GPS Port@ble Navigator Technical Review

By: Dale DePriest - all rights reserved

Portable Internet has recently released palm support on the mapping product, which has been released on Pocket PC's for some time. At this time the palm version is missing some of the features of the bigger cousin but more functionality is planned for the future including autorouting with detailed directions for a route with gps turn by turn instructions. This review covers GPS Port@ble Navigator 3.0 build 61 for the palm. Portable Internet uses a subscription service model for their software so you buy the ability to download software, updates, and maps for a period of time which can be renewed. It addition they have a local version service that supplies only one set of map data for less money. Control is maintained by controlling your ability to log into the web site. This model is important when you realize that the product is planned for many updates in both the software and the map data. Most of the information on their web site is not specific to the palm so it may be a bit difficult to determine exactly what features are on the palm unit. As part of this review I intend to clear up this confusion and provide a little documentation since a manual is not part of the product.

This review is based on running the product on a Visor Platinum but I have included some data on color features. The product takes lots of memory, 2 Meg units are not recommended, but the good news is that it works well from my memplug memory card using PiDirect. According to the folks at Portable Internet VFS is supported in the default /palm/launcher directory but I couldn't get it to work well on my memplug (selecting a map would lock up my unit). Most of the maps I tested were in the range of 500K to 1.3 Meg but a few were over 2.2 Meg. This means a 2Meg Visor couldn't even hotsync some of the maps even if they had a memory card to copy it to. The large map size is due to support for turn by turn instructions and full address lookup. This application itself is 300K which is about double the size of comparable apps on the palm. In addition to the maps you need two other files to contain place data and if this includes the Frommers reviews they can get fairly big as well. Maps generally cover a county, but many counties are divided into two maps. You can load several maps into the unit (subject to memory requirements) but you can only use one at a time. The unit will not automatically switch maps in gps mode nor will it permit route guidance using more than one map. Switching maps kills whatever route guidance you may have set up. Multiple map support is planned for the future.

To get started with this product you need to sign up and then download the installation tool and whatever maps you may need. Running the install tool forces the installation of the PC portion onto drive C: and also sets up the palm executable for the next hot sync; the maps setup offer a choice of installation area. Once you have the installation completed you can use the pc tool to select which of the maps you wish to hotsync to the unit. This means you can have a suite of maps on the pc and only load those you immediately need on the palm. Note that the executable would not run for me until I got some extra dll files. If you can't get it to run contact the Portable Internet technical support staff for resolution but meanwhile you can simply hotsync the maps you wish manually. Be sure and hotsync all three files for each map for maximum use.

The pc application installs the maps and provides the ability to figure out which map is correct for a particular city. This can be important since knowing which county a city is located in can be a problem and if the maps are split within a county the web site often lists two maps for the same city.

running the program

Once you have the program and the maps you want hotsynced to your palm you are ready to run the tool. Be sure you have enough free memory as the tool will crash if you don't. (To be fixed in the next release I have been told.) The main screen, displayed on the left, shows the words 'portable Internet" in the banner and the word Map to the right. This is the home screen for the product and can be reached any time by clicking the home icon that appears in the upper right corner. This is the only screen that contains a full complement of menus including the GPS, Map, and Help. Help includes the help screen that also appears the very first time you invoke the tool. The Map choice is where you select from the available maps and the gps menu is where you start/stop and view the gps screens. The gps menu item is available on most other screens as well.

To get started you need to select a map from the Map menu. The rest of the main page shows things you can search for and a textual description of where you are which only appears after you set your location the first time. Searching will be covered later but first lets view a map. Select the Map entry at the top of the screen to view the map. After a few seconds the map screen will appear with the map displayed, similar to the one shown at the top of this review. The top of the map screen contains the MAP in the banner and a menu selection field for zooming as well as a couple of icons for zooming. To the right of these entries is a Left arrow icon and the home icon. Remember the home icon will go back to the home screen at any time. The Left Arrow icon is used to retrace your steps like the Back button in a browser. It is the primary method of leaving a screen to return the previous screen, so screen traversal is done by selecting a screen to goto and then using the back icon to return. You can use the back icon several times until you get back to the home screen. These two icons are important for screen traversal and I wish they were hardcoded into palm buttons as well since using a stylus for simple tasks can be cumbersome in a car.

The two zoom icons can be used to zoom in and out by 2X. Their function is duplicated on the page up/down buttons. The zoom menu choices are a bit different. They select some predefined zoom levels that provide an area view of the map, a street level view, and a detailed view (a "best fit" entry appears after a search). These larger jumps can save a good deal of button pushing and also demonstrate the way the map is structured. The street and detail views show all of the roads in the map while the area view only shows the larger roads. I found some inconsistency in the area view with a road only showing short segments when in practice the full road should have been shown. The maps themselves have full street level detail for the entire US. They are based on the Tiger map database from the US census bureau which is a popular database for maps on the palm. However, these are the newest maps I have seen for the palm and represent data from the year 2000. Other maps I have seen for the palm date back to as old as 1995. While many new roads are shown on these maps I did find some missing ones as with any maps. Further some of the placement inaccuracies of roads in the Tiger database are still present in these maps, which may yield a road that is 500 feet from where it belongs. While zooming will reveal the significant roads the street level maps do not. I wish the graphics design would double the width of the freeways and major roads so they could be found easily, however, color palm users will be pleased that the major roads are a different color. As implemented the streets are all drawn with the same weight. Most of the roads have names shown on the map but you can also tap your stylus on any road on the screen and its name will be displayed. Tap on the name to remove it. The maps can also be panned. This is done by noting that there is a bullseye icon in the center of the screen. Use your stylus to drag the bullseye in any direction you wish and when you stop dragging the map at that point will be centered under the bullseye. While this method can only move 1/2 the screen width you can zoom out first to move a considerable distance with each pan. Be sure you hit the center of the screen to start your pan as the program is a bit fussy. If it displays the name of the road instead you weren't careful enough with the starting point.

It would be nice to be able to tell the program where you are by pointing to your location on the map but this is not supported unless you have a gps hooked up. (GPS usage is covered later.) You can, however, search the database for you location and set the search results to your location on the map.

Finding things

While displaying maps can be useful the real power of this program is its ability to find things and display their location. It has full address search capability as well as the ability to locate significant landmarks. Some of the areas also contain a Frommers database of reviews. This increases the locations you can search and locate significantly to include hotels, restaurants, and other interesting places such as nightspots, shopping, and Sight seeing. The Frommers sites include reviews and ratings to help you with you decisions. The items can be searched by price, type, rating, payment option, or a combination of criteria and will be displayed in order of the distance from your location. (Note that a limited version of this program can be obtained from the Frommers web site and, for that matter, Hertz and Hyatt as well.) Searches are only performed on the currently displayed map.

Address searching is supported on all maps. you can type in the exact address of just the street name and the program will search the database and display the results it found. (From the home page select address search and then fill in the data.) It would have been nice to be able to use an address from your address book but this is not supported at this time. However, it does remember the last 20 addresses you searched for so you can reuse the data. (There is one list of 20 search results so it may include addresses that are not on this map which will not match if you try and use them.) The search results is displayed in a list and you can click on the one you are interested in to display the detail screen. At the bottom of the detail screen is an icon button that lets you tell the program you are at that location. Once a location is set you can do other searches for things that are close to the location you set. You can also select the map view and it will be centered on the location you set. Don't expect to find the location is exactly set on the map. I have found addresses can be shown several hundred feet from where they really are.

You don't, however, have to select something right away. Once you have the search results you can goto the map right away without picking one. All of the search results (up to 25) will be displayed on the map in little numbered boxes. In addition a scrollable list will be displayed at the bottom of the screen that you can use to correlate the numbers to the name of the object. Some of the objects may be off the screen. You can use the zoom keys and the panning ability to look around for the objects to see exactly where they are located or select the "best fit" zoom choice, which is automatically added to the zoom menu, to display them all. Panning can be a bit tricky in this view however since the boxes may be on top of the bullet (to be fixed). You will have to judge where the center of the screen really is and given the finicky nature of panning you need to be a good estimator. You can use the back button to return to the selection screen or better yet you can just click on whichever destination you like on the line at the bottom to go to the detailed screen for that item (sorry you cannot click on the box in this release). Once on the detailed screen you can read the details, if present, or set your location to that spot.

The other search choices work similarly except that instead of having to enter and address you select the type of item you are searching for from a list. Once the list is searched the results can be used in the same way as the results from an address search. The locations found in this way are generally more accurate than the address searches.

GPS

A gps is supported using standard NMEA sentences. The GPS menu is available from both the map screen and the Home screen. In addition to on off choice you can view the gps status or the gps navigation screen. These two screen also support a gps menu that includes a preference option. Preferences primarily allow you to choose the measurement units so you may need this option to set distances units even if you aren't planning to use a gps.

The status screen shows detailed gps output and includes one selection item that determines how often the gps data is updated. This selection is not remembered between sessions. It can be set to match your gps output rate or really low if you only require infrequent updates. Garmin units output updates every 2 seconds but this is not a choice, the one second default works ok anyway. Once the gps is turned on you cannot pan away from the gps location but setting an infrequent update interval will let you pan until the next update pulls you back.

Turning the gps on should result in information on the status screen and a small black (red) circle appearing in the banner area. If the gps is still acquiring a fix you will see an indication of this. Note that color units display this extra information by changing colors. If this ball doesn't appear you have a problem with the gps hook up. There is no troubleshooting information in this tool so you will need another program to find out what it wrong if you encounter problems. Usually if the gps is running and the cable is ok you can fix any problem by doing a soft reset of the gps and trying the program again. My Visor, at least, tends to get the serial port in an unusable state from time to time and most programs for the palm do not know how to fix it. Once you have the gps running and producing a fix you can view your position on the map. A line at the top of the map will tell you what street you are on and this information will also be displayed on the home screen.

The gps location is shown somewhere on the map when it is working. It will be shown as an X when stopped or a > when moving (greater than 3 mph). If you are walking in town you may not be able to tell the direction you are moving unless you walk fast. You can pan the map as needed but it will pan automatically if you are moving and the gps location leaves the screen. Note that it will continue to work fine even if you are completely off the edge of the map although the street names will disappear. If you want to view the speed and direction you can select the navigation screen from the menu. See below for specific navigation features. Note that the palm unit will shut itself off automatically if you don't press a key or interact for a couple of minutes. The software does not have a way to defeat this but there are palm utilities that can be used and if you turn the unit back on you will find that it continues as if nothing happened.

Since the unit does not switch maps automatically you will need to change the map as you leave a county. I guess this is what the road signs that say "entering county" are for. Here is how to go about it.

  1. When you see that you are running out of map press the Home key since there is no map selection from the map page.
  2. Click Menu and select Maps, then select the one entry under this setting.
  3. Wait for the map list to show (I think this takes longer than it should)
  4. Look through the list and select the new map (the order seems random and you will have to determine which one covers where you are now).
  5. Unselect the old map since this is not done automatically and the unit will complain if you don't do this.
  6. Click Ok and you will return to the main page. If you selected the correct map you will see entries in the You are near box.
  7. Click the Map at the top of the screen to bring up the new map.

GPS Navigation

Navigation on this version of the software is limited to just providing a general direction and distance to a destination. Distance is measured as a crow flies. If you a search as described above with the gps running you will not be offered the choice to set your location, instead you will be offered to set the location as the destination. Once set the unit will help guide you to the destination and report distance from the destination at the bottom of the map screen. In addition a new entry will be on the scale menu that will do a best fit. Basically selecting this will pick a scale that will display both your current location and the destination on the screen at the same time.

Notice that while navigating the bullseye at the center of the screen also changes shape. It becomes a crude pointer that show the direction from the center of the screen to the destination (in 45 degree increments). Note this is may be different that the direction from the current location as shown by the gps position to the destination.

While the destination map must be present it is quite possible that your current location might be beyond the edge of the map. Under these conditions navigation can be accomplished using the navigation screen (selectable from the menu). It displays two sections, the top shows your current speed and heading while the bottom should the distance and bearing (in 45 degree increments) to the destination. You can compare these two numbers to get a rough idea of the direction you need to go. When you finally get close enough to be on the map the information in the top half of the screen will also tell you what road you are on. This will let you know that the map is now available. You can then use either the map (use the back button) or the navigation screen to continue to navigate. Both will display the name of the road you are on and the distance and direction to the destination.

Conclusions

This is clearly work in progress. Once it show gps turn by turn instructions it may well be the hottest mapping product available on the palm. Meanwhile it still has quite a few nice features and may be good choice in mapping product for many users. The Frommers data is really detailed but I wish there were some data for areas not yet covered by Frommers. Street level address searching is a major plus as is the fact that it has really new maps.

I like the web based home/back paradigm for screen traversal but having to use the stylus is a drag. I think the hard buttons, todo and memo, should be programmed for this. This would still leave the left two buttons for turn by turn and other gps functions. Switching maps could be a lot easier but this problem will be less severe when multiple map gps support is provided.

There are shortcomings in the product as noted in the text but I believe the folks at Portable Internet will be correcting many of these in the next release or two. I have been in contact with the company and they have been very helpful. Expect an update in this review as I see updates in the product.

Dale DePriest - 01/10/19 all rights reserved.