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The frisson of finding a cache is obviously part of the sport’s appeal, as is the fun of tramping through unfamiliar territory. But my guess is that some geocachers are also gadget freaks who, like me, marvel at the idea that a device the size of a chocolate bar can, in concert with a network of distant satellites, transform the abstract grid of latitude and longitude lines created by 19th-century astronomers and cartographers into something average folks can grab on to and utilize.

Indeed, GPS is transforming geography in much the same way that mechanical clocks and watches regularized our once fluid experience of time. As soon as there were simple ways to measure time, we could organize our actions around specific moments; every school bell and factory whistle in the nation could sound at 8:30 A.M. The concept of synchrony set the stage for the 19th-century revolutions in industry and transportation.

Similarly, now that we can easily measure latitude and longitude, we can organize our actions around specific locations. Adventurers can navigate to the same remote spot at different times, as in geocaching; businesses, artists, or historians can share online information about any physical thing using its GPS-supplied coordinates rather than a Web-type Uniform Resource Locator (URL). Call it “synlocality.”

But dedicated handhelds like the Garmin aren’t the wedge technology for GPS: cell phones are. So how do today’s GPS phones measure up? It depends on what you want to do with them. The Motorola i736, a jaunty red phone styled like Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR racing car, was loaned to me by Trimble, a Sunnyvale, CA, company that makes GPS hardware and software. The phone came with Trimble Outdoors, a Java program that displays location information and links to maps and route-planning applications running on Trimble’s servers.

Using Trimble Adventure Planner, a Windows program that I downloaded to my laptop, I created a set of waypoints for a walk around Telegraph Hill. The Adventure Planner program communicated via the Internet with Trimble’s servers, which in turn transmitted a route and the corresponding map data to the phone. Once I went outside and obtained a GPS fix, the phone guided me from waypoint to waypoint via the on-screen compass.

I found a few things troubling: the on-screen maps were too small to read comfortably; running Trimble Outdoors and other Java applications exhausted the device’s batteries in a couple of hours; and the actual positioning seemed less precise than the Garmin’s (the i736 could locate a waypoint only to within 10 meters or so – which isn’t precise enough for geocaching). But for a casual hiker who would take a phone along anyway, the i736 is probably ideal.

The i275 is another Motorola-Nextel phone, but thanks to preloaded TeleNav GPS software, the unit I tested was a very different beast. TeleNav, created by Televigation, which is also based in Sunnyvale, turns the phone into a credible substitute for an in-dash car navigation unit. I used it for a trip across town to San Francisco’s Stonestown Galleria. I looked up the mall’s address on Yahoo, called TeleNav’s 800 number, and spoke the city and street names and the address aloud. TeleNav’s servers interpreted my speech, calculated the best route, and transmitted turn-by-turn instructions to the phone.

As I drove, the phone offered helpful spoken instructions like “Prepare to turn right.” It all worked great, until I decided to outsmart traffic and zoomed a couple of exits past the phone’s recommended turnoff. TeleNav was slow to determine its new position, and I was taking turns faster than it could calculate a new route. If I had actually been lost, this delay would have made matters worse. Full in-dash GPS units are more agile, in my experience. But the i275 got me to the mall in the end.

I wouldn’t give up my Garmin for either of these phones. But for people who don’t need to know their positions down to a thousandth of a minute, they’re just fine. And even including a monthly subscription to TeleNav or Trimble Outdoors, they are relatively cheap. The $99 cell phone will bring GPS to Everyman – who will find uses for it everywhere.

Some Where-Aware Gadgets
Garmin GPSmap 60C handheld GPS receiver
$482 suggested retail price
$139 for basic North American road maps

Motorola i275 mobile phone for the Nextel network
$99 with a two-year service agreement
$10 per month for added TeleNav navigation service

Motorola i736 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series phone
$99 with two-year service agreement
$10 per month for added Trimble Outdoors
Platinum GPS application

Wade Roush is a senior editor at Technology Review.

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