Outdoor Retailer Summer Market '05 Trends: GPS navigation and mapping software

The pervasive trend in GPS units is greater specialization of existing models. Rather than offer a navigation tool that has all the bells-and-whistles, the companies are offering sport-specific versions that are easier-to-use or detuned versions that are more affordable.
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The SNEWS® team of editors powered by caffeine, chocolate and beer (not necessarily in that order), ducked and weaved around the trade show floor over the course of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market to ensure we could bring you the most comprehensive take on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations in stories that will run until we pass out. No, each report is not complete and we apologize in advance if a company feels its product was not mentioned when it should have been. We're only covering product that stood out to us, so if you're not mentioned, we were either too hyped up on caffeine to see you, we didn't think your product stood out sufficiently, or we started drinking beer too early in the afternoon -- you pick one. With that in mind, here's our take on trends and new products for hand-held GPS units, wrist-top GPS and mapping software:

The pervasive trend in GPS units is greater specialization of existing models. Rather than offer a navigation tool that has all the bells-and-whistles, the companies are offering sport-specific versions that are easier-to-use or detuned versions that are more affordable.

Among the computer-mapping companies, a real challenge has been maintaining compatibility with new GPS models. The user-interface remains a weak point for many of these products as well, though each new version brings small upgrades. For the most part, the software offered by GPS makers is inferior to aftermarket products even though it has better integration with the company's own units.

GPS

Brunton
-- The Atlas line of GPS units has gotten off to a slow start in part due to a lack of compatibility with other software programs. The deluxe Atlas MNS ($360) has some good features (16-level grayscreen, dual processor, etc.) but requires the $250 TopoCreate software and a $35 cable to take advantage of them all. Consumers who take the $650 plunge will be rewarded by a very sophisticated navigation system that can display 1:24,000 maps for the entire United States. This detailed mapping offers a major distinction with the other brands. Neither model of Atlas GPS units is changing for next year so the extra time on the market may help market penetration.

Bushnell -- Better known for its binoculars and spotting scopes, Bushnell is the newest entry into the GPS marketplace. The new Onix GPS has the advantage of coming late and learning from other brands' mistakes. The most notable feature is an almost Mac-like interface: clean, simple, powerful. Based on the demo, the Onix appears to require less paging through screens to see the desired information. And it can download satellite photos (via the Internet) into the GPS unit for display in the field. The 16-level gray version will sell for $200 and the color model will be $300. Since Bushnell has a lot of clout in the hook-and-bullet world, as well as with birders, this may be a GPS product to reckon with.

Garmin -- The 800-pound gorilla in the outdoor GPS market is filling in holes in its extensive lineup. For example, the previously introduced GPS 60C ($482) and 60CS ($536) now have more affordable companions, the GPS 60 ($193) and GPSMAP 60 ($321), each trading features for price and trading color screens for 4-level grayscale. Compared to the compact eTrex series, these are roughly the same weight yet have larger screens (though not necessarily more resolution) and more sensitive antennas due to increased size.

The Rhino series, which combines GPS with 2-way radios, get major improvements with the new 520 ($482) and 530 ($536). The existing versions (110, 120, 130) only transmit at 1 watt, while the new models will put out 5 watts, increasing the maximum range from about two miles to 12 miles and improving performance in closer ranges for use in challenging terrain.

Another example of greater specialization is the new Trail Guide. This is essentially a Quest 2 that can be installed in the dash of any 1997 or later Jeep Wrangler instead of using a suction cup. The Trail Guide/Quest pops out of its mount and can be used as a handheld unit, attached to the handlebars of a bike, or connected to a computer for full performance.

Since Garmin's MapSource software only provides 1:24,000 maps for national parks and monuments, users will need to rely on other software brands for detailed topos in most areas.

Lowrance -- The new iFinder GO will be the next low price contender in the GPS market at $89 retail, with the slightly smarter GO2 selling for $109. These compare well with the entry-level Garmin eTrex ($106) and Magellan eXplorist 100. None of these introductory GPS units can interface with a computer so users only get a third of the benefit of modern navigation technology.

As an example of adding features that aren't-needed-but-are-easy-so-why-not, the iFinder family gained the Map&Music ($259) and PhD ($309), both of which can play MP3 music files over headphones. The company's website states, "Listen to your favorite music while finding your way!" yet we are hard put to think of anything more distracting while trying to navigate. And the real music fans will have an iPod anyway.

While it technically isn't product for use on a trail or in the backcountry, SNEWS® editors have found the iWay 500C ($800) auto navigation system to be a superb portable unit. The 5-inch color touch screen is huge compared to comparably priced models and the interface is simple. A built-in hard drive holds 10 GB of map data for the entire country (streets, hotels, restaurants, trail heads, etc.) and has room for 10 GB of your MP3 tunes. Now driving while listening to tunes is a whole different thing.

Magellan -- The eXplorist line of GPS is filling out with the addition of the new 210 ($180) and XL ($450). Since it has far greater memory capacity and features, the 210 essentially obsoletes the 200, though the latter remains in the line for now (excess inventory?). No doubt a 310, 410, 510 and 610 aren't far off to enhance the existing models. The XL is a true addition to the line since it has a much bigger color screen (3.5 inches) than any other handheld GPS unit on the market. The resolution is still unspecified so it's unclear if this merely offers a bigger view of a map or a larger area. This is the only color GPS unit that takes AA batteries instead of a rechargeable pack, making it more practical for extended trips.

Navman -- The Sport.Tool series of armband GPS units is a unique alternative to wristband or handheld styles. Rather than a single do-it-all unit, the Sport.Tool is available in five versions ($180 each, $150 on Amazon) for specific sports: marine (windsurfing, sailing), skiing, walking and inline skating. All of these operate with just two buttons and are easy to see when both hands are in use. The display doesn't have maps but can show info like heading and speed. Since these can't interface with a computer, they are more like fancy watches than navigation tools.

Suunto -- The desperately needed upgrade for the X9 GPS watch is on the way. While Suunto should be commended for pushing the technology further than any other company, the first generation watch was hampered by too high a price ($700) and very slow performance. Both problems are addressed in the new X9i, which will retail for $500 and is claimed to be 10 times faster. Even better, the new model will use a USB connection instead of an outdated serial cable and it works with the National Geographic Topo! State Series maps. This is the wrist-mounted GPS that the X9 should have been all along -- if it lives up to the promises, this will be the best in class.

Trimble -- In an effort to broaden appeal of its GPS cell phone software, Trimble has teamed with MyTopo.com to offer customers a 20 percent discount on custom-printed maps shipped to their door. Trimble has also partnered with Backpacker to offer a bundled program and one-year magazine subscription for only $30 (the program alone retails for $50). Of course, neither of these offers does retailers any good since they are bypassed entirely by consumers and discouraged from buying a GPS unit.

Trimble's Adventure Planner Software is compatible with Garmin and Magellan GPS units as well as 14 cell phones offered by Nextel; it will not work with other cell phone providers, other GPS brands, or Apple computers. Since all maps and aerial images are downloaded, a high-speed Internet connection is pretty much essential.

When paired with a Nextel phone that has a camera and the deluxe phone package ($120 per year), the Trimble software can upload photos and locate them on the topo maps. Other phones offer different features such as rugged construction and Bluetooth wireless connections. Overall it's a good navigation system for someone with all the requirements already but probably not worth switching cell phone providers or computers.

Software and web-based add-ons

Delorme -- Perhaps among the best known of the available computer mapping software products, Topo USA is scheduled for an upgrade to version 6.0 "soon" we are told. While these maps lack the detail of the National Geographic and Maptech products (and Delorme's own professional software), they are sufficient for many outdoor travelers. The Topo USA program ($100 for the entire country) can download aerial and satellite images, but the fees are fairly steep so this feature may not be used much after the initial new-toy glow wears off.

Maptech -- Despite being virtually invisible at Summer Market (no booth and almost silently distributed by Silva), Maptech offers one of the best digital mapping programs for outdoor recreation -- the Terrain Navigator at $100 per state. The Terrain Navigator provides detailed maps and a powerful engine that hooks up with a wide range of GPS units. A new version (7.0) is due within a few weeks and will offer even more features. The deluxe edition, Terrain Navigator Pro ($300 per state), adds in a year of satellite photo downloads.

Motion Based -- Sharing space in the Garmin booth, this company offers endurance and outdoor athletes a detailed analysis of their exertions for $48 annually. The website works with many GPS units, but the best performance comes from the Garmin Foretrex 201 and 301, Vista C, and 60CS. Using the relatively new Forerunner 301, the Motion Based software is the first to include heart rate with your position, speed and even weather data. What is likely to be even cooler to tech geeks, is the website integrates with Google Earth to retrace activity on a 3D landscape based on color satellite images.

National Geographic -- Its Topo! State Series Mapping software ($100 per state) has become the defacto gold standard in the outdoor industry. Only Maptech offers the same level of detail since most of the other computer mapping programs for the United States rely on digital files instead of scans of the actual 1:24,000 USGS maps. The optional 3D expansion pack ($20) really brings the program to its best. Where Topo! particularly shines is user friendliness; it's compatible with a wide range of GPS units, including the new Suunto X9i, and it is the only Mac-compatible mapping software on the market. A new version is in the works that will combine PC and Mac versions onto one DVD plus add other new features.

Outdoor specialty retailers should also consider stocking Adventure Paper since waterproof, tearproof inkjet paper can't be found at big box office supply stores. Custom printed maps on this synthetic material are virtually indestructible so it's a good option for field use.

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