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The Digital Driver

New gadgets for cars offer everything from driving directions to cutting-edge entertainment. Our author takes the latest toys for a test spin.

Sky-high gas prices and bumper-to-bumper highways? Forget about 'em. We love our cars--always have and always will. New navigation devices, audio and video entertainment systems, and satellite-based trackers help smooth even the bumpiest of byways. Whether you live behind the wheel or drive only when necessary, these gadgets and services put the joy in your ride.

There are lots of good reasons to buy a Global Positioning System navigation device for your car. It can save time and reduce your gasoline bill by getting you to your destination without wrong turns and backtracking. It can help you find gas stations, restaurants, parks, and other points of interest along the way. But for me, the number one reason is never having to hear my wife say, "Maybe we should stop and ask somebody."

GPS devices work by coordinating a signal they receive from one or more satellites with their internal map database. They display your position on an on-screen map as you drive, and when you enter the name of a destination or point of interest, they provide directions to that location on the device's screen (and with a prerecorded voice).

Most new GPS devices for cars store their maps on an internal hard drive such as the 5GB drive in Garmin's StreetPilot 2620 ($1300) or the 10GB drive in Thales Navigation's Magellan RoadMate 700 (also $1300). The StreetPilot contains maps and points of interest for all of North America (and Hawaii); the RoadMate 700 holds data for the 48 contiguous U.S. states and for most Canadian cities.

In contrast, just a few states' worth of maps and data fit on the flash memory cards used by lower-cost devices such as Navman's $700 ICN 630. The ICN 630 has 64MB of internal memory, and it supports cards with capacities up to 512MB. During long road trips you'll likely have to swap cards. For example, I had to take along two 128MB cards to hold the maps I needed for a Northern California-to-Los Angeles road trip using the Navman ICN. I can only imagine how many cards you'd have to juggle for a cross-country drive.

Still, it didn't take me long to get used to having a map on my dashboard. The RoadMate 700 and ICN 630 sent me on slower tourist routes through San Francisco, but the StreetPilot 2620 seemed to know at least some "locals-only" shortcuts. The touch screens on the RoadMate and the StreetPilot made entering data easy, especially compared to the Navman's clunky button controls.

Try as I might, I couldn't faze any of the three navigators. Whenever I ignored their instructions and drove off the prescribed route, they recalculated in a matter of seconds and put me back on target.

The devices' voiced instructions were like having a very clever but overly talkative navigator. For example, the RoadMate 700 often chirped out of nowhere that I should "continue on the current road," when I had no intention of doing otherwise. And when I parked just yards short of my destination, the Navman continued to bark advice like a frantic ringside announcer: "Left, right, right, left, right, left!"

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