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Know Where You Are — All the Time

From keeping an eye on a loved one to finding your car, GPS devices can help you in all kinds of ways

Summary

  • Simple GPS devices can be found for as low as $45
  • Many smartphones have GPS capability
  • GPS tracking systems that keep tabs on family members are gaining popularity

 

Almost everyone I know has misplaced a rental car in a parking lot. Never mind that it's embarrassing. It can also be a huge waste of time. Well, the same technology that helped U.S. tank crews find their way through the Iraqi desert can help you find your car, find your way home or keep an eye on a loved one. It's all thanks to GPS, shorthand for the Global Positioning System.

GPS was originally created as an aid to navigation for the U.S. military. Today, civilians have equal access to the constellation of 24 satellites in orbit. A GPS receiver needs to be able to "see" three satellites for a minimum position, four to determine elevation. Since the technology became fully operational in 1994, it has found its way into a host of applications.

A woman on a sand dune.

— Sergio Ballivian/Aurora Open/Getty Images

Never Ask Directions at a Gas Station Again

Many of us now use standalone GPS guidance systems in our cars. Some cars come with the systems built in. Standalone systems such as those from Garmin, Magellan, TomTom and others come with a wide variety of features beyond just giving you directions.

Garmin's Nüvi 3790T responds to voice commands and is slim enough to fit in your pocket. TomTom's Go 2505 TM not only has real time traffic, but uses community input to tell you the best routes at different times of the day. Magellan's RoadMate 9055 has a large in-class 7-inch screen. I find them particularly useful at night when it's tough for me to see street signs and house numbers. But I also find most of them problematic in bright sunshine.

Many smartphones also have built-in GPS capability. And some of the major GPS device makers also have apps for iPhone, Android and others. Among them are Garmin's StreetPilot, TomTom's Mobile Navigator and ALK's CoPilot. While they are generally accurate in determining routes, I find that the small screen size limits their usefulness. Unlike other apps that might be free or pretty cheap, these GPS apps can cost between $20 and $60, and the most expensive aren't always the best. Some apps, such as VZ Navigator on Verizon, have a monthly fee.

Searching for Your Car

There are a number of apps such as Find My Car! that will let you mark your parking spot, then let you navigate your way back to the car. They can be accurate to within about 20 or 30 feet and the app costs only 99 cents. The Bushnell BackTrack is a small compass-sized device that costs anywhere from $44 to $56, and it will help you navigate back to a point you've marked, such as a parking space.

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