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TECH LAB

Cell link keeps GPS advice up to date

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 19, 2009
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It's not just people who need to phone home. Our machines have plenty to say as well. Which is why a growing number of gadget makers are offering cellular devices that don't look anything like telephones.

There are cellular data connectors for laptop computers, which allow users to go online in places that lack WiFi service, and Amazon.com's marvelous Kindle electronic reader, which lets you buy books and magazines through a built-in cellular data modem. Now, Dutch electronics maker TomTom NV boasts a personal navigation device, the $400 Go 740 Live, that uses a cellular link for everything from traffic reports to Google searches.

TomTom follows in the footsteps of Dash Navigation Inc., whose Dash Express device was one of the most impressive gadgets I tested last year. Too bad the $400 Dash Express flopped with consumers; it's no longer on the market. Still, Dash was plainly on the right track. The device had a built-in cellular data modem to download real-time traffic updates and run Yahoo Internet searches from a car.

TomTom tried to keep pace with a GPS device that could hook up wirelessly to a Bluetooth cellphone. You would link the phone to the GPS device to pull traffic and other data over the cellular network and into the TomTom.

But the TomTom system was costly - up to $45 a year for access to online services. And you would have to subscribe to your cell carrier's data plan, which could cost another $60 a month or more. Worse yet, the TomTom system worked badly with Sprint cellphones, and not at all with Verizon Wireless phones or the Apple Inc. iPhone. That made it useless for millions of potential customers.

Clearly, TomTom engineers have learned their lesson. The new Go 740 Live doesn't care what brand of cellphone you own. The device packs its own cellular data modem, just like the Dash Express. A user gets three months of service for free; after that, it costs $9.95 a month.

The money pays for a variety of online services, including a location search function developed for TomTom by Google Inc. The TomTom search seemed more reliable than Google's desktop version. For instance, TomTom couldn't find a particular Vietnamese restaurant in Dorchester, even though a desktop search of Google Maps had turned it up. I ignored TomTom, printed out the Google directions, and started driving. But TomTom was right and Google Maps was wrong; the restaurant had gone out of business.

TomTom's cellular link can also pull down weather reports and point you to the least expensive local gas stations. As for traffic reports, TomTom plans to use its own customers to keep the information up to date.

Most traffic data come from sensors embedded in highways by state and federal agencies. But private traffic-tracking firms also recruit trucking companies and taxicab fleets to help them out. They install GPS devices in these vehicles to keep tabs on what streets they're on and how fast they're moving. The data are relayed by radio to the traffic company, providing a pretty accurate measure of traffic flow, even on smaller streets that aren't covered by the government's highway sensor networks.

TomTom has taken it a step further, by requesting speed and location data from their customers' GPS units. Up to now, the company has asked TomTom owners to plug the units into a home or office computer and upload the information to the company. With Go 740 Live, it happens automatically, over the cellular network. The company vows it doesn't collect any user's personal data, just enough information to tell whether there's a bottleneck at Fifth and Main.

We won't know whether TomTom's approach will result in better traffic reports until thousands of people mount Go 740 Live units on their dashboards. But the theory seems sound. And even now, the device consistently serves up smart directions. As I traveled between Boston and Quincy during rush hour, for instance, it wisely ignored sluggish I-93 and put me on a fast-moving surface route instead.

Apart from the cellular connection, the new TomTom is crammed with features. You can still link up your Bluetooth cellphone and use the 740 for hands-free voice calls. You can also program it to tell you when you're approaching certain landmarks, like ATM machines, hotels, or service stations. And you can control it with voice commands, though this unreliable feature is often more trouble than it's worth.

But most appealing is TomTom's promise of always fresh traffic and location search data, made possible by an ever-present cellular connection.

Expect to see a lot more such devices. AT&T Corp., for instance, is working to put cellular data modems inside digital cameras and picture frames. Then you could shoot vacation photos and have them appear a thousand miles away on your mother's cellular picture frame, instantly and seamlessly.

In the near future, our gadgets may spend more time on the phone than we do.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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