COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Two new innovative products

I've been evaluating a number of new products that I will be reporting on in future columns. While I receive many products, my criteria for reporting on them is to select those that are either best in their class or new offerings that are of interest to a broad audience.

The two I am writing about today fit this criteria.

Garmin 2610 Street Pilot GPS

Garmin (www.garmin.com) has been in the forefront of building consumer and commercial products that utilize the government's Global Positioning System. Until recently, their products for navigation over streets and highways have been designed for portable use and in vehicles, operating off batteries. With their recent introduction of the iQue 3600, a Palm PDA with a built-in GPS system, they scored a home run with the best portable implementation of a GPS in a battery operated, handheld device I have seen.

Overshadowed by the iQue 3600 is the Garmin 2610, which I think is their best in-car navigation device to date. This replaces the Street Pilot III, which was designed for dual use, at the same price ($800 street price). The 2610 has the same size color display (3.3" x 1.7"), but includes a touch screen for quick data input, a faster processor for quicker drawing, a standard Compact Flash data card slot, and a wireless remote control. Voice prompts come from a speaker in the auto power adapter. Major improvements in the software make it easier to use while displaying additional information. For example, while driving along a street, it displays the street number of each house you pass.

Although its screen is smaller than those found in most factory-equipped GPS systems, it compares favorably with in-car systems for its ability to lead you to an address and provide information along the way. In many ways it's simpler and more intuitive than some of the factory-installed systems I have tried. It can be moved between cars or used in a rental car, and it's a third to half the cost.

The compact 2610 (5.6"W x 3.2"H x 2.0"D) sits atop the dashboard using a clever mount that attaches with an adhesive disc. Its internal antenna and low profile prevent it from interfering with visibility. Also supplied is a bean-bag mount. I would not recommend it, however, because in an accident it could go flying.

I used the Garmin (Nasdaq: GRMN) while driving up the California coast, from Santa Barbara to Mendocino. It made the trip much more enjoyable and eliminated the need for using a map. Using its zoom feature, I was able to both see the details of the twisting curves to anticipate them in advance and see an overview of several cities. I set it to navigate to an intermediate stop, an address in Napa, and it provided me with the estimated arrival time as well as the miles and time to the next turn and to the final destination. It provided directions along the major highways and then zoomed in to show the city streets as it led me to the exact address. Setting the destination is simple, just enter the address, a landmark or a previously selected location using the touch screen. When I chose to take a detour, it quickly recalculated the directions. All turns and directions are highlighted on the screen with warnings provided from about a mile to a few hundred feet in advance of the turns. A voice speaks the directions. Like any GPS device, it relies on having visibility to the sky to pick up at least 3 satellites. When driving through the heavily shaded Redwood Highway southeast of Mendocino it would occasionally lose contact, however, within a few minutes it would automatically resume routing. Of course, it helped that while I was glued to the Garmin, my wife did the driving.

Supplied is a 128mb compact flash card and a CD with the map database for the entire country, which is installed on a computer. Using a USB connection I downloaded maps for the areas of interest. I was able to store all map data for California and Nevada on the card. Also included in the database are shopping centers, airports, major landmarks, exit numbers, etc.

Navigating between San Diego and Los Angeles, I found it worked well for nearly all destinations, although it did not have the latest routes through Carmel Valley, where route 56 is under construction. As a result, it tried to redirect me to the local streets while driving from Del Mar to Interstate-15. It also needs to know the exact city; it could not find an address in UTC until I changed the city from La Jolla to San Diego.

There was one other flaw. On the drive back from San Jose, Garmin directed me to take Highway 101 the entire way home. I chose another route using Interstate-5. The Garmin had trouble adjusting to this change. It tried to reroute me back to 101 for the next several hours, until it finally realized I was not about to change my course.

These are minor points in an otherwise outstanding product that allows me to drive to an unfamiliar address without any concern or prior preparation. I won't leave home without it!

Thumb drive

With little fanfare a new product category has appeared that provides great utility at a modest cost. It goes under different names such as key chain memory, USB memory stick, thumb drive and mini-drive.

It is flash memory (memory that requires no power), packaged in a thumb-sized package with a USB connector at one end. Many even come with key chains or pocket clips. With the demise of floppy drives on many computers and the increasingly large size of graphic, video and PowerPoint files, these devices can be used to move files from one computer to another, or to make a backup of important files. They come in a range of capacities from 16MB to 1GB (1,000MB), ranging in price from $15 to more than $300.

I have been trying out a second-generation version 128MB DiskOnKey product ($30-$50) from M-Systems (Nasdaq: FLSH, www.m-sys.com), a company that has been one of the early innovators and supplies these products to Iomega, HP and IBM. M-Systems' current products have a processor in addition to the memory, and have the capability to run applications and provide bootable functionality like floppies. The DiskOnKey plugs into a USB port and appears on the computer as a new hard drive. You can transfer files to and from it, synchronize files or use it to back up important files. I have used it to carry a PowerPoint presentation to a meeting instead of taking my computer, to bring a graphics file to Kinko's to have it printed, to copy files to work with on another computer, and to transfer a group of digital camera images to a second computer. The 128MB device holds the equivalent of almost 90 floppy disks or over 4,000 pages of Word documents. Highly recommended. The downside? It's so small you can easily misplace it.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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