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Tom Keating [June 26, 2002]

Get Where You're Going With PowerLOC's Destinator And A Pocket PC

BY Tom Keating


PowerLOC Technologies Inc., Inc.

Ph: 905-764-3701
www.destinator1.com

Price: $329, includes Destinator software, North American maps from NAVTECH, 12 channel GPS receiver/battery charger, and a  canvas storage bag to store the Destinator and power cord.

RATINGS:
(Out of 5 possible stars.)

Installation:

Documentation:
GUI: 
Features:
Overall: A

I admit it. Like most men, I hate asking for directions (although I'm not the type to drive around aimlessly if I am lost). Usually I plan my business trips or vacation excursions and the routes needed far in advance. I live by MapQuest and Yahoo Maps as my source of route navigation. Unfortunately, printing out a MapQuest or Yahoo Maps route only works if you know in advance the exact path you will be taking. Too often when driving you will encounter unforeseen events such as detours, lunch breaks off the highway, or adding another business meeting to the itinerary. I do, of course, have maps of New York and Connecticut in my glove box, but trying to drive while reading one of those detailed maps is nearly impossible. I often look down at my iPAQ sitting in the passenger seat and wish that my iPAQ had 3G wireless Internet access to look up maps... or at least GPS functionality.

Well, 3G Internet access might still be a ways off, but GPS for the Pocket PC has been around for quite some time now, and the technology just keeps getting better. I test drove PowerLOC's Destinator for the iPAQ and was very impressed with the accuracy and usability of the product. Two things I noticed right off the bat: First, it's portable, so you can take it from car to car. Second, it comes with a Y-adaptor connector that powers both the GPS antenna and the iPAQ at the same time. Even cooler is that unlike some competing products, this product doesn't use the one precious CF slot for connecting to a GPS antenna. Instead, the Y-adaptor connects to the iPAQ's sync port for powering the iPAQ and communicating with the GPS antenna. Thus, no worrying about the iPAQ batteries dying after a few hours of driving and you still have use of the CF slot for a memory expansion card, Wi-Fi card, or other CF card.

INSTALLATION
I installed the software onto a Windows XP PC and loaded two maps (about 48 MB each) onto the 128 MB flash card I had installed onto the iPAQ. Contained in these maps are vector coordinates for the roads, topographical features, points of interest, and other various mapping data licensed from Navigation Technologies (NAVTECH) -- considered the leader in mapping software. NAVTECH is used on-board Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Porsche, Acura, Lexus, Land Rover, Jaguar, and other automobiles. The ever-popular MapQuest also licenses the NAVTECH data.

I've used the NAVTECH database before with the Hertz NeverLost system was impressed with its accuracy. However, I didn't expect the Destinator database to be as complete as the Hertz system, since NeverLost uses multiple 600 MB capacity CDs to store the mapping data. I was able to use Destinator with a 128 MB CF card and could have gotten away with a 64 MB -- or even a 32 MB card -- with some maps. Surely, PowerLOC would have to prune some of the data in order to squeeze it into a much smaller memory footprint. Boy was I wrong! I contacted PowerLOC and they told me that Destinator uses proprietary data compression technology that squeezes 21 CDs worth of North American street-level NAVTECH maps into half a CD. Impressive! They also told me that they are working on incorporating real-time traffic data in the calculations, which will certainly make this product even better.

Now for the fun part -- hooking up the unit in my Dodge Viper and testing Destinator in a real-world scenario. I was driving to Cape Cod for Memorial Day weekend the same week I received the unit in the mail. Installing the unit in my car was a simple task, but unfortunately the Viper is known for its sparse interior, with few creature comforts. It has only one cigarette lighter, which I use for my radar detector. Driving without radar detection on Memorial Day ("Speed Trap") weekend is suicide. What to do? I made a quick pit stop at Radio Shack and picked up a one-to-three cigarette lighter adaptor which allowed me to connect the GPS antenna, my radar detector, and my phone charger all at once!

FEATURES AND TESTING
Destinator offers various options for setting your destination. You can select a city, a city and address, an entry in the Points of Interest (POI) database (i.e. restaurants, hotels, gas stations, etc.), or map the cursor to a point on the map. I set the destination to a specific address in Cape Cod and off we went. We didn't get far before we realized that the software was taking us on Route 1 (a secondary highway) instead of I-95 (major highway). Apparently, I had the mode accidentally set to "Shortest Route" instead of "Quickest" when previously playing around with the settings. Unless you check the Settings screen (left) you may be unaware of the current mode. Thus, I think during all map display modes (graphic map, waypoints list, etc.), it should say what mode you are in. It could simply be a "Q" or "S" on the screen to save screen real estate.

Similarly, it was difficult to know in the Settings screen whether the yellow or blue on the buttons meant the feature was on or off. I tried clicking on "Quickest" multiple times to make sure it was on that mode, but in fact what it was doing was toggling between Quickest and Shortest even though I clicked on the Quickest button. Thus, two suggestions: First, even if the user clicks on the same feature that is already selected, leave it on that mode -- don't toggle it. Second, since it is unclear whether blue or yellow means the feature is selected, put a red dot or something similar next to the feature that is currently on. I eventually figured out that yellow means "on".

The Destinator soon proved its worth when we encountered a warning sign on the road that said "I-95 Closed Exit 33." I-95, the busiest highway in Connecticut closed on Memorial Day weekend? Murphy's Law, I suppose.

We were moving at a measly 5 mph with 10 miles to the accident scene, not to mention another 200 miles to our destination. I got off the highway and tried to recalculate another route, but it kept directing me back onto I-95. I wish the software would allow me to program it to avoid a certain highway. PowerLOC told me they are working on this feature.

In any case, I was able to drive to the Merritt Parkway as an alternate route. Unfortunately, due to the road closure, other vehicles had the same idea causing this two-lane highway to move even slower than I-95. I got off this highway and turned to Destinator to try and find an alternate route. Using Destinator, I was able to drive from Bridgeport on Route 8, crossing onto Route 34 to New Haven, and then got back on I-95 where there was virtually no traffic. Phew! A 20-minute detour was certainly better than sitting for 2 hours in standstill traffic.

In any event, while driving, the map (left) will actually auto-rotate so that the car icon (triangle with GPS signal or circle when GPS signal is missing) on the map is always facing the direction that we were traveling ("Heads Up"). We could have also changed this so that the map is always facing north ("North Up"), but we preferred the "Heads Up" mode. You can also switch to other graphical modes. One mode shows the start and end points denoted by flags on a "zoomed" out map.

 

Yet another mode shows all the waypoints (turns) and their estimated distance (right). The audio guidance is excellent, though my passenger thought the voice was too tinny due to the poor speaker quality on the iPAQ. Destinator gives you ample warning at approximately 500 yards and again at 200 yards from an intersection that requires an action. Then just before you actually reach the intersection you are reminded what action to take. If you miss the turn, don't worry -- Destinator will automatically recalculate the best route to your destination.

While driving, my passenger and I were able to press the iPAQ's up/down buttons to zoom in or out on the map. By turning on "Auto Zoom", the map will auto zoom depending on the speed of the vehicle, i.e. only showing major roads when traveling at highway speeds and showing all secondary roads when traveling at lower speeds.

Destinator keeps a log of your past 15 destination points, so you can quickly return to one of these locations from the Previous History screen. Also, Destinator has a "Record" feature that will record the entire route taken, but it requires the user to manually click a button to do so. You can record your route as it was taken and then replace it or send it as a file to other Destinator users. During replay, you can set the playback speed and you can click on the "i" button to get the attributes of the stretch of the road.

I'd like to have the software always automatically record the past 10 routes taken, including any detours from the programmed destination point. For example, there were some instances when we deviated from our destination point and explored areas around Cape Cod. Later on, we wished to figure out where we were in case we wanted to go back. However, Destinator only keeps the destination points in its Previous History and not the entire route taken.

Although NAVTECH is responsible for the POI database and not PowerLOC, I thought it worth mentioning that the POI categories surprisingly do not include a movie theater or coffee house category. Sacrilege I say! Nevertheless, I did find the POI database quite comprehensive --  it includes at least 45 categories, such as hotels, gas stations, restaurants (by type), casinos, parks, hospitals, banks, shopping centers, and more (left).

One neat feature when searching under a particular POI category is that it initially sorts by distance. So for example, if you choose Restaurant, then the subcategory Chinese, it will list the closest Chinese restaurant first. If you're looking for a particular Chinese restaurant, you simply click on an icon to sort the POI entries alphabetically, then start typing the name. Destinator auto-completes the name as you type, so you don't need to type the whole thing. You can type a few letters and then highlight the one on the screen that matches and then simply click Navigate. I do have one suggestion however. When you sort the POI entries alphabetically, it doesn't do a secondary sort by distance and it also doesn't display the distance next to the POI entry. Thus, when we chose Restaurants, sorted alphabetically, then typed "McDonald's", the first POI entry listed was more than 25 miles away. I could of course sort it back by distance and then just scroll down until I see the first McDonalds listed, but this is more tedious.

Currently, you can use the "Map Cursor" feature to navigate to a point on the map. But it required clicking on Menu, Destination, Map Cursor, choosing the hand icon and then pointing to a spot on the map. I'd like to be able to just hold the stylus on the map until the circle of red dots appears (Pocket PC right-click functionality) and then select Map Cursor. My suggested method would require far fewer steps (two steps instead of five).

One final note -- Destinator supplies an SDK that is designed to allow for integration with third party software. Supplied as a COM control, the SDK enables third parties to connect to the Destinator and utilize it either as embedded navigation platform, or as an optional addition to the software. Integration is possible from C++/VB and Java.

CONCLUSION
I've made several suggestions for the product throughout this review, but all in all, Destinator performed very well and I would not hesitate to recommend it.

While communicating with PowerLOC, the company told me that several of my suggestions will be added to the next release, so kudos to them for taking constructive criticism and working to better their product. In fact, part of my extra criticism is because this is the best GPS solution I've seen for a PDA and I'd like to use it personally once my recommendations have been implemented.

Even without my suggestions, Destinator is a fine product and at just $329 for the software and GPS antenna, this is one of the most inexpensive GPS solutions you will find.

Tom Keating is the executive technology editor of TMC Labs, and TMC's CTO. He welcomes your comments at Tom Keating .











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