October 8, 2004
NEW YORK - O.K., so I don't like asking for directions. But I don't get lost so often that I need to spend more than $1,000 on a built-in car navigation system to plot my course with global positioning satellites.
Nor am I so directionally challenged that I'd want to spend several hundreds for a portable GPS device that I'd need to lug around every time I park my car.
And while some handheld computers have GPS capabilities, not nearly as many people carry a PDA as the legions who've adopted cell phones as a daily appendage.
That's why the notion of adding GPS navigation to a cell phone, as Nextel has with a service called TeleNav, seems appealing.
And despite some annoyances having little to do with technology, TeleNav performs the most essential task quite well at a fraction of the cost, reading step-by-step directions out loud so you can focus on the road.
Make no mistake. TeleNav is nowhere near as robust as a full-blown GPS system or a portable device:
There are no maps. The screen is smaller. It's slower, and it only works where Nextel has network coverage. And if you miss a turn during the occasional gap in cell coverage, TeleNav won't be able to deliver a quick fix to the directions until you get the signal back.
Since most cell phones don't sport much computing power or memory, TeleNav's database of roadways sits on a network server rather than the device. So there's a lag, often about 10 seconds but sometimes longer, as the phone beams your coordinates and destination to the network then awaits a response from the server.
Now, if you spend most days making deliveries, visiting customers or driving passengers, you might consider the $999 TomTom Go, a feature-rich device that also attaches to the windshield.
Shaped like a grapefruit-sized TV, the user-friendly TomTom features just one button for the power and a color touch-screen that handles everything else. It can zoom in like a flight simulator to depict your real-time movement down a road or zoom out to show your progress on the overall route. An included SD memory card holds maps that cover the United States and Canada.
But for anyone who's not a professional road warrior, a full-blown GPS device seems like overkill - especially if a cell phone can do the trick.
TeleNav was perfectly adequate for steering through an unfamiliar neighborhood or the occasional road trip. It churns out clear directions by speakerphone and a simple screen display that shows the street you're on, distance to the next turn and a big arrow indicating which way to turn.
Chief among my complaints were a poorly made mounting unit and an illogical pricing system that holds users liable for the limited capacity of Nextel's wireless data technology.
Other shortcomings are common among all GPS devices. These include satellite interference on cloudy days, mislabeled roadways and the quirks of a database that may not be helpful if the "closest" gas station is across a river.
As with most GPS systems, TeleNav lets you input an address or query the database for local businesses, services or points of interest, including gas stations, restaurants, cash machines and emergency assistance.
If you don't like punching keys and scrolling through menus on a cell phone, you can call in requests to a decent voice recognition system or preprogram destinations on the Web.
Nextel offers TeleNav on eight Motorola handsets with an embedded GPS receiver, all but one ranging in price from $80 to $200, and some non-GPS handsets which connect to a $70 GPS antenna.
The mounting unit costs $13 by itself, and $20 or $25 bundled with a car charger, depending on the phone.
One of the mounting units I tried had a faulty suction cup that periodically fell from the window, while the adjustable arm on another was so stiff that it broke off when I tried to adjust the angle.
The TomTom also suffered from cheap hardware: The hinge on the mounting unit would droop on bumps.
TeleNav users can sign up for a $10 plan designed to provide up to 10 sets of directions per month. For $20 a month, an "unlimited" plan provides between 30 and 100 routes.
However, there are extra charges if the directions exceed certain data limits, and if you make more than three wrong turns, the next set of revised directions will count as a new trip on the $10 plan.
That sounds stingy, especially since gaps in cellular or GPS reception occasionally interrupted the flow of directions, causing me to miss turns.
And sometimes, by the time TeleNav delivered a revised route to get me back on track, I had already passed the first turn on the new directions.
But why even set data limits for a navigation system?
After all, who among us hasn't driven in circles trying to get unloose? Finding your way is what GPS is all about.
Or, as they say in the old country, "four wrong turns make not a right - or an entirely new route."