Windows Phone Thoughts: GPS Navigation Shootout Intro Part II: Hardware To Get U There

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Thursday, February 27, 2003

GPS Navigation Shootout Intro Part II: Hardware To Get U There

Posted by Gary Garland, Esq. in "THOUGHT" @ 08:15 AM

In Part I of our introduction to GPS for the Pocket PC, we spoke about GPS in general, terminology and certain expectations. Now let’s take a look at some hardware choices. In Part III (the final part) of our introduction, we’ll talk about test methods and how certain applications performed at various tasks. Then, we’ll finally get to the individual solutions, and how they performed!

A few years ago, if you wanted GPS for your Pocket PC, you were pretty much looking at a Navman sleeve, and probably Pocket CoPilot. At some point, Pharos and Teletype got into the mix, for the Holy Trinity of Pocket PC GPS solutions. Of late, vendors have been popping out of the woodwork, and my own personal top picks are the youngest of the bunch.

Regardless of which package you ultimately decide upon, you will need hardware. Some hardware comes bundled with the software, reducing some costs (and some options), or you can mix and match as you see fit.

SiRF’s up
The majority of Pocket PC receivers contain the SiRF chipset. That means you can also use SiRF-based diagnostic programs to operate and tweak your receiver. An exception is the purportedly discontinued Radio Shack Digitraveller, which we’ll discuss below.

If you're using a SiRF-based receiver, you can generally operate in one of two modes - the slower (but industry standard) NMEA output (essentially 4,800 baud, text characters), and the faster SiRF output (generally 38,400 baud). I see no advantage or purpose to shifting operating modes, but you generally can, so I told you about it. Most of the software is only NMEA compliant anyway, so the other mode is simply a luxury, at least for our purposes.

TTFF? Ta Ta For Now?
Time To First Fix is one of the specifications you can use to decide which receiver is best for you. From what I experienced, all the current crop performed similarly. To read a great discussion of TTFF and comparisons, check out on the Web site. In a nutshell, there is the factory setting which can take up to 15 minutes to acquire your very first fix (I’ve not seen this happen).

As an example of the other categories/levels of “fix,” here is some information I received about the Pharos unit: :
  • Hot Start: 8 seconds (i.e. Driving through a tunnel)
  • Warm Start: 45 seconds (PDA Reboot)
  • Cold Start: 60 seconds ( Receiver powered down, then on)

These are the specs sent to me by Pharos. In reality, I found the acquisition times to be much faster. Using TTFF comparisons, you can then judge between receivers.

Short sleeves or tails?

A sampling of choices.

The choices abound. Manufacturers are still a bit iPAQ biased (god bless ‘em), so if you have an iPAQ you have some additional choices, thanks to the expansion pack. For example, what you'll find included in the generation 1 Navman sleeve and the new (and in my opinion, much better) offering from CoPilot (made by Emtac, sold by Transplant Computing). We’ll go into the sleeves below.

If you don’t want to go with the expansion sleeve, whether it's because hp has no future commitments to produce sleeve-compatible units, or because you have a non-sleeve unit, you still have plenty of choices like CF units, serial units and the new Bluetooth offerings.

Which hardware choice is better?

Tough testing: Teletype appears to outperform the Garmin - except Teletype said I was in Hong Kong!
Fluctuating signals make testing hardware difficult.

I honestly don’t know. I tried using each piece of hardware at the same location using software which shows satellite signal strength. The problem is the satellite signal strength fluctuates from second to second, even from my comfortable couch where I performed more than half of the tests. From my couch (and of course, in the car in rural areas, and in Manhattan), I found most receivers performed similarly. I did find that the Holux serial receiver pulled in a stronger signal than most, but I can’t make this statement with any scientific backing. (I expect good results from the Holux CF GPS receiver, though I couldn’t get my paws on one. It should be a best buy.)

So, if we proceed from the assumption that each receiver will work about as well as the next, based on published specs and my empirical use, you then have to decide how you want to use these receivers.

There is no question in my mind the generation two sleeve, offered now with Pocket CoPilot or available separately from Transplant Computing feels best for an iPAQ. However, if you buy the sleeve, have you just bought technology that will be useless after the current crop of sleevable iPAQs? That’s a decision for you to make.

Another route is to go with a serial GPS, which Mapopolis calls a “mouse GPS”. I only tried the Holux serial mouse, and the Radio Shack Digitraveller. The Digitraveller is purportedly going to be discontinued, so grab it if you want one. At $99, with included Delorme Handheld software, this is a steal. I felt the Digitraveller was not as powerful in receiving signals, although I have read some reviews on the Web which said the Digitraveller was decent. The Digitraveller requires 3 AAA batteries, and comes with plugs for the iPAQ 36XX & 38/39XX series, and a Palm plug. You can also get a USB plug for a notebook. The Delorme software seemed top notch on the desktop/notebook, but disappointing in the hand. At $99 for the hardware and software, the software is a nice add in.

The Holux serial GPS is roughly $129 with a plug for your machine of choice - this plugs into the serial port of your PDA, and you can also get a plug for roughly $10 to use on another PDA, or for $10 to get a USB plug for your notebook. The unit includes a vehicle charger/adapter, so your PDA will be powered when the adapter is used. That plug also means you can’t use the GPS serial mouse as a handheld GPS solution. With the various powered car mounts on the market, you may wish to skip the serial mouse option.

Bluetooth is a new entry to the GPS market. There is the Emtac/Socket/Transplant Computing GPS offering, and the soon to arrive Navman 4400. All the Bluetooth GPS modules are expected to sell in the $400 range, and we can expect rapid price drops as with all things electronic. A fellow reviewer will post his findings on the Bluetooth GPS modules in the future. Suffice it to say I anticipate similar performance to the other GPS offerings. Advantages of the BT GPS modules would be interoperability with any BT enabled PDA, no change in your PDA’s form factor, and choice of placement - there are potential options to mount the BT modules outside the car (magnetic), on your sunroof (suction cup), or on your dash. These modules require power - some have internal rechargeable batteries, and others use AAA batteries. Weak batteries = no signal or the required use of a power cord, defeating the wireless option. The high price tag and requirement to recharge yet another set of batteries tells me this is not going to be my GPS receiver.

My choice is handheld. We touched on the sleeves above, and that leaves the CF GPS solutions. I had a chance to try the excellent Pharos CF GPS card, and the Teletype GPS CF card. I also touched a CoPilot CF GPS card, which seemed similar to the Teletype unit.

See my CF?

Pharos CF GPS size comparisons with active antenna, CF memory, and D-link CF wifi.

The major distinction between the Teletype Generation two card, and Pharos’, is the shaping. Pharos opted for the slimmer wider configuration, while Teletype and CoPilot opted for a narrower thicker unit. Both the Teletype Generation two and CoPilot unit have tilted antennas within the card, adding to its thickness - the Pharos antenna is essentially aimed at your eyes, versus the 45 degree tilts of the others aimed more at the sky. Net result? Logically, the Teletype unit should have performed better than Pharos when your PDA is vertical as the Teletype antenna is aimed towards the sky. I couldn’t see a difference in usage, and I liked the feel of the Pharos unit better.

I have not tried the Holux GPS CF card, but based on the operation of their serial mouse, I expect it to perform well.

Note: There are other CF GPS cards on the market - I would expect all SiRF cards to perform similarly, however I recommend against any card that does not accept an external active antenna. I did see large signal gains with the external active antennas from both Pharos and Teletype, and although performance was fine without the antennas, the antennas would likely help in fringe conditions.

Pharos exposed - notice the ceramic stamp sized antenna.

Flipside. Notice the small backup battery to the lower right.

Side view - notice the gold plated active antenna connection.

Batteries, anyone?
Most GPS receivers now include a small rechargeable battery. This thing won’t be operating cardiac paddles anytime soon, nor will it power your PDA. The tiny battery inside will hold a charge for roughly four to 10 days depending on the unit. The battery’s sole function is to hold your last GPS position in your receiver’s RAM, which can help speed up satellite acquisition. The Navman generation one sleeve does NOT have this battery, and consequently, quick power outages/loose contacts can affect the Navman’s performance.

What about the Navman sleeve?

Navman sleeve: strong enought to withstand the nefarious iPAQ ROM parrot, a/k/a Lucy.

The Navman sleeve performed alright, and at one point was the best game in town. Now, I can see no compelling reason to buy one unless the price is right - the CoPilot/Transplant Computing sleeve is a much better choice.

Incidentally, I did not have the appropriate wrench handy to disassemble the Navman sleeve (no disassemble!). Navman mentions a helix antenna. I’ve been told inside the Navman antenna nub sits a coiled ribbon. I don’t have scientific data of how that ribbon performs against the ceramic antennas inside the current crop of units. I would suppose that if the ribbon design was superior, all the receivers would have it. The sleeve did perform well under normal conditions.

Note: The Navman sleeve requires drivers to operate. If you get the older CoPilot Navman edition, you will need to use CoPilot as the standard Navman drivers won’t work with this special edition sleeve. With the drivers, the Navman sleeve, whether regular or CoPilot Edition, should also export to any NMEA compatible software.

Now that I have bashed poor Navman, let me say they are coming out with a new Bluetooth GPS module that looks very nice. Also, I’m not allowed to say what Navman has up its sleeve, but to stay competitive, I’d wager Navman would come out with a new sleeve - wouldn’t you? Last thing - Navman is coming out with its dedicated in-car navigation system which is supposed to go head to head with the Garmin StreetPilot III. It's due around April, I’ll report if I can get my hands on one.

Brief fun fact: The Navman sleeve is used in a variety of industries, including with special software for farmers! Imagine using your iPAQ to determine where to lay seed or fertilizer!

The new CoPilot/Transplant Computing Sleeve

The CoPilot/Transplant Computing sleeve - notice the ceramic antenna to the extreme upper right


Notice the CF card in the slot on the back, well engineered and built.

Navman will have to produce something like that if they want to stay in this business. This new sleeve is thinner than the Navman unit (but that’s not really important). The sleeve feels good in the hand (as did the Navman). Both the Navman and this sleeve accept CF Cards. I even used a CF GPS receiver plugged into the slot. Anyway, there are a few things that set this sleeve above the Navman’s:

1) Integrated charge JACK. No horrible dongle needed. Use any charger, or the included DC power plug, and you can charge your iPAQ through this sleeve, whether at home or in the car. NICE!

2) Tilted ceramic antenna. I don’t know if this offers better performance over Navman’s helix, but I would wager it does.

3) External active antenna. The CoPilot’s external antenna (and likely the one directly from Transplant Computing) appears to be different than the Pharos and Teletype external antennas in appearance. Not a big deal, just making a statement. The “active” is from a low noise amplifier built into the mouse end. These antennas (whether from CoPilot, Pharos, Teletype, and probably the rest) have magnets to stick on your car’s exterior (or your refrigerator). Also, at least with the CoPilot sleeve, if you plug in the external antenna it disables the internal antenna. Supposedly, the iPAQ can throw some interference to the built in antenna, perhaps that’s why an external antenna works better.

4) This is no big deal, but as mentioned, the CoPilot’s external antenna appears a bit different (though similar) from the other external antennas. The cable itself is also a bit different - it's slightly firmer, and feels like a miniature coaxial cable, like a baby version of your cable antenna. Also, the end plug on the CoPilot is very well designed - it's a gold plated plug at a 90 degree angle, to facilitate use and removal. The end of the jack is exactly the same as the Teletype’s, and I’ve tried each in the other with the power off. I did not try with the power on, I’m not looking for trouble.

5) No special drivers needed - put it in and your little buddy will recognize the sleeve, and begin operation. Note: CoPilot requires the CoPilot Edition sleeve to operate. The CoPilot sleeve was able to work fine with Mapopolis. Destinator is going to be releasing a patch to work with the sleeve. I could not receive a signal on Pharos. Supposedly, all GPS solutions are compatible with the method the Transplant Computing sleeve uses, so these non-conforming applications will have to be patched. I don’t remember if it was a TTL bit or something else.

GPS Com port?
I had some strange occurrences with my lil’ buddy. First, I installed the Navman sleeve, which installed to COM6 on my iPAQ 3975. It will likely install to a lower number on a non-Bluetooth equipped iPAQ, possibly to Com4 on a 3630. Anyway, my CF GPS solutions also used COM6. Fine. Later, I did something, and ended up on COM0, which all the other solutions then used as well. Some of the software packages were not compatible with COM0. Eventually, I don’t know how, I removed things, played with the registry, prayed to Bill Gates, and eventually I got back to COM6, which I now think of as my GPS Com port. I have not been able to get detailed information about this from the vendors. You supposedly can not modify COM ports on the Pocket PC, at least not on purpose :)

Canyons of New York

NYC stationary test area - Park & 33rd - notice edge of the Empire State Building towards the top center.

What I do for you readers (both of you)! I took the missus in our GPS van, along with every piece of hardware and breakfast I had. The baby was in the back. She wanted to know why we were going into NYC to sit in the van. “Because, Turtledove, the Pocket PC Thoughts readers need to have this information!” Well, after a while, the baby started screaming, Turtledove was screaming, and then I began screaming. I had to hightail out of Manhattan. She wasn’t happy.

The next morning, as I awoke from the couch and started to prepare Turtledove’s breakfast, I pondered my results:

1) There was no apparent interference from the Empire State Building’s transmitter. Try to listen to radio or watch TV, and you’ll be miserable, but it did not appear to affect the GPS receivers.

2) I parked on a side street near the Empire State Building. I had a narrow view of the sky. That means the satellites had a narrow view of me. Remaining stationary, I received and lost signals. That included the Garmin unit as well.

3) The active external antenna is better than nothing, but if you don’t have a decent view of the sky, it can only do so much. It would likely help if you’re going under a canopy of trees, but if you’re only seeing a small slice of sky, you can expect bad performance.

4) Your software will also determine your experience. If your package will only work with a 3D (4 satellite) reading, then even if your receiver “knows” your location, your software won’t. Also, your software may balk at the lack of signals, or handle things better. I did not have a chance to test the packages while driving through Manhattan; see Turtledove references at the beginning of this section. I, for one, am glad most of my testing is complete!

Power to the People
You will use your PDA differently in the car than in your home or office. In the daytime, you will likely need the backlight on full, versus my usual miserly use. That means you will probably need to power your lil’ buddy. I found, in general, the GPS receivers were roughly the equivalent of using my backlight at medium. Using the receivers with full backlighting will cause your power levels to drop faster than the ratings of the New Love Boat.

If you use a serial GPS receiver, your power needs will be covered, and your iPAQ will charge while giving you directions. Otherwise, you’ll want to use one of the power adapters generally supplied with the packages that have car mounting options, or you can buy an appropriate power adapter relatively inexpensively.

This is my segue to talk about mounts. I will be writing an equally boring series on mounts in the near future. If you get a powered mount, your PDA’s power needs will be met (and of course, you’d avoid the serial GPS receiver).

My own preference today is a windshield mount, versus the vent mounts out there. I have a few more mounts to try. Bear in mind, you need to keep your eyes on the road, and I can glimpse the windshield/top of dash level faster than I can glimpse downwards towards a vent mount, or the Odyssey's installed location.

Why so quiet about the Garmin StreetPilot III?

Even the excellent Garmin had some trouble in NYC.

This is still part of the introduction. I will say the SP3 pulls in a strong signal, but in my NYC canyon test, it also did not have a signal, and lost signals repeatedly in Manhattan, as did everyone else. That is not a failing of the StreetPilot III, but rather what happens when you can’t see the satellites.

The StreetPilot III performed among the best of the Pocket PC solutions, but as all things in life, there were some flaws, as I’ll point out when we get to the reviews. And yes, I do read the forums :)

Sale Notice
I try for the readers! Here are the discounts I've been able to wrange so far - if I can get more, you'll see them in future posts. I get NOTHING from these. Pocket PC Thoughts gets nothing from these. As I will mention in the third introductory article, Mapopolis dropped from my top choice in favor of Destinator. Not because of the sale price, but because Mapopolis let me down on a route. Destinator is presently my top choice. Regardless, here are the sales for you lucky people:
Exclusive Offer to PocketPC Thoughts Readers:
  • Destinator 2.0 hardware/software for only $296 - that's 10% of the published price
    This one-time offer will not be repeated. Call Destinator at 866.798.0905 ext. 248, mention promo code PPCT0403, offer expires April 1, 2003.
You have to call that number and use that code to get 10% off the full hardware and software package. This is the link for what's in it (the Destinator Navigation System - $329), but don't order from the link or you won't get the discount: Destinator Navigation System.

Also, my friends at have told me about the following specials (I’m trying for more, for Thoughts readers):
  • Pharos PocketPC 2002 Ostia Navigation and Routing Software Only - USA Edition NAV-02 Regular price of $78.95 on sale for $68.95, now further reduced to $64.35 until March 31, 2003, here’s the link: Pharos software only special
  • Pocket GPS Navigator Kit for T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone PK035 Regular price of $219.95 on sale for $209.95.
In my opinion, Pharos software for $64.35 is a sweet deal. This is the lowest price of the full blown GPS software package I have seen.

You’ll still have to wait to read my reviews though :)

Well, you did it. You’ve made it to the end of my latest rant. I hope it was somewhat informative. The last part of our introduction will actually talk about a few packages, and the test methods. Then we can finally get into the reviews!


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