GPS for the Mac

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Over the past ten years, GPS technology has gone from the military to the mainstream. It’s now a fixture in cars, many folks carry portable GPS units with them on outdoor adventures, and we’re no longer wowed by the fact that you can precisely determine your location almost anywhere in the world.

One other thing you can do with GPS still isn’t common yet—and it should be: connecting a GPS unit to your Mac. In the past, the lack of Mac software made that a cumbersome process. It’s a lot easier these days.

Finding the hardware

GPS receivers calculate exact locations by interpreting signals sent by a collection of satellites. They come in a variety of forms—the most common are handheld devices with their own screens and interfaces; they also often have serial or USB ports so you can connect them to your Mac. Currently, Garmin and Magellan are the most popular brands. Handheld units have the advantage of flexibility: they work with your Mac, but you can also stick them in your pocket or set them on the dashboard of your car.

If you’re thinking of a handheld, you should consider a few things while shopping:

Screen Brightness Make sure that the screen is visible in bright daylight, because you’ll likely use it often in your car or in the great outdoors. Some GPS devices have color screens; others have black-and-white displays. A color screen is definitely easier to read, but you’ll pay more for it.

Ports Most models these days have USB ports and ship with a standard USB cable for connection to a Mac. But there are still a few popular models that have serial ports; you can connect a serial model to your Mac with the help of a Keyspan USB High Speed Serial Adapter ($40). (Some software won’t work with serial GPS receivers. If you have a USB-based Mac, you’ll be better served by a USB-equipped GPS receiver.)

Bluetooth A wireless interface can be especially useful if you plan to use a GPS unit in your car, where you don’t want to hassle with cables. You pair a Bluetooth GPS device with your Mac just as you would pair a cell phone or a Bluetooth keyboard.

Radio Strength and WAAS Pricier GPS units often have stronger receivers, which will perform better when your view of the sky is restricted. If you spend a lot of time navigating around skyscrapers, or in deep canyons or thick forests, you may want to spend the extra money. If you’ll be using your GPS unit in North America, one that’s compatible with the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) will be slightly more accurate than one that isn’t.

Maps You can download map data to many GPS units. If you plan to use your device for navigation when you’re away from your Mac, being able to download detailed maps is essential. You might also want to get a model that provides expandable memory cards, so you can carry larger maps; memory cards containing map sets are available, too.

Interface and Options Make sure your GPS’s interface makes sense to you. If you will be using your GPS while driving, a model that provides route planning and on-the-fly directions is your best bet. If you’ll be using your GPS primarily outdoors, look for one that’s water resistant.

If you know for certain that you’ll always have your Mac handy when you need GPS data, then you might want to go with a device that’s designed solely to connect to your computer, such as the MightyGPS Apple GPS ($100). Such units have no screen or user interface of their own, so they offer better battery life than all-purpose handhelds. They’re also usually less expensive than models with their own screens. Some of these units communicate wirelessly with your Mac via Bluetooth. Before you commit to one, you’ll need to be sure that the GPS software you’re using works with wireless connections.

Configuring the software

Once you’ve got your GPS hardware, you’ll need software that will configure it and import its data to your Mac. Sadly, most GPS vendors do not currently offer Mac software. But there are a couple of ways to get around this.

If you have an Intel Mac, you should have no problem using Parallels Desktop or Boot Camp to run Windows-based GPS applications. If that doesn’t work for you, there are a number of applications that let your GPS and your Mac talk to each other. MacGPS Pro ($50) and GPSy ($60) are both compatible with dozens of GPS units (check the Web sites for compatibility lists first). And the applications you’re using may have built-in support for GPS hardware.

Google’s planetary “browser,” Google Earth (free), for example, does an excellent job of reliably communicating with all major GPS models, so you probably won’t have to hassle with any connection settings or parameters.

The free version of Google Earth can import waypoints you’ve stored in your GPS and display them as a layer on maps. For $20 a year, you can get a Google Earth Plus account that allows you to download data from your GPS directly into Google Earth (instead of importing, which is a more laborious process). With GPSBabel (free), you can download the waypoints, tracks, and routes from your GPS device and save them in a Google Earth-compatible file. You can then import this file directly into Google Earth.

Many GPS units can find routes from one place to another. Give them two addresses, and they can plan a route for you and provide real-time driving instructions. Unfortunately, because of the limited interfaces of most GPS units, entering addresses and locations can be a real pain. RouteBuddy ($100) can help; it provides detailed street-level maps, automatic route-finding features, and the ability to sync routes and waypoints with your GPS. It also offers real-time map display, the ability to show RouteBuddy locations in Google Maps or Google Earth, full waypoint creation and management, and (for an extra $50) a street map of the entire United States.

Adding maps

All GPS units come with a smattering of map data—major highways and roads, mostly—and your GPS can show your current position on these maps in real time. However, secondary roads and small streets may not be included. For this type of detail, you need to invest in additional maps, which you then download to the GPS unit.

Unfortunately, neither Garmin nor Magellan currently makes Mac clients for transferring maps. Garmin claims that it will have a client out by the end of the year. In the meantime, you can use Parallels Desktop or Boot Camp to run Garmin’s software on an Intel Mac.

I’ve tested Garmin’s MapSource software on Parallels, with a handful of current Garmin GPS units, and it worked just fine. (MapSource also provides waypoint management, but it’s not nearly as well designed as RouteBuddy.)

[ Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography, fourth edition (Charles River Books, 2007). ]

GPS Hardware: Using a GPS receiver with a USB connector (such as Garmin’s eTrex Legend cx, shown here), you can get GPS data on your Mac.MapSource in Parallels: While Garmin doesn’t yet make Mac software, you can run the Windows version of MapSource in Parallels Desktop or Boot Camp.RouteBuddy: With RouteBuddy software, you can get high-quality, street-level maps for the entire United States.
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