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Last Updated: Friday, 24 June, 2005, 10:23 GMT 11:23 UK
Show me the way
By Paul Rubens

Satellite navigation may soon consign paper maps to the great waste bin of history. The sooner the better, many will say. Maps are bulky, difficult to fold, and somehow destinations always seem to be right on the edge.

The good news for the cartophobic is that satellite navigation systems are becoming cheaper and better than ever. These neat little devices - which display maps or directions on a small screen and announce when to make a turn - used to be 1,000 optional extras on luxury cars.

But new portable systems cost as little as 370 - and have the advantage that they are not built into the vehicle, so they can be taken on holiday and used in rental cars.

According to Laurent De Hauwere, of digital map-maker Tele Atlas, the dramatic fall in prices has led to an explosion in satellite navigation (Satnav) sales, with the market for handheld units growing at about 300% a year.

About a quarter of buyers get the devices to take on holiday, he says, while about 20% are "comfort seekers" - people who don't like getting lost or trying to navigate for themselves wherever they go.

Spoken aloud

The lure is obvious. Driving in unfamiliar places is stressful and can lead to stinking rows between driver and map reader, especially, it seems, when the couple happen to be husband and wife.

My wife is an abysmal navigator and can't read a map to save her life
Satnav enthusiast Mike Barrett
How much more relaxing to enter an address - or, in Britain, which has the most precise system of any country in Europe, just a postcode - and let the Satnav plan the route. Concise directions are spoken aloud, so there's no need to even take one's eyes off the road.

Drivers can even select the language, voice and preferred accent it uses to speak direction.

Overshoot a turning by mistake? A Satnav won't lose its cool, but simply plan a new route in seconds and give updated instructions, with infinite understanding and patience.

"My wife is an abysmal navigator, and can't read a map to save her life," says Mike Barrett, a long-time Satnav enthusiast, and co-owner of Pocket GPS World, a website for Satnav users.

"I used to have 'interesting' discussions with her driving on holiday when she was navigating and I needed to know when to make a turn or what lane to get in, but now I just need the full address of the hotel we are heading for to get there."

Camera detectors

But it's not just arguments that Satnavs neatly sidestep.

They can also help motorists bypass speeding tickets. That's because it's possible to download the locations of thousands of speed cameras all over Britain, and store them in a Satnav.

Prince William
Ideal for exploring
The unit simply emits a warning beep when it approaches a camera. Unlike camera detectors, which are illegal in some European countries and may soon be in Britain, Satnav warnings are not. And they also provide warnings for some types of cameras that detectors can't spot.

It turns out there are plenty of unexpected ways that Satnavs can be useful. For example, Mike Barrett also uses his to help on shopping trips.

"On a visit to the United States this year my boys wanted to buy a Sony PSP [a video games machine]. So I looked up all the computer shops in the area and stored them in my unit. We then just followed the directions from one store to the next, until finally at the seventh store they found what they were looking for."

Leonard Ormonde, another Satnav disciple, says he uses the moving map on his unit as an extra pair of eyes.

"When I'm driving at night in a country lane, I look at the display to see which way the road is going to turn next. It helps me anticipate the curves," he says.

These little boxes of techno-wizardry can also help discover things that otherwise might be missed, from cash machines and wireless hotspots to street markets and Ceroc dance venues. The details are downloaded from any computer and transferred to a Satnav machine.

Drawbacks

But before heading abroad, it's worth remembering that in the world of digital maps, not all countries are created equal. More than 99% of all roads are included on maps of Britain, while only 40% of Portugal's are.

A to Zs
Best not to forget the old ways
The reason is that making digital maps is a huge and time consuming job, involving satellite photography, paper maps and even driving around in special vans.

Tele Atlas's vans have driven over seven million kilometres mapping out roads in Europe, but the company is less than half way through mapping Portugal. As for eastern Europe, it has barely even started.

There are other drawbacks too. Just as mobile phones mean no one can be bothered to remember phone numbers anymore, so Satnav could mean we eventually surrender our sense of direction to these boxes of gadgetry. In other words, if you throw away your A-Z and come to rely too much on satellite navigation, you'll be well and truly lost without it.


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