Digital navigation systemOne of the greatest boons the digital age has brought to travellers is the Global Positioning System (GPS). Originally developed for the US military, this worldwide navigation system has been released for civilian use, allowing anyone with the proper equipment to determine their current location within a few metres. Combined with a digital map, a GPS system is capable of continuously showing you where you are in relation to where you're going, making it very difficult to get lost.
Handheld GPS systems start at about $400, but the locally made Trax system can provide you with this capability for a bit less. For $259, you can buy a mouse-like GPS receiver unit made in New Zealand, designed to sit on a car's dashboard. This feeds standard NMEA 0183 compatible signals to a computer, where they can be interpreted by a variety of software (not supplied). A more expensive version includes the GPS and the software required to interpret its signals, as well as one of a selection of detailed Australian maps.
The mouse GPS unit connects to a COM port for data and a P/S 2 port for power - this is fine for older notebooks and some current models, but many newer legacy-free notebooks have dropped these older technologies in favour of USB. If you're going to buy this product, make sure your mobile computer has the appropriate ports. An optional cigarette lighter power supply cable is available, which can alleviate this problem, and a USB version of the mouse GPS unit will be coming out in the near future.
Installing the Australian navigation software was quick, and its use proved easy enough. The program has a voice feature that explains what each item is when you use it - this can get irritating, so it's good that it can be turned off in the program options dialogue.
In use, the GPS receiver may take several minutes to get an initial location, but from then it updates every second. Its accuracy is dependent on the amount of sky visible without obstructions, and the target that designates your location may shift over a few metres while readings are obtained. Nevertheless, once a signal is acquired, the error in finding a location on a Sydney street map is 20m, or less, depending on the number of satellites within range. This is easily good enough for navigation.
The mapping software includes the ability to set alarms for steep descents, weight limits, traffic lights and other road hazards. Map packs are available for different parts of Australia, at prices ranging from $45 to $400.
The combined Trax GPS and map system is great for vehicles, but not suitable for bushwalkers since it is not weatherproof and requires a heavy laptop. If you're navigating through the outback in a four-wheel drive, though, or making deliveries in a van, Trax could be just the ticket.