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Find your way home
One lost writer. Five new GPS devices. A thousand acres of wilderness. And it's getting dark.
August 9, 2005: 10:17 AM EDT
By Philip Higgs, MONEY Magazine
Photo GallerylaunchSee more photos

NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - Who needs a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device? Military commanders, to be sure. Around-the-world yachtsmen, yeah. But you? What, to find your way home through the backyard?

Well, you might not use this device (which is commonly referred to simply as a GPS) every day, but when the time comes, you'll be glad you have it.

Maybe a family hike gone awry -- it's near dusk and you're at a trailhead you've never seen. Or a day of cross-country skiing that turns cold quickly and you need a shortcut back to the inn. In these situations, you'll never feel stupid for having brought a GPS.

The basics

What's more, the technology has improved vastly. First, the basics: A GPS does not replace a map. It tells you how to get from point A to point B as the crow flies, and a map tells you if there's a sheer cliff between you and point B. If you have ever been in the woods with an armload of maps and still not had the foggiest idea of where you are, you'll see the value of the GPS/map combo.

A GPS picks up satellite signals and indicates your location on a small screen. (All but the most basic ones display basemaps -- actual maps with a dot representing you; other devices show you and your destination as dots, with no map). Before a trip, you program the latitude and longitude of key spots (called waypoints in GPS-speak) -- your campsite, say, or where the car's parked. In the wild, the GPS knows where you (and your waypoints) are.

Let's say you're lost. The GPS tells you you're at lat. 46°14' N, long. 69°19' W. Scroll to your desired waypoint, which you've named "Campsite," and an arrow pops up telling you which way to walk. (You then refer to your map to make sure you don't walk off that sheer cliff.) If you didn't happen to preprogram the coordinates, the GPS still tells you your latitude and longitude, which you can locate on a map.

Most units today come enabled with WAAS, a new positioning protocol that gives your location within three meters. They also have at least 12 receivers for faster satellite readings. The models we tested include one basic, three middle-of-the-road and one with a justifiably higher price. (Prices are MSRP; retail will likely be lower.) The more you spend, the more memory, speed and graphics it'll have -- and the more of a hero you'll be when you save your family from the impending rainstorm. When you're out of trail mix. And American Idol starts in half an hour.

Our test

Test details A friend who's no stranger to the northern Colorado wild set some routes into five GPS devices. He ditched me in the woods, and I had to retrace his steps using only the devices. To gauge overall reception and how long it takes for each unit to lock in satellites, I rebooted them in open space, then under tree cover and finally indoors.

Tip Color maps are generally easier to read, but gray scale can work better in sunlight. The easiest to read, rain or shine: the color transreflective screens found on the Magellan eXplorist 600 and the Garmin GPSMAP 60CS.

What to look for

The egg shape of Magellan's eXplorist 600 packs in all the key features you should expect from a GPS device:

  • Simple interface: Intuitive controls make the 600 easy to operate.
  • Customization: Access the info you care about without endless scrolling.
  • Speed: The Magellan locks in satellites faster than most others.

See the complete test results and photo gallery

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