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GPS

Touring by Satellite

By Dennis Peterson

The business of hanging a Global Positioning System receiver on one's motorcycle is alternately greeted by howls of derision and piqued interest. There doesn't seem to be much gray area. Being a life-long geek, I'm intrigued by the technology, the information placed at one's finger tips, and the smug notion that I know within a 20-foot sphere of accuracy where on earth I am!

I've been asked what value it has and I have to admit I don't have a strong answer but immediately consider responding with "of what use is a new-born babe?", but that probably won't float in a flotilla of Milwaukee iron. OK, it's just fun! If I ignore the verbal abuse and just use it, what I get is instantaneous updates of where on the world my 20-foot sphere is, altitude, time/date, my ground speed, and course. And if you're nice to me, I'll share that with you at the next pee stop.

font class="auto-style2">The feature set is actually quite a bit more complete than just these, but before I describe them, you should know that I have a Garmin 12 MAP receiver with a cigar-lighter power cord and handlebar mount. It also has 4 AA batteries inside for those times the power cord is shut off. Features vary among vendors and between models from any particular vendor, but this list is probably typical for the price range.

Most prominent of the features is the map. This model has a rather detailed map of the world, but North America is further enhanced. There is a cursor that permits surfing around the map to do such things as set way points, examine off ramps, search for rest areas, and geographic features such as lakes, rivers, and other significant landmarks. In normal operation the center of the map represents your sphere and the map scrolls past as you tootle down the rode. The display can be set for north up, or heading up. I prefer the north up as it remains stabile while riding through twisties. A triangular icon representing you points in your direction of travel.

font class="auto-style2">A zoom feature provides scaling from 500 miles/unit down to 120 ft/unit. A unit is about 3/8", and the map on my receiver is 1 3/8" wide by 2 1/8" high. Map features include freeways/turnpikes, off ramp identification and services available (including food, gas, lodging), and railroads. When zoomed in tight in a metropolitan area you can use the scrolling map to navigate with ease. The map includes highway and street names, but does not indicate one-way streets, so you still have an opportunity to pay attention. User-defined data fields are available and can provide such information as speed, altitude, distance to a way point, trip odometer, and distance and heading to where ever you've set the cursor. There are 24 data types to choose from, and four data fields to populate. The trip odometer on my receiver is still registering the 4,875 miles ridden this summer on the Run to the Sun.

Since we are on the subject of trips, another feature of the map is that a trail of where you've been is painted behind you as a series of dashed points. I use this as a kind of memory jogger to help me reconstruct my travels, like where was I 30 minutes ago. It also serves to fill in gaps in the map detail when you are on a road that is not included in the map. This was the case when I was cruising around the Big Island in Hawaii where a lot of minor roads take you to very interesting places. I transcribe these roads I've stumbled onto over to my hard copy maps to preserve a record of those hard to find places.

Other screens provide additional information. One screen shows way points you've set into the system and can pop up detail with a poke of a button. Another screen is just data fields which contain user-selected data types, and it has a linear compass at the top of the screen which gives you your heading relative to true north. My system shows me a trip timer, average speed, time of sunrise, and battery voltage. Also shown is time/date and latitude and longitude. There is an interesting screen that is more useful for a boat or airplane which paints your course and way points on a 3-D image. With a motorcycle you are pretty much stuck following the road, you can't just make a course correction as you can with boats and planes, but if you could your way points would pop up in the distance and slowly pass below you and out of sight. Lastly, there is a screen with a dial compass and also includes user-defined data fields. There is one field I like to view - it shows maximum speed measured. Mine is showing 101.5 as I write this, and I can tell you it happened in..., well, it happened!

Another feature that is probably best used on a boat or plane is course planning. You tell it where you are and where you want to go and the system will generate a plot with way points evenly distributed along the course.

The system is amazingly sensitive to movement. If left perfectly still it will show your sphere popping around within its resolution error range, but start walking and it instantly corrects the heading compass and speed/distance data. For those times you are under the stars the screen has a plasma backlight that is programmable to remain on continually, or for what ever time period you select. The same menu lets you set the screen contrast. My system is monochrome, but color models are also available. Some users have made the comment that the color screens are difficult to see in bright sunlight so it is probably something to consider when looking at purchasing one of these units.

Now that I've raised the subject of menus, each screen has associated menus which are quickly accessed by pressing the menu button. So what a great time to describe those buttons! I love this segue stuff. My system has eight buttons arranged in a half-circle around a larger cursor pad. The cursor pad rocks left/right, up/down, and at every angle between. When you do so the cursor moves in what ever direction you've indicated, giving you 360 degrees of freedom. The ring of buttons includes the power switch, buttons to move you between screens, zoom in/out, and a goto button that lets you pop up defined way points. An Enter/Mark button is used to affirm menu selections or to mark a cursor position as a way point.

And now back to the subject of what value it has. In concert with a cell phone it could mean the difference between life and death if you come across a traffic accident as you can report your exact location. I've not had to do this, but if I'm the victim I damn sure will. I have actually used it to get unlost. Ever take a road you've never tried before only to find yourself in a cul-de-sac matrix from hell? I've followed another rider to a place that rider knew well through a blitz of lefts and rights and well, you get the idea. I'm lost. To find my way out and back I used the bread crumbs on the map! I use it extensively to jog my memory for my log books. You're riding in a group and somebody pulls alongside and taps their tank - fumes - so where is the nearest gas stop? It's on the map. So for me it has real worth but then I'm a geek, remember? Is this for everyone? Not hardly. But it isn't for no one, either, so don't take any crap from your buddies who'd have you believe it is the worst thing for biking since trailers, and don't tell them how far it is to the next pee stop.

For more information on GPS you can visit anyweb search engine and key in GPS. You will be treated to a stunning amount of information on this interesting little toy.

Dennis Peterson is a regular contributor to Sound RIDER! and an avid motorcyclist. Email him, he loves the attention!.


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