The Streetfinder GPS package is a product offered by Rand-McNally for Palm Computing handheld users. It costs around $200.00 US on retail, and there are two versions; one for Palm III users and one for Palm V users. In brief, it consists of a hardware GPS receiver that connects to the Palm, a CD of the Streetfinder software package, and various accessories for mounting the GPS/Palm in your car.

I purchased this mostly as a toy, since I don't often have the need to find locations that I can't print out a Mapquest direction sheet for in advance. I use a Palm V.

Hardware

This package is both extremely cool and extremely annoying. Let's start with the hardware. The hardware is actually a pretty neat implementation; it's a unit that clips onto the back of your Palm V using the built-in latch point on the Palm, and connects using the cradle connector at the base. This unit contains the GPS receiver hardware, as well as a separate battery to run it (triple-A size). It adds perhaps six or seven millimeters to the thickness of the Palm, and weighs maybe three to five ounces. The main physical reminder that it's there is the stubby, plastic-enclosed GPS antenna that sticks up over the top of the Palm on the right-hand side.

In practice, I found the GPS receiver to be of mediocre quality. It has difficulty acquiring signals in areas where dedicated hardware has no trouble. In one extreme case, it wouldn't acquire when inside my car, up under the windshield! This means that the minimal metallic coating on the windshield for glare/electronic protection was enough to block it. However, if the signal is acquired outside the car and the unit then placed inside, it can usually maintain contact as long as you have line-of-sight to the satellites (no GPS hardware works very well inside cities or inside buildings).

One major shortcoming, in my opinion, is that although it is touted for car use (and comes with a mount for that) there is no provision for connecting an external antenna. If there was a way to do so, I would cheerfully only use it in the car and consider it a good bargain, if the external antenna could be mounted on the vehicle roof (magnetic) and thus improve reception.

The second major drawback to this unit is that if it is uninitialized, it takes forever to initialize itself, even with a completely clear skyview. I ended up leaving it on the railing of the top-floor balcony of my house; in that position, it has a completely unimpeded view of maybe 270 degrees of sky, with the remainder blocked only by a wood-frame (no metal) roof structure. It still took it around four or five hours to initialize (for a better description of what it's doing, see the Global Positioning System node). That's about two-thirds of a AAA battery charge. Also, if you ever move the unit significant distances while it's off (like, travel to Europe) then it needs to be reinitialized - which can be a pain or even impossible when you're on the road.

In its defense, however, it's a functional GPS receiver for very little money (dedicated handhelds with any kind of decent display, such as the Garmin GPS III, start at around $350), and it is quite small and easy to carry around with your Palm. Also, it uses industry-standard NMEA connections and communications protocols, so that you aren't limited to Rand McNally's software; any GPS software for the Palm (and there's a fair number of apps out there) can find and work with it.

The Software

The software provided is the Streetfinder app by Rand McNally. This app, while having a pretty good database (it didn't have my home address, but extrapolated from my street and those numbers it did have to within around fifty feet), has a very crappy interface. It really is a Windows 3.11 app with minimal porting work done to it. Yes, Windows; it won't run on the Mac, or on Linux, or anything else, and there's no option to make it do so. Sucks on R-M for that one.

To use the software, you have to first select an area to map (only the U.S. is available on the CD) either by getting route directions or by selecting a map area. Then you create a map to download to the Palm. These maps can be quite large, which makes Palm V users like me a bit constrained, with only 2MB of total memory. Maps can be from 25K up to 500K or larger for a really wide-area map. The reason for this is that they are dynamically scalable, and can include features you select, such as restaurants, hotels, points of interest, highways, geographic features, and the like. When you've selected your map area, you tell it to 'Download to Palm' and the program creates a Palm package of the map and inserts it into your HotSync install queue; the next time you synchronize, it goes.

The second part of the software is the Palm software. The R-M software maps are not standard Palm maps or graphics, so they are only usable within the R-M Palm client app. This client app, while a tad slow, has acceptable performance, and lets you zoom, move, search, etc. as well as displays 'tracks' and 'moving map' mode for when you're driving. Most importantly, though, is that you can choose instead to use the excellent free- and shareware software packages out there with this unit, such as Compass or GPS Tracker.

Accessories

They're quite generous with these. You get the GPS unit and software, a carrying case that will hold the Palm/GPS combo, a car mount which attaches to the windshield via suction cups (works well in my case) and locks the Palm/GPS in with a springloaded lip, and a power adapter for your auto cigarette lighter. The latter plugs into the GPS unit, and when plugged in, will power the Palm through the cradle connection. Nice. Lets you use the device to charge your Palm on the road, in addition to using it. Batteries are included (a relief!) and the set they give you will last perhaps eight hours of continuous use. It'd be nice if you got rechargeables, but they're standard AAA, so you can add your own.

Final Evaluation

While this is a great toy, and useful for occasional recreational and automotive quests, I would hesitate to rely on it for business travel or other 'mission-critical' uses. The set is just too weak and too limited to be of real use in a heavy-demand environment. These drawbacks, however, and IMNSHO obviated by the facts that it's fun as hell to use for recreation and it's cheap, especially compared to dedicated GPS units. I find myself using it for:

  • Geocaching
  • Hiking
  • Finding my way around Venice (I scanned in a paper tourist map, and used the GPS Cartographer package available as shareware on the Net, worked great!)
  • Driving directions in the Northeastern US (if it's initialized, it works great on open roads).

So in general, for $200, it's worth it if it will give you fun. It would probably drive me to drink if I had to rely on it or, say, miss meetings without it.

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