Personal Tech: Find Yourself With GPS

GPS, the satellite technology that tells you where you are in the world is going mass market.

GPS, the satellite technology that tells you where you are in the world, is going mass market. Gadget makers are starting to build it into all kinds of gizmos, for all kinds of reasons. Two of the latest: Hewlett-Packard's iPaq hw6515B Mobile Messenger, a do-everything PDA phone, and the Timex Bodylink Trail Runner, an innovative system for measuring workout performance.

Digital Swiss Army Knife

The iPaq, a pocket PC running Microsoft's Windows Mobile 2003 operating system, is the first PPC to include both GPS and cellular phone functions. A quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE phone, it's available from Rogers Wireless for $550 to $900, depending on the air-time package you choose. You can also use the wireless connection to surf the web–in a limited fashion–and collect e-mail. And, oh yes, the 6515B has a built-in still/video camera, too.

Like most jacks of all trades, however, the device fails to master many. It worked fine as a phone in our testing. And the camera is a cut above many phone cameras–it's higher resolution (1.3 megapixels) and has a flash, which most don't. But it can't take the place of a dedicated camera. (HP has a similar product without the camera.) HP's decision to include a tiny QWERTY keyboard on the 6515B's front face meant it had to make the screen smaller (three-inches diagonally, 240 pixels by 240 pixels). That diminishes its utility as a mobile computer. It's not the most powerful pocket PC available, either. Many PPCs have 500 and 600 megahertz processors, compared with the 6515B's 312 MHz Intel PXA272 chip.

Biggest disappointment: while the built-in GPS hardware appears to work fine, the Navteq navigation software I tested costs US$130 extra–and I found errors in the database of streets and destinations. Buyers can download a free version of a similar, though not as fully featured, program, Microsoft's Pocket Streets 2006.

High-tech training

The $370 Timex Trail Runner, a refinement of past Timex Bodylink products, includes a multi-function watch, the brains of the system, plus a heart-rate monitor you strap around your chest while exercising and a GPS receiver you strap to your arm. The last two send data to the watch wirelessly. The GPS data let the Trail Runner calculate the distance you run, walk, ride or paddle–and your speed. A third, optional component, the Data Recorder ($120), clips to clothing and records data sent to the watch. Included software lets you chart and analyze it on your PC.

While exercising, you can push a button on the side of the watch to display your heart rate. Push it again to see speed. New with the Trail Runner model is the ability to see altitude and latitude and longitude. As the product literature warns, though, fiddling with the watch while moving could be hazardous. However, you can set it up to sound alarms to tell you when to speed up or slow down or when you fail to reach–or exceed–a pace or heart-rate target you've set. The device does much more besides, too much to describe here.

The Trail Runner is brilliantly designed and worked well in our tests. It is clearly a tool for the exercise obsessed, though. Those not so highly motivated may be put off by the steep learning curve required to get everything from the product it has to offer–and the discomfort and inconvenience of wearing the accoutrements.

Bottom line: if you're training for a marathon, do consider the Trail Runner. As for the iPaq, it's generating buzz because of its dream combination of functions, but we're guessing HP–or somebody else–will do better next time out.