For the last several months, I have been using a nifty new feature on my cell phone. It’s only available on certain models, but I expect it to become more widespread in the near future. This new function instantly transforms the phone into a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver that can pinpoint your location, give precise directions to your destination, provide maps, tell you your speed and direction of travel, remaining distance, and more. It’s almost like having a navigator sitting next to you telling you every turn to make. Of course, like anything else, it’s not free, but the monthly cost is rather modest.
Now that I’ve learned it, used it, and discovered most of the pros and cons, I’d like to offer my opinions.
I have found it to be indispensable – something I would not want to travel without. Even though I have a fairly keen sense of direction and seldom get lost, I use it often. It has shown me easier and quicker routes to places I’ve been to many times. When traveling to unfamiliar areas, it sure beats having to constantly glance at directions and maps.
Sure, there are a few minor glitches, but nothing serious. The little bugs will be worked out eventually. It’s not as detailed as the GPS features that are available on many new vehicles, but for a fraction of the cost, it’s pretty darn close.
The step-by-step guidance is its most remarkable feature. Once you launch the GPS on the phone and enter in your destination, it takes over. It’s not necessary to tell it where you’re starting from, since it already knows. And there are virtually no distance limits, at least none that I have found.
When your information is entered, the phone will scan the skies for satellites, which usually takes less than a minute under ideal conditions. Once you’ve been located, you simply follow the audio directions from the phone’s speaker. A visual indicator of your position including the street you’re on and the distance to the next turn also appears on the phone’s screen as you go.
Each and every turn, freeway merge, exit, etc., and whether it’s left or right, is clearly announced in plenty of time to allow you to prepare. No more scurrying across three lanes of traffic at the last minute. After you make the turn, a simple glance at the phone will tell you how far you have to travel to the next one. Mileage indicators count down the distance to that point, and also to your destination throughout your trip.
Should you make a wrong turn anywhere, or for some reason decide to take another route, there’s no need to reset anything. The phone will recalculate your position, announce a new route, and take over from there. As you approach your destination, the phone makes its final announcement – “your destination is on your left/right.”
I find the whole process simply amazing. It’s pretty difficult to get lost with it. Even if you do, you can select the map feature and a map will pop up showing your precise location. It is also expressed in latitude and longitude, which could be vital information if you need to summon emergency assistance for any reason. And it’s accurate to within feet, not miles.
The GPS mode can be suspended at any time without actually disengaging it if you wish to use the phone to make or receive calls. When you’re finished with the call, the GPS is easily restored.
If you want to find restaurants, gas stations, motels, or other types of businesses nearby, the phone lists them, tells you where they are in relation to your location, and can provide the same step-by-step driving instructions. Even if you go off the beaten path to reach them, your unit will guide you back when you tell it to.
Once you have the feature on your phone, it can be customized to suit your preferences. For example, distances can be indicated in miles or kilometers, street names can be announced, you can select how far you need to be from turns to hear announcements, and more. I personally like the street name announcements. Even though some get mis-pronounced, it eliminates any doubt as to where to turn.
It is not necessary to hold the phone in your hand. It can be placed in any spot that’s visible (preferably near a window), or it can be mounted using a special device.
Those are the pros. Now for the cons. As mentioned before, there are glitches, but I’ve found them to be rather minor. Here are some of the ones I’ve discovered.
No signal. The GPS won’t work indoors, under heavy foliage, or in areas surrounded by tall buildings. It needs a clear view of an open sky. You also need to be in a network coverage area. It works in most vehicles, however, since the phone is normally close to the windshield and other windows. Should you get a no signal indication, you’ll have to “retry” or move to a more open area. Of course this causes you to lose the step-by-step guidance, but fortunately, it doesn’t happen often. Once the signal has been reached, and the satellites can locate your phone again, the directions to your destination will resume.
Delayed and/or erratic information. In areas where streets are very close together and you’re making several turns, the unit may not be able to recognize the change in your position in time to announce the next turn. The map feature comes in handy here.
Occasional “new route” calculations. If you hear it announce a new route even though you haven’t strayed, ignore it. It will eventually re-establish your position.
It shouldn’t be relied upon 100%, and it is not intended to replace careful navigating and good judgment. You should always have a back-up map or directions handy, just in case you encounter a problem. But for the most part, I think you’ll find it quite reliable.
The GPS feature uses up your phone’s battery at an alarming rate, so you definitely need a cord that allows you to plug the phone into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter, even if you’re going to use it for only a short distance.
Is it distracting to use while driving? Not at all, as far as I’m concerned. Normal use of the GPS involves nothing more than an occasional glance at the phone. However, looking up new addresses, programming information into the phone, and reading the map requires complete attention, and should only be done by a passenger, or after you have safely stopped the vehicle. Attempting any of the above while driving would be extremely hazardous to you and anyone else on the road.
All in all, this is perhaps the greatest navigational aid to hit the market in years. I strongly suggest you contact your cell phone provider and find out if they offer it for your phone. If you’re like me, you won’t want to leave home without it.