This tutorial is about selecting a personal tracking device and getting started using it. Choosing a GPS receiver can be quite an overwhelming experience. If you look at handheld, portable GPS receivers that currently offer, you’ll have around 50–60 GPS receivers to choose from. That’s a lot of choices. And that’s only the beginning. After you purchase one, you still need to find out how to use it. This tutorial should take some of the confusion out of buying a GPS receiver and help you come up to speed using it. When it comes to selecting a GPS receiver, I won’t recommend that you buy a particular brand or model or tell you which is best for hiking, geocaching, or other activities. Rather, I follow more of a Socratic method, in which I ask you a number of questions that should help you make a pretty good and informed purchasing decision.
Before you purchase a GPS receiver, you should spend some time kicking the proverbial tires. Don’t rush out and buy a receiver based on one or two good Internet reviews without having a chance to hold that very GPS receiver in your hands to see how it works. Spend some time comparing different brands and models to determine which one works best for you. Because GPS units are sold in most sporting goods stores and many large retail chains, you shouldn’t have to buy a receiver sight unseen. The three largest manufacturers of consumer GPS receivers in the United States are Garmin, Magellan (a part of Thales Navigation), and Lowrance. All these manufacturers have extensive Web sites that provide detailed information about their products. If you’re in the market for a GPS receiver, definitely spend some time browsing through product literature.
And don’t just look at the marketing literature. Download the user manuals for the models you’re interested in to better understand their features. All GPS receiver manufacturers offer free Adobe Acrobat PDF versions of their product user manuals on their respective Web sites. If you’re in the market for a GPS receiver, these are excellent resources for comparing features and seeing what the user interface is like because the manuals have instructions as well as screenshots. Friends with GPS receivers are also a good source of information; ask to take their different brands and models out for a test drive. Here are the two big questions that you should ask yourself before you begin your GPS receiver search:
1. What am I going to use it for?
Think about what activities you’ll be doing with your GPS receiver: hiking, biking, fishing, sales trips on the road, and so on. What will you expect your GPS receiver to do? Navigate streets or the wilderness, store favorite fishing spots, or find geocaches (hidden goodies from the popular electronic treasure hunting sport of geocaching)? When you get specific with your answers, you start to identify features that your GPS receiver should have to meet your needs.
2. How much do I want to spend?
How much money you’ve got in your wallet or purse is obviously going to influence which models you end up considering. The more features a GPS receiver has, the more it’s going to cost. So if you can figure out exactly what you’re going to use the receiver for (see the preceding bullet) as well as which features you really need (versus those that are nice to have), you’ll end up saving some money. Generally, figure on spending anywhere from a little under $100 to $500 for a handheld GPS receiver, although note that a few specialized automotive and aviation models can cost up to $1,000. For the most part, the cost of a GPS receiver really has nothing to do with accuracy. An expensive GPS receiver isn’t more accurate than a cheaper model. The only exceptions to this rule are GPS receivers that support Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), which can be more accurate than electronic tracking devices that don’t have these enhanced location features. Figuring out how much you want to spend and what you want your GPS receiver to do narrows your options considerably, but you’re likely still going to be faced with a number of choices.
3. Map display
Do you want to view maps on your GPS receiver? If so, you definitely need a mapping model — a GPS receiver that displays maps.
Will you use your GSP receiver primarily for road navigation or outdoor recreation? Models are better suited for one or the other.
Does your budget include accessories such as cases, cables, vehicle mounting brackets, a case, and uploadable maps?
6. Battery needs
• How many hours does the GPS receiver run on a set of batteries? Remember two things: Different models (and their features) have different battery diets, and different battery types have varying life spans.
• Will you need to carry spare batteries (always a good idea), and if so, how many? I recommend always carrying at least one fresh set of spare batteries.
• Will you be using a cigarette lighter power adapter as an alternative to using batteries?
How much memory does the GPS receiver have and is it expandable? This is a critical question if you’re interested in a GPS receiver that supports uploadable maps. Visit the GPS receiver manufacturer Web site to get an idea of how much memory maps can take up.
8. Display screen
• How big is the screen and how well can you read it? Make sure to consider visibility at night, in bright sunlight, and in poor weather conditions. The size of the screen is directly related to the overall size of the GPS receiver, so if you want a larger, more readable screen, expect a larger GPS receiver to go with it.
• Do you really need a color screen? A color screen makes reading maps easier because different colors are associated with map features. Note: Color is more of a preference than a requirement.
9. User interface
Does operating the GPS receiver make sense to you? Sure, some learning is required to come up to speed, but using a GPS receiver should mostly be intuitive. Be sure to compare different brands and models because user interfaces are far from standardized.
10. External controls
• Are the buttons and controls on the GPS receiver easy to use? Naturally, this is also related to the user interface.
• Are the controls hard to operate while wearing gloves or mittens? Weight and size: Do you want absolutely the smallest package you can get? Note that there’s only about a 7-ounce weight difference between the lightest and heaviest portable tracker .