands for global positioning system. Basically, a "GPS" is merely a receiver that uses signals from a bunch of satellites in orbit over the earth to determine your position. The accuracy of GPS will surprise you.

The ones we use in aircraft are sort of complicated and not very easy to use - even the so-called "easy-to-use" ones! Even the best are far from intuitive. The one I currently have in my helicopter (Garmin 496) has many features that elude me due to the fact that: a) I don't use them often; and b) they are buried deep inside sub-menus. I do know how to program a one-leg, "direct-to" flight plan, and I know how to tune the XM Radio option. Other than that, I have to consult the voluminous manual when I want to enter and store a waypoint that is not already in the extensive database. And just about everywhere I land is an "off-airport" waypoint that is *not* in the database.

I promise I'm not going to get all jargon-y on you.

Check out this baby! The Garmin 496

GPS's have been showing up in cars for a few years now. Some rent-a-car companies have been offering them as options. My boss's Range Rover came with a built-in unit that was cumbersome for the driver to use, and dangerously so if you tried to program it while underway. Lately I'd started seeing an unfamiliar brand - TomTom - showing up in auto parts stores. They were very cheap. I assumed that they were a fairly useless gimmick.

Mr. TomTom

During the holidays I made a trip up north with a friend. First stop, Washington D.C. We landed at Reagan/National Airport but wanted to go to the Udvar-Hazy Smithsonian museum which is out at Washington Dulles Airport, well west of the city. So we rented a car. And being typical guys, off we drove without map #1 in the car, not even the bad, placemat-style one they give you at the rental counter. But Gene had brought along a TomTom that he'd gotten for Christmas. It was kind of cheesy-looking....mostly all screen...no buttons to play with (and you know how we pilots like buttons to press). No external antenna like I have in the helicopter either...nothing at all except a power cord to the cigarette lighter, and it didn't really even need that. We suction-cupped it on the windshield and fired it up. Gene started tapping the touch-screen. I figured that it might, at best, point us in the right direction until we found signs to Dulles.

Boy, was I wrong!

Gene quickly inputted (is that a word?) our destination. Immediately, TomTom began issuing turn-by-turn instructions. (The standard voice is that of a male with a vaguely Nordic accent. We began referring to the thing as "TomTom" as if it were a real person.) If you get lost (and we...err...I did), the GPS figures out how to get you back on the correct route and calmly directs you to do so. The reason I got lost was because I did not listen to TomTom and thought I knew better. I did not.

One of the criticisms hurled at the low-priced TomTom is that it does not give actual street names when calling out when or where to turn. The more expensive units will tell you, "Turn right on Broadway." Initially I thought this might be a problem but in practice it is not. The screen is so large and readable, that when the voice says "In 800 yards, turn left," it is quite easy to glance over at the highlighted route and see where you're supposed to turn.

At the beginning of 2008 there were "a few" of these types of GPS's on the market in all price ranges. Suddenly, the market is awash in them! A google search will turn up units with many features and capabilities. Want your GPS to also be an MP3 player? Done, sir! Want XM Radio and/or XM Weather? You can have that too. They are amazing devices, and I would guess that we've only begun to realize their usefulness. As with any emerging technology, the market is changing fast. New units will have more capability and be cheaper as production ramps up. And ramp up, it will!

For about $125 the TomTom (or something like it) is a "must have" if you do any driving in or to unfamiliar places. On a long trip I'd still take one of those national atlas books, but I'd use the GPS for the specifics. Every car ought to, and eventually will have one of these newfangled GPS's. The one I assumed was "just a gimmick" turned out to be incredibly accurate, handy, easy-to-use and valuable - more so than I imagined it could or would be. It sold me.


Redlefty said...

Cool... TomTom, never heard of it until now.

Hal Johnson said...

Y'know, I've been with PHI for twenty-eight years, but until last year, I'd never driven to PHI's Houma base. I'd flown in for a night or two, yeah, but never driven. Sheesh, I wish I'd had a TomTom then. My old Garmin GPS 12 wasn't much help.

My wife, after seeing a TomTom commercial, said "the only reason most men would want one of those is so they could have more chances to say 'be quiet, I know where I'm going.'"