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Sunday, August 5, 2007

Choosing Between a GPS Receiver and a PDA

You might wonder why anyone would you want to use a PDA instead of a handheld, consumer GPS receiver. That's a very good question; you gadget junkies out there who have your hands raised and are answering, "Because it's cool," please put your hands down and continue reading.

You'll find compelling advantages and disadvantages to using a PDA with GPS that are based on your intended use and needs. To see whether you should even be considering a PDA navigation system, review some of the pros and cons right from the start.

PDA advantages

Aside from being cool, a PDA might make sense for you as part of a personal navigation system for a number of reasons. Some of the advantages include

  • Larger screens: PDAs have larger, higher-resolution, color screens compared with handheld GPS receivers. This is a big plus if your eyesight isn't as good as it used to be — and it's really important if you're using the PDA while driving. You want to be able to quickly glance at a map on the screen, determine your location, and then get your eyes back on the road.

  • More maps: Most of the maps that you can upload to GPS receivers don't have a lot of detail; especially the topographic maps. These maps tend to be vector line maps and don't have the resolution or detail found on paper maps that you'd use for hiking. Several mapping programs are available for PDAs that support all types of maps, and you can even create your own custom maps. With a PDA, you can use more detailed maps, like scanned, color 1:24,000 topographic maps. Bonus: You're not locked in to using only a GPS receiver manufacturer's proprietary software and maps.

  • Expandable memory: Unlike many GPS receivers, which have fixed amounts of memory, most PDAs support expandable memory with plug-in memory cards. The only limitation to the number of the maps and amount of data that you can store is the size of the memory card.

  • Usability: Although handheld GPS receivers are fairly easy to use, the user interfaces found on PDAs are even simpler. Using a touch screen and stylus to enter data and commands is a lot faster and easier than using the buttons on a handheld GPS receiver.

  • Custom programs: Developers can easily write custom programs for PDAs that access the data output from a GPS receiver. If you're collecting information that's based on location data, this can make your job much easier than pressing buttons on a GPS receiver and then hand-writing remarks in a field notebook.

  • PDA features: PDAs have all sorts of useful programs such as address books, contact lists, and databases designed for readily storing data. A fair amount of this information tends to be location based (like addresses), and having a single information/navigation device is the definition of practical.

PDA disadvantages

After reading through advantages of using a PDA as your navigation system of choice, you're probably sold on a using a PDA. However, they definitely aren't for everyone. Some of downsides include

  • Ruggedness: Handheld GPS receivers are designed to take more abuse than PDAs, which often fail when they're dropped or knocked around. Although you can buy ruggedized (with special enclosures that make them waterproof, drop-proof, bear-proof, and kid-proof) PDAs, they're considerably more expensive than off-the-shelf models; expect to spend at least several hundred dollars more.

  • Weather/water resistance: Unlike GPS receivers, PDAs aren't designed to be waterproof or even weatherproof. This can be a major issue if you plan on using your PDA navigation system outdoors in damp, rainy, or snowy weather, you're around water, or you have a leaky water bottle in your backpack.

  • Power considerations: Most PDAs use internal batteries that are recharged through a docking cradle. If you're away from a power source, this can be a serious issue because you can't swap out dead or dying batteries for a convenient set of spare AA or AAA batteries like you can with a handheld GPS receiver.

When it comes to weighing the pros and cons of PDA navigation systems, you really have to examine your needs and planned use. If you plan on using a GPS receiver exclusively for road navigation, you should definitely consider a PDA. However if you're going to be using GPS primarily in an outdoor setting, you're probably better off with a handheld GPS receiver.

Although PDAs are relatively fragile and don't get along well with water, you can find products on the market to protect them when exposed to harsh environments, such as OtterBox cases. For a well-spent $20-25 for the lower-end models, these plastic containers defend a PDA or other electronic devices from Mother Nature as well as not-too-careful owners.

OtterBox has two products that let you operate a PDA (including using its stylus) while encased in a waterproof and crushproof housing. One model has a waterproof portal that allows you to connect the PDA to an external GPS receiver with a serial cable. There are also accessories that accommodate the oversize external antennas of GPS receiver cards and sleeves. Tests performed by the U.S. Forest Service indicated no satellite signal degradation when GPS receivers were used in the Armor cases.

The Armor series of cases do add bulk to the size of your PDA. However, considering the protection that they offer, the rugged cases are well suited for anyone who wants to venture out into the wilds and use a PDA without worrying about it breaking. A 3600 Armor model will set you back about OtterBox also has other Armor cases from $20-50.

If you're leaning toward a PDA navigation system (or already have one) and want to operate it out in the elements, at least buy an OtterBox or some type of protective bag. Your repair and replacement bills will be considerably less compared with stowing your PDA in a jacket pocket.

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