July 7, 2006 4:03 AM PDT

Postmortem on a gadget-filled Road Trip

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Road Trip 2006

July 11, 2006

In Seattle, a spark of Burning Man

June 26, 2006
A week ago, as I made my way through Oregon's Mount Hood National Forest on old back roads, shaving probably a hundred miles off my journey, I had to marvel at how good it is to have the right tools for a job.

I'd been camping alongside a small lake near Mount Hood, poring over maps while plotting my way out of the deep forest toward the small town of McKenzie Bridge, Ore., where I knew I'd find some wonderful hot springs to write about as part of my Road Trip 2006 around the Pacific Northwest.

Grading the gadgets

But my American Automobile Association map indicated that the shortcut out of the forest was on small, very curvy roads, and a perusal of my Delorme topographical map suggested that the roads were hard to follow and had many offshoots, each of which could have led me farther into the forest and farther away from civilization.

Normally, I would have been loathe to take a route that might get me lost in the middle of hundreds of thousands of acres of forest with little or no easy way out. But my gas tank was full, I had days' worth of food and water and, most important, I was traveling with several gadgets that made me feel very comfortable about taking a flier.

I set off toward the road, Oregon Forest Road 42, heading southwest, and began the trek. What I hadn't been sure of was whether the Magellan Roadmate 3000T car navigation system I was using would be up to following these back roads. If it wasn't, I reasoned, my maps were good enough for me to find my way. And even if I got lost, I had a satellite phone I could use to call for help.

But lo and behold, as I turned off U.S. Route 26 onto Forest 42, the navigation system picked me right up. What had seemed a somewhat scary trip suddenly became a very simple matter of following the Magellan's spoken directions.

Any task is made easier if you've got the right tools. And I can happily report that for my road trip, during which I drove 3,279 miles over 16 days, much of it far from any normal communications systems or electric outlets, I had the proper things to help me along the way.

Road Trip 2006

I had taken 10 gadgets with me, some review units and some of my own. During the course of the two-plus weeks, I got a pretty good sense of what I thought of most of them.

First, it's worth noting that with two particular types of gadgets, satellite phones and car navigation systems, I had a couple different devices to choose from--and one or the other won me over immediately.

As I wrote during the trip, my experience with the Garmin Nuvi 350 car navigator was not so good. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get it to tell me I was anywhere besides the Kansas town where its manufacturer is based. Any route it suggested started many hundreds of miles out of the way. On the flip side, my Magellan system was simple and easy to use, right out of the box. It almost always told me what I needed, when I needed it and with no fuss. A couple of times it seemed to freak out and get royally confused, but in those cases, turning it off and starting over worked. Not so with the Garmin.

Antennas, resets, GPS
So what was the problem? According to Garmin spokeswoman Jessica Myers, my inability to get the Nuvi to operate properly may well have been the result of user error. She said I needed to pull up an antenna that I didn't notice. I did, however, read through the manual provided, and found nothing about an antenna. She also said it might have required a reset, and I didn't do that either.

On the other hand, Garmin did better when it came to GPS gizmos. The GPSMAP 76CX handheld unit I had was a champ for determining simple GPS coordinates. I never got around to using its many more-advanced features, but based on how simple it was to use the basic functions, I have to assume it would have easily done anything I asked it to.

When it came to the two satellite phones I had on hand, my experiences were polar opposites.

When it came to the two satellite phones I had on hand, my experiences were polar opposites. I'd been told to call home for some important news, and so while I was in the forest near Mount Vernon, Wash., at Critical Massive, the annual festival put on by the Seattle Burning Man community, I pulled out the two devices, one from Globalstar and the other from Iridium.

Unfortunately, despite my being in a wide-open space with full view of the sky, I couldn't get the Globalstar phone to connect. So I put it aside and turned on the Iridium. My call went through immediately, with a clear connection that rivaled that of a landline, and the phone stayed connected throughout my conversation, during which I received some very good personal news.

From that point on, I used the Iridium phone every time I needed a satellite phone--which was usually when I had to contact home or work from far off the beaten path.

See more CNET content tagged:
satellite phone, Magellan, Garmin, Garmin Nuvi, gadget

5 comments

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Nuvi 350
Oh c'mon -- the antenna on the Nuvi is mentioned in the instructions and shown on the pictures. It's a great compact GPS. I just finished a trip all throughout New England with it and it performed great.
Posted by brownki (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
My own road trip...
I used my Garmin eTrex Legend hand-held GPS and it performed
flawlessly (I bought it two years ago to assist on an RV trek
across New Zealand and it was fantastic), as usual.

My 4-year-old 10GB iPod supplied some audiobook relief on the
10-hr drive (it likewise came in handy on a weeklong Route 66
trip when I first bought it), as well as some Gottlieb video pinball
on my PSP (which my wife soon became obsessed w/, I must
add). No movies were watched...all listening while watching
scenery or something to keep the brain in slow forward motion.

Alas, even w/ all that electronic distraction, I even found time to
read the newspaper. Gasp, the analog horror ;)!!
Posted by shanewalker (57 comments )
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Nubie using Nuvi?
I'm a bit confused by the author's inability to realize what went wrong. I purchased my first GPS a few weeks ago and poured over the choices to finally select the Nuvi 350. Within five minutes I had it all setup and, being in an office, couldn't get any directions as it displayed the fact that it couldn't receive a satellite signal. The manual mentions the antenna continually and correctly but anyone with a shred of common sense would understand that basic technology behind the device. You must acquire satellite signals to alloow the device to know where it is. No signal = no directions or, as must be the case with the Nuvi 350, it assumes HQ is its current position. Didn't you think to check the satellite signal strength that is displayed in the top left corner. Who let this guy out of the office?

Seriously, this device worked perfectly well in South Florida, Boston, New Hampshire and is easy to use, responsive to missed turns (we missed them puposefully to hear it say in a slightly annoyed turn "Recalculating"... someday it might say 'Idiot if you can't follow directions, get out of the car!') clear graphics and safety protocols that can be turned off.

Overall a great GPS that anyone can enjoy if they read the manual and use their head!
Posted by DatabaseDoctor (858 comments )
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Nuvi
I absolutely agree. I hardly had to even read the user's manual. Just open it up and go. Every picture shows that you have to pop up the antenna!
Posted by brownki (2 comments )
Link Flag
great article - very interesting road trip
You guys should do more of this type of thing. It's both interesting
and helpful to read about how these gadgets work out the in the
real world!
Posted by info (1 comment )
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