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Navigation Nightmare

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I do a lot of cycling. It’s good for you (well, unless you try to get around in the very centre of London, in which case exhaust fumes mitigate the health aspect somewhat), and in my experience for many shorter journeys it’s quicker than public transport.

When I cycle in places I don’t know well I tend to check my map quite a bit to ensure that I’m still on track for my destination. I’ve a rather good set of London Cycle Guides which are free from Transport for London. The maps are great, but in order to check my progress I have to stop cycling, as they are rather too large to whip out of a pocket while moving along, and in any case, I tend to think my eyes are better employed watching the road than reading a map while I am moving.

So, I’m rather taken with the idea of using navigation software to do the route planning and tell me when to turn left, right and so on to get to my destination. This has only recently become a workable proposition as the technology has only just caught up with my needs.

Navigation software has existed for PDAs for quite a while, and Bluetooth GPS antennae mean you can get a signal from receiver to device without trailing wires. Obviously this is imperative, as trailing wires are not a good idea on a bike – unless you like the idea of being thrown over then handlebars when they get caught in a wheel.

There are other ergonomics and practicalities which don’t work too well with PDAs though.

There is the need to fix the device to the handlebars for a start. I’ve never found a solution that works well with a PDA, not least because those I’ve tried leave a rather chunky wodge of hardware in the line of sight that’s useful for spotting potholes.

There’s little point trying to read a map displayed on PDA screen when cycling anyway, as glare from the sun often makes this difficult. And actually I don’t want to read a map while cycling – I want to be told what to do and when, which means I need an earbud or headset and clear, loud spoken instructions.

Some PDAs deliver better sound than others, but none I’ve found are really good enough for use when cycling in traffic. Here I do break my ‘trailing wires’ rule and use a wired headset for getting instructions from the device to my ear, feeding this through clothing and leaving just enough slack to allow freedom of movement, a setup which has not caused me any safety problems so far.

Whenever I tried it, the PDA solution was disappointing. Clunky hardware and poor battery life were issues, and even with GPS antennae built in, as in the Mio 168 I wasn’t really satisfied.

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