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All prices in U.S. dollars
Do an informal survey of GPS users, and you'll find plenty of motorists, a fair number of "early adopters"i.e., geeksand just a handful of mountaineers and backpackers. (Pilots and sailors don't count.)
For many of us, GPS still resides in a gray area: It's either a brilliant innovation or else the equivalent of a boxed set of the complete Leonard Cohenexpensive, confusing, and more than you really need.
To give skeptics their due, GPS is superfluous on marked trails, and it can't replace an old-fashioned compass and a topographic map. On the other hand, genuine nongeeks are now relishing the technologyto e-mail the coordinates of hot springs to a friend, to find gas in Baja, and (most critically) to navigate through a whiteout to an Alpine refugio.
If you've ignored GPS for a few years, take note: Things have changed. The units are cheaper nowas low as a hundred dollars on the Web. And they're more accurate: Those that pick up WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) signalswhich provide refined GPS datacan pinpoint a location to within ten feet [about three meters].
Finally, half a dozen companies now make accessories to convert Palm or Handspring Visor personal digital assistants into GPS units. PDA screens are big, and unlike the specialized GPS firms, PDA makers offer an open platform for software developers, speeding innovation. But you need to own a PDAand people who rely on the devices to run their lives are risking disaster during wet, rocky hikes.
A better solution might be the weatherproof GPS units pictured here. All weigh less than ten ounces [311 grams] and can store at least 500 locations (or "waypoints"). One variable is the mapping software.
Not all GPS models show a map on their screens; the maps make it much easier to orient yourself, though these units are pricier and the maps do have limitations (see "Bit Mapping," left). Downloadable databases can help, as well, to find everything from bike shops to burger joints.
An impressive 32 megabytes of memory, enough for a built-in road map
of North America and topographic downloads from Magellan's MapSend software package; WAAS-enabled. But
the SporTrak Pro's memory is not expandable.
An unrivaled high-resolution screen, a barometric altimeter, WAAS, electronic compass, and 24-megabyte memory with room to spare for topo downloads from Garmin's MapSource. But
the price is painfully high.
Room for a hundred different routes and a thousand waypoints, a slot for reusable memory cards, WAAS-enabledplus consistent reception under a dense forest canopy. But
only road maps are available, despite this model's ample memory.
Superior maps and ease of use, coupled with an electronic compass, barometer, WAAS capability, and optional topos from MapSend. But
you can't download topos unless you buy memory cards.
Feathery weight (a mere 5.3 ounces [165 grams], including batteries), low price (about $100 on the Web), and virtually idiotproof controls. But
the eTrex has only bare-bones graphics, no maps, and some awfully tiny type.
A digital compass, a barometer that generates weather reports and altitude readings, and good reception: The MNS locks on to satellite signals faster than any other unit tested. But
that's a steep price for a product with no maps.
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