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Basics of Handheld Computers and GPS connectivity

Created: 01/15/2004
Modified: 06/27/2007


Handheld GPSs, Palm and PocketPC - Explained.


The Beginning - Handheld GPS units
Until fairly recently, there was only one real choice for a handheld GPS. While they were made by different manufacturers, and came in different shapes and colors, they all basically did the same thing - give you a position, and allow you to plan where you would like to go (through a route) and mark where you have been (through marks and tracks). Most include some rudimentary map or other display to show the routes, marks, and tracks; with "better" maps available - some even in color. Fundamentally, however, these types of GPS units are limited by their memory and custom "firmware" (the operating system software embedded in the GPS that controls the display, etc.) Customization (beyond those features provided by the manufacturer) is basically out of the question on dedicated handheld GPS units.

The Next Step - Handheld Computers
As handheld computers (Palm, PocketPC) became more powerful, a new option became available. Since Palm and PocketPCs are real computers (with a relatively "open" operating system) anyone can write a software program that will run on those devices. Their displays tend to be bigger and brighter than those found on a handheld GPS, yet are about the same physical size. Because cabling between a handheld GPS (for position) and a handheld computer (for display) is tricky and very cumbersome, it was only a matter of time before various people started making GPS units that plug directly into (or otherwise attach themselves) to the various handheld computers. At first, getting the right GPS card/sleeve was tricky at best; fortunately, things are starting to settle down in this regard.

The natural progression of this technology would be a handheld GPS that is also a handheld computer (no external attachments, sleeves, etc.) Garmin has released this, its iQue. The iQue comes in two configurations: either as a Palm or PocketPC handheld device. However, it also has built into it a GPS receiver. This receiver is configured such that any Palm or PocketPC software product that can communicate with a GPS, can work on the iQue.

And the technology continues; there are cell phones that are also Palm Handheld devices that also have built-in GPS receivers. Again, the beauty of this design is that these devices can run any Palm-compatible software product - from mapping applications, to spreadsheets, to solitaire, to address books, to wireless web/email, to… (you get the point.)

Palm Powered vs. PocketPC
While these examples listed highlight the Palm handheld, there are similar offerings available (or in the works) for the Pocket PC handhelds. Like the early days of "ibm" vs. "mac", there is a good deal of competition there, and it is unclear which "system" will ultimately prevail. For now, both are enjoying equal success.

Windows Smartphone
A new platform for mobile devices has recently emerged. Windows Smartphone is like the PocketPC system, but it is optimized for use on a mobile phone. Because of its unique design, most PocketPC software does not operate on this new platform. However, as it gains popularity it is sure to rival PocketPC and Palm Powered devices.

Maptech's GPS Software for Handheld Computers
For almost 15 years, Maptech, inc., has made navigation software (and matching maps and charts) that run on various computer devices. Starting with big, clumsy DOS computers, our products will now (quite literally) run on your cell phone. (Who even HAD a cell phone 15 years ago?!) Presently, we have two software offerings. Instead of being a GPS unit in and of itself, it communicates with the GPS receiver that is attached to or built into the particular handheld device it is run on.

Pocket Navigator is a software product that runs on PocketPC and Windows Smartphone handhelds. It provides the basic functions of a handheld GPS unit's firmware, yet will read maps and charts from Maptech's various library of CDs. (sold separately.) Pocket Navigator includes a software desktop component that handles the conversion of Maptech's charts and maps into a format that can be displayed by the companion PocketPC software on the PocketPC device. This desktop software will also convert routes, tracks, and marks to and from the various "PC-based" software products that Maptech produces, such as Terrain Navigator and Offshore Navigator.

Note that there are no maps or charts included with Pocket Navigator. Instead, maps are purchased as part of Terrain Navigator and Terrain Navigator Pro; charts are purchased as part of Digital ChartKit regions and Marine Navigator, or downloaded from www.FreeBoatingCharts.com.

Pocket Contour is included with Offshore Navigator - which is currently sold as Chart Navigator (Std. Edition.) This product displays underwater 3-D charts on Pocket PC devices.

Maptech no longer offers navigation software compatible with Palm Powered handheld devices. However, should demand for software on this platform prove sufficient, we may be offering software compatible with this platform in the future.

As Maptech has evolved from clunky computers to sleek handheld devices in just over a decade, it truly boggles the mind to wonder what devices and applications will be available 10 years from now. However, whatever that platform may be, Maptech intends to be there, continuing to make navigation easier.


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