An affordable GPS for your car that works

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The Independent Online

"I expect a satellite navigation system would come in useful in your job," I said to the breakdown-truck driver. He agreed vehemently - not surprising, as he had just spent a frustrating hour driving south on the motorway, having not realised that the M11 exit he'd been heading towards is for northbound traffic only. So he had to drive past the place that he wanted for 10 miles, and drive another five north. The map might show that it's north-only, but you can't read a map and drive at the same time. "Some of the places I get sent to just aren't on the map," he said. It was hard to disagree, as my house with its dead car was one of them.

"I expect a satellite navigation system would come in useful in your job," I said to the breakdown-truck driver. He agreed vehemently - not surprising, as he had just spent a frustrating hour driving south on the motorway, having not realised that the M11 exit he'd been heading towards is for northbound traffic only. So he had to drive past the place that he wanted for 10 miles, and drive another five north. The map might show that it's north-only, but you can't read a map and drive at the same time. "Some of the places I get sent to just aren't on the map," he said. It was hard to disagree, as my house with its dead car was one of them.

But for breakdown companies and drivers who have tired of wrangling with unclear maps, help has finally arrived. With a working car, I tried an affordable GPS (Global Positioning System) product that links to Pocket PCs. It works - and talks to you, rather than requiring you to snatch glances at the screen while driving. I'd rate it a success, a product worth buying; and in itself that shows how far this category has come in the past year.

Last year I reviewed another handheld GPS product; it failed woefully. Used on a long family trip, it couldn't do the simple things - showing you where other things are, showing you where you are, suggesting what you should do. Now, the hardware has advanced enough that you can squeeze detailed road maps for the whole of England from Manchester south into 64Mb; and the screen quality (on the Compaq iPaq I used) won't induce eyestrain.

The TomTom Navigator 2 consists of a matchbox-sized GPS receiver that sits in the windscreen, with some unavoidably unsightly cables to link to the Pocket PC. Both are powered from the cigarette lighter. The GPS works out where it is and tells the Pocket PC, which you stick to the windscreen. You tell the Pocket PC where you want to go, and it works out a route and begins instructing you. The English version has a cut-glass female voice that is easily audible over the noise of a car stereo. The warnings ("at the junction, turn left") come up in good time, usually 10 seconds or so before a diversion. If they're too annoying, you can turn the sound off and leave the screen directions going.

There are some nice details: if you head off in the wrong direction it doesn't yelp, "What on earth are you doing?" as human navigators do; it simply recalculates the route, usually involving a detour back to the original. And if your choice turns out to be a valid alternative it will automatically recalculate based on that, and continue without a murmur. You can tell it to avoid particular roads or places, such as London's Congestion Charge zone. And the screen gives a useful readout of how far you have to go, and how long it should take. "Points of interest" such as petrol stations, airports, beaches and many others are displayed (you choose which); and you can save a "Home" location and other "Favourites" for easy navigation.

However, perfection has been delayed. The blurb promises "easy installation". Not in my experience. It works on Windows 98 upwards, but trying to install it from Windows XP on to a 64Mb iPaq was frustrating. It took three "hard resets" (you press many buttons at once and mutter Anglo-Saxon phrases) plus much tweaking of the iPaq's memory settings to load the application plus one 32Mb map. If you're serious, you'll definitely want a memory-expansion card for your Pocket PC - the biggest you can afford - to store larger maps such as those of European countries.

Despite claiming to be current for December 2002, the map didn't know about recent changes (junction 8a off the M11, to Stansted Airport, was completed last November, but go there and the system reckons you're off-road). Nor were the suggested routes always shorter or faster; on one occasion I was faintly alarmed to be directed off a fast B road on to a single-track road that was not faster and felt a lot longer.

Entering destinations is a mild struggle. Ideally, one would just enter a full postcode; those are unambiguous, and define small areas. Instead you have to name a city, and then a street name. This is hard when you don't know the exact address - in which street is Cambridge railway station, where I wanted to take a friend? (OK: you find that through the "Points of Interest" listing, but only experienced hands would know that in a hurry.)

However, installation issues (which would have been eased by more memory) aside, the TomTom does the job well. The £250-odd price is worth it if you regularly have fights over map-reading, or have to head for unknown locations. It would also mean that breakdown drivers would reach you sooner. And who could argue with that?

TomTom Navigator 2: software, GPS receiver, map of one country, car mount £269; maps of 15 Western European countries, £129. Without GPS receiver, £119. Requires Windows 98 or better and Pocket PC. www.tomtom.com

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