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December 29, 2008

GPS in California

Not long ago I purchased a Garmin Nuvi 750 GPS device from Costco.com where it is still available at the bargain price of only $200 (sale ends January 4). My handheld Garmin that I've had for a few years is set up with topo maps for hiking, and doesn't have the software installed that would allow it to calculate a route. Its screen is way too small and dim to use in a car, too.

Before I got this Nuvi 750 I would go to Google maps to get a route, copy and paste the last few crucial steps into my word processor and then print them out at about 24 points so I could read them while driving. A moderately acceptable solution, so long as I was driving in the daytime and there was little traffic. That drive to UCLA a couple of days after the election was a great example of a trip where my technique wouldn't have worked at all. In the dark on Sunset Boulevard at rush hour is no place to try to read and drive at the same time. Fortunately, I had Andy along who could act as a live GPS device.

Scott has a Garmin Nuvi 750 in his Jeep and while watching him use it I was always impressed with its easy intuitive interface and surprising accuracy. It would calculate good routes even on old mining roads way out in the desert. So, not seeing any real need to be the last living person not to use GPS in the car, I got this deal.

Garmin claimed that the Nuvi 750 was Mac-compatible, but I was dubious, since they had lied to me repeatedly about making Mac software for my handheld Garmin (GPSmap 60CS), so the first thing I did when I got it was to plug it into my Mac. Lo and behold, it mounted! Looks like a drive to the Mac. The Garmin website hosts a web-updater for Mac (along with one for Windows, too, of course). After downloading and installing the updater, it updated the firmware with no glitches at all. In the process it added an additional voice for American English: Jack. Without the update, the only American English voice was Jill.

I've been using and experimenting with it for a couple of weeks and am really happy with it. One benefit that I didn't foresee is that it allows me to drive without having to look for any directional or street signs. I didn't realize until now how much time my eyes are OFF of traffic checking signs and landmarks to make sure I'm where I mean to be. I've only got to watch traffic. So, it's a benefit even when I use it locally. Here, Fred Zahradnik lays out some of the benefits of using GPS, and I agree with all of them - especially "4: You know which lane to be in." The GPS does a lot better than CalTrans at telling me which side of the road I need to be on to get on a freeway entrance ramp. And, if there are two turns close together, it will tell me about both of them, so that after I make the first turn I know which lane to head to for the second turn.

An extra benefit on the Nuvi 750 that I didn't expect to use, is the MP3 player. Load up an SD card with MP3s and insert it. Run a wire from the GPS's headphone output to my stereo's input jack and I'm set. The advantage to this is that the GPS will pause the music when it wants to give me a direction so that Jack doesn't have to shout over the music.

It's also got Bluetooth built in, so that if my cellphone had Bluetooth I could synch the two together and use the GPS as my legal cellphone talking device thingy in California. I don't know if you can use the Garmin's keyboard input to send text messages via the cellphone. The keyboard display on the Garmin can be configured as either alphabetical or Qwerty.

I've noticed only a couple of glitches on the device. The location of the Desert Hot Springs post office is not in its database. It still shows the old Pierson Boulevard address. I don't know how long ago the post office moved, but it can't have been too many years. I was willing to forgive the error, since updating government offices on that database can't be a super high priority. But then I was very surprised to see that it doesn't have the location of the Palm Springs post office either, and I'm sure it's been at its late-mid-century modern location for a few decades at least.

Here in DHS it has sometimes given me weird out-of-the-way directions, but I just ignore them.

The only serious problem I've had came when it lost all voices. It could still calculate a route and display written directions (and it could play music), but it was otherwise mute. I think this may have happened because in my Ford the power is always on to the cigarette lighters. When I try to snap the GPS device into its cradle (the cradle is plugged into the cigarette lighter), it always takes me a few attempts before I get a good solid click. During this trial and error, the GPS device occasionally touches the power contacts and starts its bootup. With multiple power-ups and downs over a few seconds, I'm surprised all I lost were the voices. Simply plugging it into my Mac again and running the web-updater fixed it, even though nothing was downloaded. Now I unplug the cradle from the power supply before remounting the GPS.

Once, while I was riding with Scott he had muted Jill's voice. When a phone call came in, he pressed "answer," but that did not automatically un-mute it. You'd think Garmin would have realized that when you answer the phone you pretty much always want to be able to hear the other person.

When I bought it I also bought a mounting device that would attach to an air vent, because I knew it was illegal to mount it to the windshield in California. The vent thing works okay, but on Thursday California SB 1567 goes into effect. This will allow you to stick your GPS device to your windshield BUT NOT IN THE MIDDLE. It allows the GPS to be stuck onto only those areas of the windshield where you can already stick other minor stuff: the lower left and lower right corners. This, of course, is bullshit, as Fred Zahradnik explains here. The lower right corner is useless for a GPS, unless you're driving a really tiny car (or a right-hand drive car). Using the lower left corner would require you to run wiring in front of the driver (in most cars) to plug it into a cigarette lighter. So I'm going to keep using my vent mount.

P.S.: The Nuvi 750 gives street names in its directions. Some of the other Garmins don't. IOW, mine says "Turn right on Palm Drive," while another unit will say only "Turn right." Pronunciation is slightly odd, but that provides some entertainment.

Also, while you can buy additional maps for other parts of the world for the Garmin, I don't believe you can buy topo maps like I have on my handheld. The Nuvi 750's database may not include all the mines that I can find on my GPSmap 60CS.

Filed under California,Technology | permalink | December 29, 2008 at 11:01 AM

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