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Dash-Top Swami
By Steve Casimiro 
Photo: The Garmin 376 C
  1 of 1

The latest gps tech knows the way—and the conditions—ahead. 

The Utah desert skies were clear, with no sign of impending weather. But summer is flash-flood season in canyon country, and as I drove my kids to Upper Calf Creek Falls for a day hike, I was wishing I'd double-checked the forecast back in Escalante. Instead I decided to fire up Garmin's new 376C dash-top navigation system. Scrolling past links to state maps and our route to the trailhead, I landed on a unique feature: the weather page. There, as vivid as a Weather Channel graphic, was an animated satellite image with clouds over Texas and fog off California. As I dialed into Utah, I checked local wind speeds, lightning strikes, storm warnings, even the two-day forecast—the 376C promised clear sailing.
 
Just a few years ago GPS technology was great only for folks who could think in coordinates, but a new breed of products is plowing into the mainstream. Not only are units easier to use, with larger memories, more preloaded maps, and superflashy displays, they're integrating functions that are tuned in to everyday needs. The Garmin's full-color, in-motion weather maps are one example, but there are plenty of others: minute-to-minute updates on road conditions, 200-plus channels of satellite radio, and some hush-hush extras like integrated MP3 players and Wi-Fi that manufacturers are just starting to bring to the U.S. 
 
Now With John Cleese
 A quick refresher: Like most GPS units, dash-top navigation systems triangulate location through a network of satellites and use them to plot your position and course on a map. Though the Garmin does that very well—and while its weather service can literally be a lifesaver for backcountry and marine travelers—TomTom's Go 300 is generating the biggest buzz in navigation. Why? Along with point-to-point directions, the TomTom offers (for an additional $5 a month) real-time traffic reports and a function that detours you around nasty jams.
 
Finding a route on the TomTom is simple. Plug in an address on the touch screen (my seven-year-old did it without reading the manual) and wait for the directions to be delivered in your language and voice of choice (John Cleese will be one downloadable option), along with a nifty angled view of the road ahead. Very cool. Not so cool, though, are the integrated real-time traffic reports. The function works by accessing the Internet through your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, which, providing you have one of the few that interface with the TomTom, is a hassle. Furthermore, it only works sporadically; to get any reports at all, I had to tinker with the machine constantly. My take: If you like the TomTom, get it because as a dash-top navigator it's top-notch, but wait until the bugs are worked out to sign up for the traffic reports.
 
In the future, expect to see more features packed into smaller devices and ever more useful maps (Sony has a 3-D model available only in Japan). But there's no reason not to put one on your dash right now. I once considered GPS to be a luxury, but driving home from Utah I came upon a ten-mile-long backup outside Barstow, California. A quick glance at the Garmin revealed an escape route my paper atlas omitted, which saved me—and my exhausted kids in the backseat—an hour or more. That alone is worth it.
 
World in your hand
 
tomtom go 300
 
The gold standard for simplicity and utility in dash-top systems, the Go 300 ($699; www.tomtom.com) includes a new service that provides real-time traffic reports and automatic rerouting around road and highway congestion.
 
earthmate blue logger gps
 
For Bluetooth-enabled PDA owners, the Blue Logger ($250, including maps; www.delorme.com) is the budget alternative to dash-top systems. Street and topo maps are included.
 
Magellan explorist 600
 
Though it lacks real-time traffic and weather updates, the eXplorist 600 ($450; www.magellangps.com) is still the class act of portable backcountry GPS units.
 
 

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