ALK Technologies’ CoPilot Navigator 9 GPS

Gone are the days of sitting precariously on the shoulder of a roadway shuffling a map around, trying to figure out where you are and where you need to go. Americans live in a high-tech world where all kinds of nifty electronic GPS gadgets make life simpler. GPS devices operate by triangulating on signals provided by Uncle Sam from Global Positioning Satellites placed in geo-synchronous orbit in space. The devices are able to take the signal from several satellites and make one simple discovery, where the receiver is on the earth, plotted by latitude and longitude. The fun part comes when a GPS device is able to couple where it is with a map that shows where everything else on the planet is and plot according to precise maps how to get from point A to point B. This is the genius of GPS. One exceptional offering that does just that and much more from ALK Technologies is CoPilot Navigator 9.

With computing power what it is these days and detailed electronic maps so readily available it’s no wonder GPS is so popular. High-end autos often come with the systems built in-for a price. Hand-held devices can be bought with all kinds of bells and whistles. CoPilot Navigator 9 is one of several GPS products ALK offers. What sets Navigator 9 apart from most GPS devices, even those offered by ALK, is its price and flexibility. Navigator 9 is designed as a peripheral rather than a stand-alone system. Coupled with a notebook computer, it becomes one of the most powerful navigation systems on the market.

Navigator 9 comes with two CD’s and a USB remote receiver. The receiver is magnetized and is happy to ride atop a vehicle with the cable running through the top of a door. One CD is the program software, the other is a map database. Other databases are available, including , Europe and . The system requires Windows XP or 2k or greater, a Gigahertz processor, and at least 250 meg of disk space. Installation is standard though it takes a bit of time to download all the data from the disk onto the hard drive. The data can be accessed from the CD but even though it sucks up a gig of space, it’s recommended the data be loaded on the hard drive. Once installed users have a far more powerful map system readily available on the machine than can be had from online map websites.

Navigator 9 has two modes: Guidance and Planning. Guidance mode is the one used when the notebook is sitting in the seat providing detailed navigation instructions for a driver. Planning mode is used to plan a trip. Both have powerful offerings. First, Planning mode has several drop-down menus in standard Windows style. Below those is a row of button bars. There’s lots of planning and routing options and they are all tied to a detailed map database. Users can plan a route based upon several factors, save it, manipulate it, and print it out. The software allows routing for RV’s or autos. It gives three choices for routing: quickest, most direct, and scenic. Often three different routes are plotted depending on the choice. The “RV” option keeps hard to maneuver coaches off of difficult roads. There’s also an “avoid toll roads” option and one which alerts travelers to propane-restricted tunnels. Another nice feature of route planning is cost calculation. Enter a vehicle’s mileage and the price of gas and the program will figure how much the trip will cost.

Planning mode is what makes the program far more powerful than the average hand-held GPS device. Users can spend a bit of time working in planning mode to insure the best route is chosen and decide the best stops along the way. Routes and itineraries can be saved for recall later. They can even be imported. Frequent travelers or businesses which constantly route drivers could easily develop a database of routes that drivers could load when needed. To plan a route, choose the button to edit a trip. Enter or select locations, go to options to choose the route type, then choose “run.” The program generates a route map and turn by turn instructions. A pop-up gives starting point, number of stops, ending point, distance, estimated time, route type and fuel cost. When complete the entire trip can be printed under the option “Print TravPak.” This option prints a set of maps and instructions which will come in useful if the notebook battery or the power inverter dies or the computer crashes.

Besides roadways, the database includes many thousands of points of interest, businesses, government offices, and much more. When the “more detail” option is chosen maps are virtually smothered with icons representing locations. The program even allows searching for businesses, restaurants, churches or other locations along the route or in specific areas. There’s an option to allow the program to report landmarks from a list within a given distance of the route. Users can enter custom locations as well. Finally, the program will automatically collect data from Microsoft Outlook and add those to custom locations.

The program’s interface is simple and easy to use. Its look is a bit retro, functional rather than fancy. In guidance mode, especially, buttons, menus and appearance is quite old-fashioned and simplistic. It’s a look that works well, however, especially since the graphics and buttons are simple, easy to recognize and large enough to be caught at a glance, all important considerations for an interface designed to be used while driving.

Navigator 9’s Guidance mode allows a driver to choose from several different views. Options include destination, “where I am,” next turn, 3D view, itinerary, and Driver Safety. The most functional option is Driver Safety. In Driver Safety mode there’s a three line custom display which can be set to show ten different items from current speed to elevation, local time, time to destination, or even nearest crossroad. This is a very handy option. The program can even be set to issue a warning when a driver is exceeding a set speed. In Driver Safety Mode the screen displays the three custom options and presents a small map when a turn is approached showing the turn. When stopped, as in at a traffic light, the display switches to a full map.

Navigator 9 has a speech mode that alerts drivers when a turn is approaching. A driver can concentrate on the highway and traffic rather than chancing a look at the computer screen. Voice directions are generic, “turn left” or “one mile ahead,” rather than specific, “turn right onto

ABC Road

.” A driver needs to be familiar enough with the route to recognize the correct turn or action. The fun part about Navigator 9’s voice direction is that users can create their own set of voice files rather than relying on those provided. A few hours and a bit of creativity can make the program quite entertaining! The Help file gives instructions on how to create sound files.

Several options on the menu are not available on Navigator 9 standard. “Live” mode is an optional upgrade that allows real-time communication between multiple travelers using the software and real-time traffic reporting. There’s no information on price or availability of the upgrade, only that the upgrade is available through the website. “Live” mode requires wireless net access through the PC as well. Another “option” for upgrade is voice command. The software help file describes the availability of a voice-command mode where drivers can speak to the program and obtain information. Non-functional buttons and detailed information on these “options” are clearly a way of encouraging an upgrade to a more expensive version of the software.

The upgrades are nice ideas but probably not worth the time and expense. Real-time communication between more than one vehicle is a fun idea but only practical for businesses with fleets. In that case an upgrade might be warranted. For most drivers it’s not. Real-time traffic information is available free from many sources, including online if a wireless connection is available. Voice commands sound nice but a microphone would be required and the computer would have to decipher correct commands from all the ambient noise within the cabin of an auto traveling along a highway.

CoPilot Navigator 9 is not perfect. The program could use some improvement in several areas. Computer geeks would probably say it needs a facelift. This is a cosmetic thing, though, nothing to do with functionality. More problematic is the occasional routing glitch and a database that needs to be updated. The data disk that comes with the software is amazingly detailed. There’s two elements to the data: maps and points of interest (POI). Points of Interest can change more rapidly than roadways but construction is always underway somewhere making sure the latest maps are out of date.

Over-all the program has proven to be extremely accurate according to the data in the database. A wise traveler, however, should study the route before departing and compare what is outside the windshield to what the CoPilot is saying. A change in an intersection or a new Overpass, for example, may not have made it into the database. Of course, paper maps suffer the same problem. Common sense and a bit of forethought overcome the occasional lack of an updated database. The software allows users to report errors, which is an excellent idea. Updates to the database are made available to users, according to the company, on a regular basis.

Routing is done by computer intuition. Sometimes computers can be exceptionally stupid. On occasion the program will offer a strange set of directions simply because of a complicated intersection or a map that doesn’t quite match the routing specifications. Every computer-generated mapping program can suffer this fate so Navigator 9 is not immune. Those who use Mapquest or Google Maps’ routing can see strange wiggles in a route as well. Again, a review of the route and common sense is required to compensate on those few occasions the CoPilot’s vision is not quite as accurate as the drivers.

Neither data errors nor routing glitches should be major concern or a reason not to buy the software. The company’s claim that maps are highly accurate is quite correct. Compared to online mapping websites the routes are more accurate, better defined, and easier to follow. The database includes minor streets and lanes missed by other programs and Navigator 9 makes full use of its more extensive roadway data to plot a better route.

Navigator 9 is a low-end product offered by ALK Technologies. ALK lists hand-held GPS devices, systems for phones, and specialized systems including one designed for truck drivers. Navigator 9 puts the power of GPS navigation in the hands of ordinary travelers. The price of Navigator 9 varies depending on the seller but it is available for less than a hundred bucks. There are very few systems available for that price and even fewer with the power CoPilot Navigator 9 offers.

By the numbers, for ease of use, functionality and bang for the buck Nav’ 9 gets a 9.5 out of ten. The database is exceptional but a bit dated. Mapping gets a 9.0; POI’s get an 8. The program’s generic look is pure Windows in Planning mode, a bit old-fashioned and plain in Guidance mode, so for looks Nav’ 9 gets 7.5.

CoPilot Navigator 9 is an excellent, affordable option for those who love to travel but are directionally challenged or road warriors on a budget who want GPS navigation but can’t afford high-dollar devices or fifty-thousand-dollar land cruisers with GPS built in. It’s double-duty as planner and navigator makes it a better bargain than hand-held devices at three or four times the price. With CoPilot Navigator 9 traveling can be fun again.

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