Earthmate

SAN FRANCISCO (03/28/2000) - When not even MapQuest and MapBlast can get you where you're going, you may need a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver.

GPS devices determine your geographic location using signals transmitted by a ring of satellites orbiting Earth. One such receiver is DeLorme's Earthmate, a small, battery-powered box that attaches to your Mac's serial port. With its software, Street Atlas USA 6.0, the Earthmate can show you a full-color street map of your location and track you as you move. But although the software is quite impressive, the hardware is plagued with problems.

Slightly larger than a deck of cards, the Earthmate receiver is a featureless yellow box sporting a standard serial cable. Setup involves nothing more than inserting four AAA batteries, attaching the unit to your Mac, and installing the software from a CD. To use the unit, you position it, launch Street Atlas, and tell the receiver to locate itself. Once the Earthmate knows where it is, your position is displayed as a green circle on a Street Atlas map. Tell the program to start tracking your movements, and the circle changes to a moving arrow that indicates your current position and bearing-at least in theory.

We found that the Earthmate could rarely hold its satellite lock for more than a few minutes, even with fresh batteries. The problem worsened when we drove among the tall buildings of San Francisco's Financial District. And since the unit needs to see as much sky as possible, you'll need to put it on the very front of your dashboard and find a way to keep it there. Even when the Earthmate can maintain its satellite lock, it can be off by as much as a city block.

The software is more impressive. In addition to detailed maps of the United States, Street Atlas provides trip-planning and -routing features. Pick two locations, and Street Atlas chooses a route between them. You can easily customize the route; for example, you can specify which types of roads you prefer to drive on. But unlike some GPS software, Street Atlas doesn't indicate when you've strayed from a planned route, nor can it use the Mac's speech facility to dictate driving directions. Sure, backseat drivers can be a drag, but trying to keep an eye on your PowerBook while driving is hardly practical.

Macworld's Buying Advice

No matter how much trouble folding maps is, it's still easier than keeping the Earthmate working. Its Street Atlas USA 6.0 software shines, but the Earthmate's reliability problems make this a hard package to recommend. If you really need to find yourself, invest in a good road atlas.

RATING: 2.5 mice

PROS: Software is fast and well designed.

CONS: Easily loses link with GPS satellites; tracking is not always accurate.

COMPANY: DeLorme (800/452-5931, http://www.delorme.com).

COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $199.

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