Satellite navigation still drives me mad

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There are some gizmos I have been poised to buy for years but have procrastinated until improved price and reliability make further resistance impossible. A GPS (global positioning system) satellite navigator, preferably linked to my mobile phone, is one of them. Over the years, the paraphernalia needed has shrunk from a small jungle of wires and hardware to models that simply need a mobile phone (or personal digital assistant) and a matchbox-sized receiving device that resides on the dashboard, or in your pocket if walking. The device links to the phone by a short-distance wireless connection (Bluetooth) so there are no wires unless it is being recharged through the car’s cigarette socket.

This is more than a navigational aid, because a new industry is springing up that sells services and games based on knowing exactly where you are. The trouble is that virtually every model I have trialled has had faults, and often had to be exchanged for one that worked better.

The latest one, CoPilot, from ALK Technologies, was no exception. Its main selling point is a fascinating new feature enabling (approved) people to follow your route on a map on a website. This has obvious commercial, as well as personal, uses: firms could see exactly where their vehicles are and the likes of Tesco could let customers track their web-ordered goods.

Potentially, you could keep a history of where you have been on holidays or your daily journeys, as long as you can afford the data charges. Someone is bound to find a way of linking the geographic data to Flickr’s photo website or Google Earth’s wonderful zoom-in reproduction of the planet. If used with the new Olympus digital recorders (with up to 150 hours of storage) you could soon get a record of your life.

CoPilot came as a package including a Windows Mobile MDA, one of the few PDAs that feels like a phone, and a huge improvement on earlier chunky versions. I entered the postcode of my Herefordshire destination from a starting point in central London between two blocks of flats. It picked up satellite signals almost immediately and calculated my journey, beginning with an unusual route out of town that was justified by the comparative lack of traffic. Going down the M4 was fine, until it signalled we should take a longer route through Chepstow (GPS navigation has a built-in love of motorways). We went off instead at the Swindon exit to go cross-country to Gloucester, only to be embroiled in rush-hour traffic. All was plain sailing from then on, despite the fact that the voice guide sometimes gave different instructions from the map on the screen.

This is one of the more user-friendly satnav kits. It has good satellite signals most of the time, fast calculation – and recalculation – of routes, and the web-tracking facility is ingenious and worked reasonably well. However, there are still too many bugs, ranging from the voice telling you to veer left when she really means turn sharp right and occasional erratic satellite signals that give crucial instructions seconds too late.

If you are relying on a GPS system, being right 80% of the time is not good enough. I wouldn’t buy one yet for myself as they are not reliable enough, and within weeks, GPS will be incorporated as a standard feature into more new phones. But if you are thinking of buying a T-Mobile package complete with the MDA, then CoPilot comes “free” with a rental package costing £30 to £35 a month.

As with all these gizmos, the longer you procrastinate, the better they get. While I was writing this a new Navman iCN750 (a dedicated in-car model costing £549) arrived, which has an easy-to-use camera that enables you to take photos of places you have visited, complete with longitude and latitude, and embeds them as icons on your route map. The possibilities for satellite navigation are only just beginning.

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