The gear you should get: Your own personal global positioning system (GPS) device, which lets you use the powerful satellite-based navigation system to create maps and directions.
The maven: Self-described "GPS junkie" Lynne Wardell, president of Haddon Group, a technology project-management firm based in Oakland, Calif. Wardell has used dashboard-mounted GPS receivers in her own cars since 1998; when traveling, she requests GPS-equipped rental cars. She also gives handheld GPS units as gifts and employee perks.
How she uses it: Wardell uses GPS to map the best route to any place new: clients' offices, restaurants, private homes. On out-of-town trips GPS guides her -- verbally and with constantly changing, color-coded maps -- to fast-food restaurants, service stations, and parking garages.
Why she's a true believer: She never needs directions or maps before hitting the road. GPS generates a route plan and a travel-time estimate for every trip, even those with multiple stops. She can find a location based on an address, a cross street, a landmark, a telephone number, or a destination stored in her GPS address book (like "Jane's office" and "home"). She rarely gets lost. "Even if you miss a turn, GPS automatically reroutes you," she notes. The technology provides regular traffic updates and routes her around highway headaches.
Favorite feature: "It talks to you, so you don't have to take your eyes off the road -- and you can choose between male and female voices," Wardell says.
What it costs: Wardell initially paid $2,500 to $2,900 for each GPS receiver in her car (one factory-installed, one installed later for an additional $550). She spends about $20 a year to update the programmed maps. Handheld units, including some that attach to Palm-style personal digital assistants, run $500 to $600.
The downside: "GPS is a phenomenal tool, but like all tools, it has its limitations," Wardell says. Among them: It doesn't always work well in heavily wooded areas or tunnels. It's only as accurate as its most recent software update, so it may not recognize construction-related changes or detours. And it's addictive, Wardell admits. "It creates a bit of dependency, in the same way that speed-dialing makes you forget people's phone numbers," she says.
Bottom line: Our maven calls GPS perfect for highway road warriors, area newcomers, the map-challenged, and people "who hate to ask for directions but like to know where they're going." Her advice if you're not convinced: Rent or test-drive a GPS-equipped car before taking the plunge.
Does the dispassionate expert agree with the unabashed devotee? Can commercial GPS devices really keep drivers on the right path? According to GPS researcher William R. Michalson, an associate professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, Mass., the answer is yes. Yes, that is, if you invest $2,000 or more in a car-based system with frequently updated maps, high-resolution displays, and verbal commands. As for handheld units: High-end ones, such as those Wardell buys, aren't bad. But the entry-level versions are basically "sophisticated toys." His advice: for now, view GPS as "a crude but useful" tool.
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