GPS Companion Technical Review

By: Dale DePriest - all rights reserved

There are three hardware versions of the GPS Companion from Magellan. This review will cover two of these products as well as the accompaning software. The new m500 version is a later hardware model for the m500 series of Palm products but I do not own an m500 so I have not reviewed that version. This review assumes a basic understanding of gps operation. If you do not know how a gps works you may be interested in reading my article on: How a GPS works before reading this review. Here is a table of contents that will permit the reader to get to the items of particular interest.

GPS Companion for the Palm V Series

GPS Companion is a hardware product from Magellan. It is a hardware add-on for a Palm V Series handheld and it adds full gps functionality to the Palm V or Palm Vx. This product includes two software products, Nav Companion and Map Companion, that are also part of this review. The GPS Companion hardware seems to be identical to the earlier released GPS add-on from Rand McNally for the Palm V series which is also made by Magellan. The software includes a Magellan developed gps program that, based on its features and its performance with this hardware, would place this unit somewhere between the Magellan 310 product and the 315. It could easily be called the 312. But the included software also includes a mapping program which allows real time tracking and display which makes the unit considerably more useful for some folks than the 315.

The hardware consists of a plastic housing that clips solidly onto the back of a Palm V unit and interfaces directly through the hotsync port. (It is actually a modified Palm V modem case.) It has a quadrifilar antenna attached at the top right corner and one button at the bottom center of the unit. In addition there is an external power connector on the left side for external power input. The photo shows the GPS Companion attached to a Palm V unit which is displaying a map from the included Map Companion product. The hardware is integrated very well with the Palm V but I did encounter a bit of interference when I tried to put the Palm stylus in its slot. I normally use a Palm III (I borrowed a Palm V for this review.) and I didn't always align the tab on the stylus to the slot. There isn't quite room to rotate the stylus to align the tab because of the location of the antenna. Left handers will have no problem since they will use the left stylus slot and right handers will soon master the slot I suppose. The one button at the bottom can be used to power the unit up if you wish but is not required since the unit is turned on from any program that accesses the serial port. (It might be useful to turn on the unit before starting the software.) Power down is automatic if the unit is no longer being used (after about 2 minutes). There is no indication whether the unit is currently on or off. The unit needs no power from the Palm since it will run for up to 10 hours on a pair of AAA alkaline batteries (included). However expect that the Palm V will discharge its internal battery faster when the serial port is in use. The antenna sticks out from the top and is a separate unit that is attached to the main case. It seems rugged enough but some care should be exercised to avoid breaking it.

Magellan offers several accessory items to augment the use of this GPS. They have both a soft and a hardcase to protect the unit with its attached Palm. The also offer a window mounting bracket for vehicle use and a 12 Volt power cable. The power cable is a simple straight through adapter and depends on a regulator that is built into the unit. Magellan support has said the input could be anything between 9 and 35 V center positive. Note that there seems to be no visual indication that the external power is working as the battery indicator continues to show battery levels. To verify operation you can remove the internal batteries but it is recommended, for normal use, that you keep the batteries installed. Unfortunately the external power cable will only power the GPS and not the Palm itself.

There are only the briefest mention of any specifications for this unit. It is a 12 channel parallel unit with performance that seems on par with other 12 channel units I have tested. It starts up in about 1 minute with a current almanac and in a similar location. If you move it several hundred miles then it will take longer. If you just let it find itself this can take 5 minutes or more, but if you are able to give it an approximate location this can be reduced to about 2 minutes. This is a key feature with the included software. Not all palm software is capable of providing this data to the unit so you should always start it up in a new location with the included software. In addition Magellan recommends that batteries always be kept in the unit even if you intend to use it with the external supply. This is presumably because some data that it keeps track of internally needs the batteries even when it is off. You have to go to the Magellan web site for most of the information and even it is brief. You will find the unit weighs about 6 oz, is 6.5" high and 3.25" wide. It is .88" thick and the size does not increase when you install the palm. It is designed to work from 32F to 122F degrees. It does not claim to be waterproof and from the looks of it I would not take it out in the rain. Of course, the palm itself is not waterproof so I would suggest a waterproof bag like aquapac would be a good accessory.

The unit outputs standard gps NMEA 2.1 messages which can be read by a wide variety of third party applications. The sentences include: GSS, GSV, RMC, GLL, and GGA. It understands some Magellan proprietary input sentences and outputs one proprietary sentence that includes the battery voltage. The protocol is supposed to be available from Magellan for users wishing to develop their own code. I found that the receiver worked well with all of the apps I tried. It is really hard to find fault with this unit. It does exactly what it is advertised to do and seems to be well supported with accessories and software. It would have been nice to have seen better documentation, the ability to charge the Palm V battery from the external power adapter and a few other minor improvements. AA batteries would have provided more life but would increase the thickness a bit but this was not a Magellan choice as they used a standard palm modem case. A rechargeable pack would have been a plus. It would sure be nice to see one for the Palm III or even better the TrgPro or Visor as well.

Some specifications that are likely to be true because they are generally true of all Magellan consumer units include a max speed of 950 mph and an accuracy of 49 feet. There is no provision for an external antenna or a dgps beacon receiver. There is no wrist strap. The palm itself adds a grey scale display with 160x160 pixel resolution. There are 4 levels of grey on the Palm V and 16 levels on the Palm Vx. The Palm Vx provides 8 Meg of memory shared between all applications while the V has only 2 Meg.

This review for the Palm V continues with a discussion of the cdrom.

GPS Companion for the Visor Series

GPS Companion is a new hardware product from Magellan which is a hardware add-on for a Handspring Visor Series handhelds and adds full gps functionality to any of the Visor units via the springboard connection. This product includes two software products, Nav Companion and Map Companion, that are also part of this review and it also contains a firmware product GPS Companion that is included in the hardware. This review is based on using the gps comanion product on a Visor Platinum.

To get started with the unit you simply install the two included AAA batteries in the unit and plug it into the visor. It will automatically turn on the visor and launch its built in firware product called 'gps companion' which will indicate the status of the hardware while it starts acquiring satellite data. While you can certainly use the built in product as a fully functional gps you need not wait for it to acquire satellite data or compute a position solution before switching to another program. It will continue to the aquisition process while the new program is starting up. Note that the first time it is used an initialization procedure should be followed. See below for details.

Notice
Some folks have reported problems getting their gps companion to work on their Visor. If you have an older visor it may be that the GPS receiver is interfering with the visors electronics due to improper shielding in the visor. If so contact visor for an rf fix for this condition.

The hardware consists of a plastic housing that plugs directly into the springboard slot. It has a quadrifilar antenna attached at the top right corner. In addition there is an external power connector on the left side for external input. The photo shows the GPS Companion attached to a Handspring Visor unit which is displaying a map from the included Map Companion product. The hardware is integrated very well with the HandSpring Visor but it protrudes out the top and back of the visor. This means it will not fit in standard cases or mounting brackets but Magellan has solved this problem by offering custom cases and custom brackets for vehicle use. There are no buttons on the unit and it powers up automatically when inserted or when it detects that an application is attempting to use the serial port. When the unit is plugged it it steals the serial port so the connection on the bottom of the unit cannot be used simultaneously with the GPS Companion. Power down is also automatic if the unit is no longer being used (after about 2 minutes). There is no indication whether the unit is currently on or off. The unit needs no power from the Visr since it will run for up to 10 hours on a pair of AAA alkaline batteries (included). However expect that the Visor will discharge its internal battery a bit faster when the serial port is in use. You should remove the unit from the visor when it is not being used. I found that it interfered with calendar alarms that attempted to wake up my visor only to find the gps trying to wake up also which caused the visor to crash.

Magellan offers several accessory items to augment the use of this GPS. They have a case to protect the unit with its attached Visor. They also offer a window suction cup mounting bracket for vehicle use and a 12 Volt power cable. The power cable is a simple straight through adapter and depends on a regulator that is built into the unit. Magellan support has said the input could be anything between 9 and 35 V center positive. Note that there seems to be no visual indication that the external power is working as the battery indicator continues to show battery levels. To verify operation you can remove the internal batteries but it is recommended, for normal use, that you keep the batteries installed. Unfortunately the external power cable will only power the GPS and not the Visor itself.

There are only the briefest mention of any specifications for this unit. It is a 12 channel parallel unit with performance that seems to be excellent. It starts up in under a minute with a current almanac and in a similar location. If you move it several hundred miles then it will take slightly longer. If you just let it find itself this can take 5 minutes or more, but if you are able to give it an approximate location this can be reduced to about 2 minutes. This is a key feature with the included software. Not all palm software is capable of providing this data to the unit so you should always start it up in a new location with the included software or firmware. In addition Magellan recommends that batteries always be kept in the unit even if you intend to use it with the external supply. This is presumably because some data that it keeps track of internally needs the batteries even when it is off. You have to go to the Magellan web site for most of the information and even then it is brief. I found the unit with the visor weighs about 8 oz, is 7.6" high and 3" wide. Together they are 1.3" thick. It is designed to work from 32F to 122F degrees. It does not claim to be waterproof and from the looks of it I would not take it out in the rain. Of course, the visor itself is not waterproof so I would suggest a waterproof bag like an aquapac would be a good accessory.

The unit outputs standard gps NMEA 2.1 messages, updated every second, which can be read by a wide variety of third party applications. The sentences include: GSS, GSV, RMC, GLL, and GGA. It understands some Magellan proprietary input sentences and outputs one proprietary sentence that includes the battery voltage. Only the GSV and propietary sentences are output prior to obtaining a fix. The private protocol is supposed to be available from Magellan for users wishing to develop their own code. I found that the receiver worked well with most of the apps I tried. Testing it with Delorme Solus Pro 2.0 version I found it would lock up and quit updating the gps position from time to time. This only appeared to happen with vector maps with preferences set to track up, and only with this gps, however I believe this is a Delorme problem probably associated with updating the data every second. I used another gps on the same visor attached to the serial port with an adapter and Solus Pro worked ok. I would say it is really hard to find fault with this unit. It does exactly what it is advertised to do and seems to be well supported with accessories and software. It would have been nice to have seen better documentation.

Some specifications that are likely to be true because they are generally true of all Magellan consumer units include a max speed of 950 mph and an accuracy of 49 feet. There is no provision for an external antenna or a dgps beacon receiver. There is no wrist strap. The palm itself adds a grey scale display with 160x160 pixel resolution. There are 4 levels of grey on the cheaper Visors and 16 levels on the Visor Platinum. All Visor's except the most basic unit have 8 Meg of memory and color units are supported by the mapping software.

I spent some time trying to evaluate the performance of this unit and will probably update this page if I find any new data. What I have found so far is that this is an amazingly sensitive receiver. It would maintain a fix deep inside my house with no windows and a second floor overhead. I compared it to my Garmin emap and it won easily. It was even a bit more sensitive than my Garmin G-12. Both Garmin units would get a first fix (cold start) a little quicker than this unit but it still acquired signals in about a minute most of the time. The clock ouput on NMEA seemed to lag real time but a couple of seconds.

GPS Companion

GPS Companion is delived in the gps as firmware and reduced function version of nav companion. It contains two screens, one shows the status of the gps receiver. It indicates the battery level and the current positions of all the satellites as well as reception data that can be used to determine how well you are receiving this information. If you are having trouble receiving the satellites you can compare the screen display to your position and determine if you have trees or buildings in the way of a direct line of sight. Perhaps you can move slightly and aid the reception.

The second screen contains the complete PVT solution which is all the data you can obtain directly from a gps. P stands for position which is displayed in lat/lon form in degrees and minutes or degrees, minutes, and seconds along with Elevation in feet or meters. V stands for Velocity which is display in mph, knots, or kph along with direction which is displayed with the edge view of a compass at the bottom of the screen and a numeric degree heading. A finally T stands for time which is displayed at UTC, Also known as GMT, which is the accurately computed from the gps solution. You can set your watch with this but it can't set the palm time. (The accompanying map companion product can do this.) I noticed the display of UTC is slightly delayed from the actual UTC time by about a second or two. Units preferences are shared between this program and Nav Companion.

The menus provide access to an intialization screen that can be used to provide your approximate position by clicking on a map. Providing this data can greatly improve the time the gps receiver needs to calculate a fix if you have moved significantly from the last time the receiver was used. You can even input the approximate altitude which can help orient the receiver if you used it last on an airplane at 10,000 feet! And yes, this receiver will work if held close to a window on your plane ride.

As with any new software the gps companion will be found in the unfiled category the first time you use it. You can move it to the category of your choice and this will be remembered even though technically the program isn't always present in the machine.

The CDROM

Magellan has done an interesting thing with the supplied CDROM. There is no installation program or, for that matter, any software that is designed to run on a host computer. If your computer can read the cdrom you can load all of the software for this unit. It should run equally well on Mac's, Linux, or even a Sun as it does on PC's. Unfortunately the supplied documentation is in the form of a windows help file. So close, just a pdf away from a cross platform solution. The Palm programs and databases are intended to be loaded into a Palm via the hotsync mechanism.

The cdrom for the USA includes the documentation (only a brief installation guide is included in hardcopy form along with a warranty sheet) and two programs. Nav Companion is a Magellan written program and is also available at their web site if you can't load the cdrom for some reason. It should also work with other gps units supporting NMEA 2.1 protocol but some features are GPS companion specific. The second program is called Map Companion. It is a mapping program that is modified from the one available from MarcoSoft called Quo Vadis. It has been customized to only run with the Magellan unit and can only be enabled by plugging in a GPS Companion. Once enabled it can be used with or with out the gps attached. The cdrom also contains a set of maps covering the entire US for use with Map Companion. There is no graphic interface to aid in Map selection which is stored on the disk organized by states and counties. If you know the city you want but not the county you will need to use the find utility from your OS to find the data or perhaps a paper map. You may need a paper map anyway to help you decide what to download. There is generally a county map and several city maps. Since a large city can have many smaller cities all around it you may need to consult a paper map to determine exactly what to load to avoid holes in your map.

If you buy a European version of this product you will receive the Nav Companion software, user documentation, plus a copy of Route Planner from Palmtop with its included maps. While this product does not have street level detail it does feature an automatic router.

Important for Visor Users: - The software on the CDROM version 1.1 has been superceded by an upgrade available at the Magellan site. This upgrade releases nav companion 2.1, map companion 2.1 and gps companion 1.1 with a fix for some visor crashes. You will need to hotsync these new versions to your visor and then run the gps updater to update the firmware on the gps hardware. Once accomplished the gps updater application can be removed from the visor.

Nav Companion

The software that is included on the cdrom consists of version 2.0 of a Magellan developed gps program called Nav Companion that, based on its features and its performance with this hardware, would place this unit somewhere between the Magellan 310 product and the 315. It could easily be called the 313. (Note that the version 1.0 was rated to be a 312 so it is getting better.)

Nav Companion 2.0
Here is a list features in the new software.
  • Speed screen - The three data fields at the top are now selectable by the user from the full list described below for the Nav2 screen.
  • Plot screen - The three data fields at the top are now selectable by the user from the full list described below for the Nav2 screen.
  • Plot screen - the displayed plot is now pannable.
  • Plot screen - You can now generate a backtrack route
  • Plot screen - Course up is now a choice on the direction choices
  • Waypoint Screen - You can control the visibility of a waypoint on the plot screen.
  • Route Screen - You can now reverse a route
  • Routes and Goto's can have an alarm (does not work well yet)

For a review of Version 2.1 of this product please click here.

Map Companion

The supplied software also includes a mapping program with maps which allows real time tracking and display which makes the unit considerably more useful for some folks than the standalone Magellan 315. Here is a review of Map Companion.

Overall impressions

The two supplied programs complement the hardware nicely. Unfortunately they are independent programs and no data can be transferred from one to the other. As compared to a standalone mapping receiver you will find this unit is much less expensive but less capable. For example, suppose you want to use the trip meter in Nav Companion and set it up to record your journey. Now if you go to the maps and have a look around and then return to look at your trip meter you will find that it didn't record anything all of the time you were looking at the map. The 2.0 version of nav companion does update the trip distance based on the straight line distance but this is less accurate than it would have been to record the trip directly. This is one example where the integration of a stand alone unit provides better consistency of answers. (A nice hardware improvement would be to keep the trip meter total in the memory of the gps itself and report it in their proprietary sentence for savy programs to use.) However, for users wanting a gps add-on for a palm this is a very nice unit and offers a excellent set of starter programs while permitting the user the flexibility to add other programs as they see fit. For example, if you wanted to add topographic maps or air travel planning, or many other programs, these can be obtained for the palm and will work fine with the Magellan GPS companion.

Dale DePriest - all rights reserved.

revision
00/10/25 Original release
00/11/5 generated section on map companion
00/11/12 added data on route problems.
00/11/20 added corrections based on review by Marcosoft.
01/2/19 added table of new features for Nav Companion 2.0
01/3/10 added back button, added Visor version and reorganized data to support both products. 01/6/18 updated external power requirements.