GPS Companion Visor Technical Review

By: Dale DePriest

This page contains a technical review of the Handspring Visor version of the new Magellan gps companion. A separate review is available for the Palm V version of this gps. 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.

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.

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 3V 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. 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 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 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 most of the apps I tried. Testing it with Delorme Solus Pro 2.0 version I found it would the program would lock up and quit updating the gps position from time to time. This only appeared to happen with vector maps (not raster) and only with this gps. I used another gps on the same visor attached to the serial port with an adapter and Solus Pro worked ok. Other than this 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 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 Europe from Palmtop with its included maps. While this product does not have street level detail it does feature an automatic router.

Important: - 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.

GPS Companion

GPS Companion is a 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.

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.) But 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 315. Since the hardware behaves as if it were attached to a serial port it can use third party software products as well. Software can be installed using the standard palm hotsync process.

The Nav Companion product provides most of the functions of a regular non-mapping gps which means that anyone that is used to using a standalone gps will be comfortable using this program. It is also available from the Magellan web site and will work on other palm hardware. In this review I tested it on a Visor Platium and my older Palm III using an external stand alone gps. For some reason I wasn't able to get the standalone gps to work with this program on my Visor. It would never detect that the gps was connected.

Once you have hotsynced the Nav Companion product to your Visor you can click on the icon to bring it up. For some reason it takes a long time for the first navigation screen to appear (much longer than the previous verion). The interface consists of a number of screens and you can use the page up/page down keys to move from page to page exactly like a standalone unit. You can also select the page you want from a menu in the upper right corner of the screen in the style of a standard Palm application. The screens are: Position, Status, Speed, Plot, Nav2, Waypoints, and Routes. There is a Palm standard menu system available with a help entry on the Options pull down. This help information varies with the screen being displayed and provides screen specific help. In addition to the screens in the rotation there is an initialization screen with its own help.

This will usually be the second program you use with the gps companion. When you get the unit you should plug it into the Visor which will fire up the GPS Companion and then select Options->Initialize. But if you decided you couldn't wait you can do exactly the same thing with this program. Once you have the map view you should click on the area of the world to bring up a more detailed map view and then click at near to your present location as you can. You may also need to set the time and date as well as the altitude. All of the settings are optional but the time to first fix (TTFF) will be reduced if they are close to correct. While you are waiting for the first fix you can set your preferences, metric, nautical, or english and the way you want the lat/lon to appear on the position page. You should also reset the trip meter. Even though it is already set to zero the average speed won't work until it is reset the first time. Lat/Lon is the only grid display supported and WGS-84 is the only datum. Once you have set your preferences you will probably then want to go to the status page to see how the fix is coming. A nice feature of the Nav Companion is that the fix status is shown at the top of every screen but the status screen also displays strength bars for the SV's being received and the almanac. The battery strength is also shown on this page (which will not work with any hardware other than the GPS companion). It would also have been nice to have a battery gauge for the Visor.

The position screen displays lat/lon, altitude, Trip Distance, Speed and Heading. I wish the speed indicator showed decimal speed below 10 mph but it does not. An edgewise compass at the bottom of the screen displays the Heading graphically. Note this is identical to the screen in the built in program gps companion except that gps companion shows the UTC time instead of the trip distance. The Speed page has a black bar at the top which will show the destination when navigating and below this there is a display similar to a car speedometer with two odometers at the bottom. The odometers look exactly like the ones in a car and even roll the .1 entry smoothly as you move although the 1 mile change is a bit jumpy. If you stop the program and restart it later from a new position the two odometers will be updated to reflect the straight line distance from your old location to the new one. The speedometer provides a visual indication from 0 to 100 and rescales if you exceed the maximum setting. The average speed is also indicated on the speedometer scale. Between the top bar and the speedometer are three user definable fields for data. These can be any combination of: latitude, longitude, Elevation, Heading, Bearing, Turn, Speed, Avg. Speed, Max speed, ETA (estimated time of arrival), TTG (time to go), Distance (distance to go), Odometer, Trip odo., Trip Time, Last Fix, Battery level (est. time left), Battery Max (10 hours), Date, Time (note this is Visor time), UTC (gps time corrected for leap seconds), or Blank.

The next screen is the plot screen. It shows your current position graphically and can display a tracklog. It follows the pattern of the speed screen in having a bar across the top to display the waypoint for navigation and then three user definable numbers across the screen below the bar. All of the choices shown above are also available on this screen. Finally the graphic area is shown. It is a full 160 pixels wide but only about a 100 pixels high. For good resolution it should be the other way around. The bottom of the screen displays a choice of north up, track up, or course up, and a menu selection to set the scale which ranges from .1 mile to 200 miles (or km if this is what you selected). You can turn on a track log, turn it off, or clear it from a menu. The tracklog seems to sample at 30 second intervals and wraps on itself after 500 points, thus it records a bit over 4 hours. You can also generate a route automatically from the tracklog. This generated route is a handy way to have the unit guide you back home after a trip or it you get lost. The backtrack is always 32 points (assuming that there are more than 32 points in the tracklog) and is generated by dividing the full log into 31 equal segments without regard to any turns in the log. The 32 points are each set as waypoints similar to any waypoint you might generate yourself. Note that these waypoints include altitude so the tracklog can provide a vertical profile of your travels as well as a horizontal one. More information on how the plot screen works be covered later in my discussion on navigating with this program.

The Nav2 screen is next in the rotation. It is a text only screen with the full user customization of 5 entries (It should be more). These text entries, like the plot and speed screen, can be any of latitude, longitude, elevation, heading, bearing, turn, speed, avg speed, max speed, ETA, Time to Go, Dist to go, odometer, trip odometer, last fix, gps battery level (time left on the battery in hours and minutes), battery maximum time, date, time, UTC, or blank. Latitude and Longitude are always displayed in degrees and decimal degrees in spite of the users set preference. Note that all of the above screens hold the last entries if you lose a fix even if you power the unit off. The date and time are from the Visor itself so these will continue to update.

The final two screens are waypoints and routes. The nice thing about these screens is that you can use them both without even having to have the gps plugged in. You can also set waypoints to your current location using the menu or using graffiti. This is a little tough to do while traveling which could be solved if you could redefine one of the other hardware buttons on the Visor for this. You can build as many waypoints as you have memory and these can be turned into as many routes as you have memory for. Each route can have up to 32 waypoints in it and are reversible. Waypoint names can be up to 10 characters long and waypoints can have an additional 18 character comment. A small block appears beside each waypoint name that can be unchecked if you don't want that waypoint to appear in on the plot page. This block can also be used to facilitate deleting a set of waypoints since you can use it to mark the ones you want to remove. Waypoints used as part of a route cannot be removed until they are removed from teh route first. Routes can have a name up to 20 characters long although you will need to edit the route to see the full name. Both routes and waypoints can be beamed to another palm which is a nice feature to exchange information. I found that it is best to have both units in GPS companion when beaming waypoints and routes since I had problems if the receiver was not running nav companion. They are also hotsynced back to the host system but only in a binary form so it is not easy to edit or create them on the host computer. Routes are editable on the route page which takes a long time to appear if the route is long. You can add waypoints at any point in the route by selecting the number and pressing the new button, and you can delete them by selecting the waypoint number then using the menu or you can delete whole routes (do not click the delete button). Editing waypoints themselves are much more intuitive but the default names are 7 characters long making an exchange with other Magellan units with a 6 character limit more difficult.

Navigating with Nav Companion

The main purpose of the Nav companion is navigation. This is done by having waypoints stored in the unit that can serve as destinations. A waypoint might mark your campsite and when you need to return to it you can use the gps and the nav companion program to guide you back to the campsite. If you had your gps in use when you left the campsite the breadcrumb trail that was recorded in the tracklog can be used to guide you back along the same path you took when you left. You can also plan trips with several turns where each turn is marked with a waypoint. This is a route and it can guide you trip over quite a distance if you carefully choose the waypoints. A route can also serve as a crude map that you can follow on the plot screen to help you toward your final destination. All of these features are implemented in Nav Companion 2.0.

The simplist navigation task is to just point to a waypoint and while having the direction and distance in mind you guide yourself in the general direction. The Nav2 screen provides many useful pieces of information to help with this effort. For example you could view the distance in real time and determine if you are getting closer. You could view the heading and compare it with the bearing to see it the direction you are going is the same direction you should be going. If you prefer you can let the Nav companion program do the comparing and just tell you which way to turn and by how much, which is what the Turn choice displays.

A route is a similar navigation problem to the goto just described except that once you get to a waypoint you want the machine to automatically select the next waypoint and continue the navigation without you having to do it manually. The route function in Nav Companion seems to be up to the task. It automatically determines which waypoint is the one it should head for, even it you start in the middle of a route, and will correct itself if you drift off the main path while following the route. If you get really lost you can restart the same route and it will recover and guide you back to the route from wherever you are. You can even have the unit alert you with an alarm when you are getting close to a turn so you don't miss it. While each leg of the route is a straight line approximation of you trip it is still close enough to help you estimate your arrival time. ETA and TTG display the expect time to arrive and the time to go respectively based on your current speed toward your goal. They can help answer the question, "How much longer?" Unfortunately there is no estimate given to the final destination but only to the next waypoint. generated a log of 500 points and it really slowed down the display of data on this screen. If you hit another key or click on a menu (for example, zoom) a few times you will have to wait until the redraw is complete as indicated by the appearance of the arrow marking your current location and suddenly the stacked commands you issued will be filled all at once. This includes entering the page and leaving it. The screen can be zoomed but not panned. Waypoints are shown on this page but there is no way to select them here or to enter a new one. If you have a route active a line is shown for the route but if you are navigating directly to one waypoint using a goto then no line is drawn. You can only find out if you are progressing toward the mark by seeing the distance get smaller or by comparing the bearing and heading numbers, except only one of them is displayed on the plot screen so you will have to switch to the speed screen to make this comparison. There are lots of improvements needed to this display to make it reasonable. For another example, the waypoints are always drawn in alphabetical order so if the destination is on the screen it is likely that another waypoint may overwrite it so that it can't be seen, since temporary names (that are not usually destinations) begin with W which is pretty late in the alphabet.

The Nav companion has a feature that causes it to exit if the unit is idle for more than 1/2 hour. This is designed to save batteries since the program needs to keep the palm going all the time while tracking. But if you turn the unit off to save batteries and then back on 1/2 hour later the program will immediately exit since it does not notice that power was already off. This can be annoying if you are using it to sample data on a hike.

The program has so much potential but much of it is unrealized in this version. It would also be nice to be able to launch the Map Companion directly from Nav Companion bypassing the opening screen to make the two programs work together at least a little. The real weakness is in navigation (ironically the name of the program). It needs a graphic arrow pointing toward the next waypoint on the plot screen and probably the speed screen as well. It would even be nice if the bearing was indicated on the position page using a double display on the compass like the one used on the speedometer.

Map Companion

The Map Companion product has not changed substantially since the review I did for the Palm V version. I works just as well for the Visor. To read the this review Click here.

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. 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.
revision
01/3/5 Original release