The Joys and Perils of GPS

Which is better: a smartphone or dedicated GPS?

Don Cohen Don Cohen  |  03.28.2016

While navigating to and fro across the streets and freeways of the Phoenix area in both our Navion and new Ford Focus tow car, I’ve been thinking about how blessedly removed I’ve become from the hassle of studying a map and puzzling out directions.  Now, we can get to an unfamiliar movie theater, ballpark, grocery store, restaurant and back to the RV park like an accomplished city native.  It’s liberating.  And that’s the upside.

But there’s a downside too which is why many people find using GPS so frustrating – you actually have to learn how to use it.

When I say GPS I’m painting a very wide swath from cell-based systems like Google Maps and Apple’s Siri, to dedicated units like Rand McNally, Garmin, Magellan and TomTom.  Then there’s a tier of dedicated automotive solutions like our Ford’s vastly improved Sync 3.

Probably the most evolved GPS devices are the phone-based solutions from Google and Apple.  Instead of a tedious process of entering first a city, street, and address, you simply talk into the phone and say, “find 1605 Sherman Steet” and the massive computers on the other end of your cell request will figure out where you are and calculate the most reasonable response.  It’s great when it works, and voice recognition is increasingly getting better and better.

But phone GPS has it’s downsides, too.  It only works when you’ve got good cell and data service.  Running a GPS route is a big drain on cell batteries.  To minimize battery drain the cell phone screen will dim after time.  That’s why I always travel with a 12 volt adapter so I can keep the cell phone plugged-in while using it as a navigation device.  When plugged in, my iPhone screen stays on so I can continually watch the route.  If you’re using a cell phone for navigation in a car or RV, the next question is, where can you place it for easy viewing?  For that there are many solutions like dashboard clips, setting it on your lap, or having your co-pilot hold it in your viewing area.

Because all the “smarts” of cell-based mapping and routing data live in the cloud, they will have the most updated navigation information.  Dedicated units require periodic software downloads.  And if you’re like most folks who don’t back up as often as they should, taking ten to thirty minutes (or more) to update your GPS is. . . well. . . about three levels further down in importance.

Now you’d think that the case is clear that cell-based GPS is the way to go.  Uh, not so fast there Johnny Quest.  Dedicated GPS systems, when used correctly, still are superior.  They offer the driver fuller feedback, generally larger screens, no dependency on a cell signal, and in the case of optimized RV GPS systems, safer routing for larger rigs.

Using dedicated GPS units, like the class-leading Winnebago infotainment system with the Rand McNally GPS software, often elicits howls of pain and complaints from users.  So how can it be that something so powerful is so reviled?  It comes down to this:  nobody wants to read the manual.  Let’s be honest here.  Probably the first time you sat in front your GPS unit was when the engine was running and you were about to pull out of the drive.  To set your destination you thought it would be as easy as switching radio stations.  Guess again.  You probably rolled down the block with divided attention (admit it driver – you didn’t ask your co-pilot, did you?) trying to figure out how to program the $#%!!!! thing!  No such luck.

This is probably the last piece of advice you want to hear, but it’s the unvarnished truth:  if you want to get the most out of any GPS device you’re going to have to take the time to learn it.  And that’s especially true with dedicated units.  If you are to “become one” with your GPS here’s the six step program to becoming a Jedi master of the highway.

Step 1:  Actually read the manual.  Take a good look at the manual that came with your unit.  I recommend skimming it the first time, playing with your unit, and then reading it more closely a second time.  Tedious as it may be, I can guarantee you that your abilities and understanding will increase by 100%.

Step 2:  Play while parked.  Whenever I get a new tech device I explore every screen and every button to discover what happens.  Fire up your unit and spend a half hour or so exploring.  You’ll find ways to customize map views, icons, and alerts.

Step 3:  Make a test route.  While still parked, try searching for and entering in a destination.  All GPS units have large POI (Points of Interest) databases.  A POI is a name like, Applebees or Walmart.  GPS units are programmed to tell you what’s close, so if you find yourself in a POI category called restaurants, tapping on that item will display the closest ones around.  You can also search by address and that process usually involves putting in a city, street name, and then street address.  Searching in Winnebago’s Rand McNally software is very powerful because Rand uses more RV optimized databases than Garmin. The downside of this power is that (unless you practice) the search process can be confusing.

Step 4:  Make a cheat sheet.  Think about your travel style and how you might use navigation.  If your primary objectives are locating diesel truck stops or commercial campgrounds, write down the steps of the menus you need to tap on to get to the right input screens.  If you’re a seasonal RV user, the cheat sheet really can save time in relearning software you don’t use every day.

Step 5: Take a NAV test drive.  Set out a simple route with a destination a mile or two away.  Start routing and follow the voice and visual prompts.  Some people are visual, others like the spoken commands.  For maximum effectiveness you should get used to paying attention to both.  A classic happened yesterday when, entering a roundabout, the GPS said, “take the second exit.”  Because there was a freeway entrance off of the roundabout, visually it looked like an exit, but in reality (and seeing the blue navigation line) I realized I should drive past that turn and keep going through the roundabout.

Another thing you need to get used to in your test drives is how far the GPS alerts you to your next turn.  More than once I’ve not sensed the moment of the turn and driven past it.  This is where it takes a little skill to assess the road ahead with your own eyes and factor that into the GPS alert.

Step 6:  Actually read the manual.  As it was foretold in step one, after doing all these other steps, re-reading the manual will make a lot more sense and probably reveal a couple of other cool hints that might not have stood out at the first reading.

I love using GPS and, over the years, I’ve gotten very adept at it.  I often think of navigating with GPS is like a pilot learning to use instruments.  It honestly does take a leap of faith to start trusting the technology.  I’m lucky that I’ve got a very good sense of direction and remembrance for landmarks.  However, what I’ve noticed, with my comfort in using GPS, is that I’m paying less attention to landmarks and streets than I used to and trusting my little blue (or sometimes green) line.  I now spend little or no time planning or worrying about how I’m going to get from A to B, and coming into a completely unfamiliar area I’m very confident that we can always find ice cream and the camp spot for the night.   It’s all about priorities.


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12 Comments

  1. Pete Letourneau Posted on 10.30.2016

    I love my GPS units, and they have probably saved my marriage since my wife doesn’t like maps. We use a little Garmin that we bought with traffic update info and put it in our 2008 Sightseer. I agree with most of the comments above that you need to be an informed user, but for me it is much better to have real time information than fumble with a map. That being said, we were going through some construction outside of Calgary and the system totally misdirected us because it couldn’t take account of the traffic changes resulting from the ongoing reconfiguration of the highway. We had to use common sense.

    On the issue of trip planning, we are AAA members and use the Triptik function. It allows unlimited stops between point A and B which allowed us to plan our trip up from Seattle to Anchorage and back through Calgary and Montana. One real nice feature of the software is that it allows a map layer with camping spots so you can see where there are campgrounds in the area we travelled through. The info allowed me to plan for the next couple of days overnight stops so I could call ahead and not worry about reservations. There were also mapping layers for fuel stops, restaurants etc, and because we are members, we can save the maps or make multiple variations of routes. This REALLY helped when we needed to tack east on our way to Arizona to avoid a big storm coming into southern Oregon.

  2. Matty Wachala Posted on 08.20.2016

    I have a 2016 Adventurer with the infotainment system that either does not give audio directions or it suddenly starts after 2 or 3 hours of silence with incomplete directions. It leaves off the beginning of the directions. Dealer downloaded software from RiverPark and it still is not working. A new unit was installed and it has the same incomplete direction problem. RiverPark is supposed to be sending software updates again. I agree with a previous post that the unit not having enough memory. I do not have much hope that the software fix will fix the problem.

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 08.22.2016

      Matty,
      Usually problems like you described with the Xite Infotainment unit are software based. You might try updating to the latest software yourself. It’s pretty easy to do. Here’s what the manual says:

      “The Rand McNally Dock enables you to receive software upgrades and access map updates, monthly construction updates, and additional features. Simply download the Dock software for your PC or Mac at http://www.randmcnally.com/dock, remove the SD card from your device and insert it into your PC or Mac using SD card adapter. Then start the Rand McNally Dock software.”

      Don

  3. Steven Posted on 06.06.2016

    I suggest to any owners having performance issues with their Xite infotainment systems to contact RiverPark Inc., the distributor of the radio. They have a quality technical support department that will help to fix any issues or get a replacement product on the way.

    Camera signals all run through a dedicated video switching box that can be a culprit with camera issues.

    Sticking or broken buttons most likely require a replacement unit.

    Low latency with Rand McNally necessitates an update to the Rand McNally card via their dock software or possibly a replacement card.

  4. Ed Prentice Posted on 05.03.2016

    Thought I wouid weigh in, seeing only one Google map post. In olden times (before I used Android phones) on travel in my region, I knew I could be faster than any GPS because I knew alternate routes, traffic, etc. Now Google does all that in real time. Just input where you are going and it will tell you the best route, give you alternates and time difference, and, best of all, will give real time updates based on traffic conditions giving you an option of taking an alternate path. Only occasionally is it good for a laugh (GPS signal lost?) with some advice like make a U-turn, but then corrects itself when you keep driving as it had routed originally. When you are brave enough to let Google collect your info, the value goes up. Your phone will know what you had been doing on your PC map, etc.

  5. Bernard Beaule Posted on 04.24.2016

    One must understand that a GPS unit is basically a tool designed to help you get from point A to point B and in between offers you mostly places to spend your money. Is it usefull? Of course when you compare it with a paper map that doesn’t even know point even B exists.

    But here’s the thing. Trusting a GPS is something you just can’t do. For example, open your GPS unit on a road in the middle of nowhere and you’ll find out that actually you are in the middle of nowhere, the maps haven’t been updated and the streets you’re on are absent. Good luck in trying to find your way to the closest Walmart!

    How about this one? Deciding between the shortest way or the fastest way to your destination. A month ago, while traveling in the south-center of Mexico, I opted for the shortest way to get to the city of Oaxaca. My GPS quickly find the road to get there only for me to find out after a 100 kilometers it was bringing me up the Sierra Madre above the clouds some 9500 feet above the sea where you couldn’t drive faster than 30 km/hr because of the spaghetti curves while the longer road alllowed you to go up to 110 km/hr!!! It didn’t give the elevation or warn me about the curves!!

    As for one-ways and dead ends, you’re in for a surprise because most of the GPS maps ignore them which will drive you and all the other drivers on your road crazy.

    One more little limit. Let’s say you intend to go from point A to point Z and stop for a while at all the other points between them to eat, to visit, to fill up, to let the dog do his thing, etc. Back in the good old days, Microsoft Street&Trips gave you the possibility to add any point of interest you wanted. But now, most of the units will allow only 1 ‘in between’ stop which means you have to start all over again in giving a series of new destinations.

    In other words, if you think a GPS is the best thing since the invention of sliced bread, well it means you haven’t eaten bread or visited a bakery for quite a while! It’s a tool one needs to learn to use. Don’t forget that owning a hammer doesn’t turn you into a carpenter the day you buy one. You need to learn how it works before traveling and become aware of its limitations. I agree with what Ted said regarding the use of Google Maps as a trip planing tool. You get an overview of the possible routes and zoom in at street level to better know what’s coming up. I often turn screen images into pdf files and send them on my smartphone.

    New GPS units offer you picture of road signs, trafic warnings, voice commands and even the possiblity to store your music. I’d rather have better quality maps, elevation data, multi-point route options than the previous ‘improvements’.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I currently use three units, A nüvi 2547LMT, a 60CX and the Sygic Car Navigation on my smartphone. The Sygic allows me to have all the maps I need on my phone. My wife prefers Sygic to all the other.

  6. virg Posted on 04.23.2016

    I consider myself pretty tech savy, but after ending up in some awkward situations with our RV, I will take a map anyday. For one thing, I much prefer to see the larger image and the whole area. Now, we use all 3 – maps, GPS and phone. They all have some good qualities and some bad.

  7. Dan White Posted on 04.23.2016

    So far my unit sucks. The NAV button does nothing. You can get to the navigation screen from the main menu button. Once there the display is very slow. Press a button and it takes about 10 seconds for the display to update your input. When tracking the screen jumps from one location to another. Very poor operation. You can’t increase the brightness of the display. At the angle in the dash the sun washes it out.

    I like my Garmin RV much better… And will probably use it over the in dash unit.

  8. Ted Posted on 04.23.2016

    I find Google Maps best suited to be used as a GPS. You can plan your trip on your home computer. You can grab your route by double clicking and moving it to a different route, so you don’t have to go from point A to point B their way, you can go your way. Once you’re done you can send the route to your smart phone, tablet or even certain vehicles by clicking on the share button. You have to have a Google account setup first. Get in your RV, click on the link and click on the directions button. The map will come up and if you have bluetooth radio in RV, the voice will come over your speakers. You can even select Gas Stations, Hotels, etc to display. Couldn’t be easier.

  9. Mike Posted on 04.23.2016

    Great article, but I suspect much user frustration with GPS has to do with the low quality (but high price tag) unit that Winnebago puts in the Class B lines. As I’ve documented in our blog era70x.com, we’ve had nothing but trouble with the Winnebago (Xite) infotainment unit in our 2016 Era 70X. The audio is terrible, hence we’ve upgraded the amp and speakers ($1,500 addition). And the unit will not detect the rear video camera. MClains RV has been unable to isolate the fault. In any event, the latency with the Rand McNalley GPS makes the unit unusable. So now we have a separate back up camera that is coupled to a standalone Garmin GPS. Being an engineer, I suspect the unit has much too little memory and an underpowered processor. I hope Winnebago is able to upgrade the units for future RV purchasers.

  10. Eric Eltinge Posted on 03.29.2016

    Does the Winnebago Rand GPS need to be updated periodically at the dealer?

    1. Don Cohen Posted on 03.29.2016

      No. Simply establish a free account on Rand McNally’s website and download their “Dock” application. You then can download updates and copy them to an SD memory card that plugs into the Xite infotainment unit.