On Buying a GPS

by William Grosso

For years, my friends have been telling me, with varying degrees of snideness, that people with as little sense of direction as I have ought not to go hiking as much as I do. And that, if I persist in my foolishness, I ought to buy a GPS.

Well. I got lost on a hike the other day and decided to give in.

The GPS Market is Ridiculous.

I haven't been this frustrated while buying a consumer product since I bought my car (4 years ago). You know your industry's in bad shape if it brings back memories of a gum-chewing Toyota salesman in a badly-fitted sports jacket. It's even worse if that guy now seems like a fairly knowledgeable and helpful person.

To begin with, there's not a lot of standardization out there. It's hard to compare features across models from the same company let alone from different companies. And even the most innocuous accessories from a company don't work across all models.

For example, Garmin sells CDs of data. The software on the CD works with almost all the Garmin GPS units. But the data itself doesn't. Here's a disclaimer:

"Please note: The trip and waypoint management functions of this product work with nearly all GARMIN GPS units, excluding the GPS100 family and panel mount aviation units. The map download feature of this product is recommended for use with the GPS III Plus, NavTalk, GPS 12MAP, and GPSMAP 162/168. It is compatible with StreetPilot GPS, StreetPilot ColorMap, GPSMAP 295, and eMap, which require a blank 8 or 16MB cartridge to upload map data to these compatible units. "

That's from the GPS City web site, but it's from the manufacturer. GPS City also points out that the eTrek Vista "Accepts data from all of the MapSource CD-ROMs." Seems like a contradiction to me. But I guess that way they keep their bases covered.

So you look at a GPS. You check out the features, the battery life (if it's available; often it's not), the screen size (for several models, the only data on screen size was hidden inside a flash movie on the Garmin web site), the weight, etcetera. And then you have look at each data CD, to see if the model is compatible with the data (and you do have to look at each data CD-- they all have different lists of GPS's that they're compatible with).

The eTrek Vista also comes with a basemap of North and South America. Great! What's on the basemap? How does the basemap information overlap with the Mapsource CDs? There doesn't seem to be a lot of information out there helping me with that either. No one selling a GPS seems to think the buyer needs to know what data comes with the GPS.

Of course, I didn't buy any of the Mapsource CD-ROMs anyway. As I searched wider and wider on the net, I found out that lots of people think the data on them sucks (more precisely: that the topographic information has been smoothed out to the point of being useless).

Apparently, successive generations of GPS receivers have no backwards compatibility requirements, incompatible data formats, and very rudimentary software. It's impossible to figure out what works with what, or whether you even need
a particular feature or accessory.

There is a bright spot: I think Easy GPS and Gnomad are beginning to address some of the software issues.

But, to quote the immortal words of Paul Saffo, "this isn't a problem, it's an opportunity."

To which I can only add: a Huge Opportunity.

Got a favorite trail in northern california? Share it with me.