The Essex-Devon trial: GPS gadget v. road atlas

Which one, asks Charles Arthur, will get you there first?
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The Independent Online

In the red corner, a Palm m500 and Navman GPS locator, full to the brim with electronic maps of Britain and its cities plus position-sensing hardware; in the blue corner, a slightly foxed copy of the Collins Road Atlas Europe; and in the centre wearing the boxing gloves, my wife, while I try to referee on a journey from Essex to Devon and back again.

In the red corner, a Palm m500 and Navman GPS locator, full to the brim with electronic maps of Britain and its cities plus position-sensing hardware; in the blue corner, a slightly foxed copy of the Collins Road Atlas Europe; and in the centre wearing the boxing gloves, my wife, while I try to referee on a journey from Essex to Devon and back again.

On the face of it, the Global Positioning System should have it nailed. It can show you where you are on a map on the Palm's screen with a resolution down to 1 kilometre (0.6 mile) and an accuracy within 10 metres, and highlight the names of roads or towns that you're passing. It has trip-planning software: tell it the start and end towns of your journey and it'll think for a while, offer you the quickest or shortest journey (not always the same thing), and then map out for you, again at the resolution you choose. And it's hundreds of pounds' worth of spanking new technology.

Our Collins Road Atlas, on the other hand, has seen better days. Quite a few of the pages are ripped and some might even be missing. Still, it's big – A3, opened out – and in colour; the Palm we tried wasn't, though colour versions are available.

The GPS receiver clips on the back of the Palm (m500 or m505 only), making it about A5 size. The large aerial is a passive receiver, so don't worry about radiation.

The Navman worked out the route for our trip in a couple of minutes. We could then view the route, starting from our house: "Turn right on to the Unnamed Road," it stated confidently. Not the most auspicious of starts. The Collins Road Atlas wasn't able to name the road either but it was easy to see where we were going; and a quick couple of flicks to the index showed us where we were starting from, and where we were going. It probably took a bit longer than the GPS, but did leave us with a mental picture of our route.

Still, the Navman GPS system was able to show us our progress along the roads and motorways, updating every few seconds. The software is generally intuitive, and follows the well-established Palm model; like the Apple operating system, it's a rigid wrapper that forces application programs to be well-behaved and laid out. You're warned against trying to use it while driving – which one would be tempted to do without another person as navigator.

For us, the decisive moment came when we got nearer to our destination. Leaving the M5 and joining the A38, a roadside sign said that there were blockages between Liskeard and Bodmin. "Is that on our route?" Instant panic. Poking at the GPS's interface revealed little, since the screen is only a few inches square, and while you might be able to find out where you are right now, it's rather harder to find out how that relates to somewhere else of unknown location. A few prods revealed that it wasn't possible to have Liskeard, Bodmin, our planned route and our present position all displayed at the same time and decipher their relationship. And time was running out as the potential holdup approached at 70 miles an hour or so.

Turning to the road atlas provided the answer much more rapidly: no, it wasn't a problem. Case closed, really, in favour of the printed page – especially when on the return trip, the GPS insisted that it was still in Devon, even as we turned back off Unnamed Road into our home in Essex. "Ridiculous," said my wife. I had to agree.

Glitches apart, the benefits of a GPS on small screens seem limited to me. Navman comes with city maps, so that you could find your way around London or dozens of cities on the Continent, and there are versions coming for the PocketPC. I can see the arguments in its favour: if you're somewhere unfamiliar it could tell you where to go and what roads to go up and down.

However, I still suspect that here, too, paper would have the advantage: a pocket guide to Paris or Milan or London A-Z would all offer the same sort of information, but your eye can wander over the page, taking in other reference points. Somewhere, there's a perfect application for this technology – but this isn't it.

Navman GPS500: £230 inc VAT; www.navman-mobile.com (01293 449 882)

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