December 01, 2005


Microsoft Streets & Trips 2006 with GPS Locator. Windows 98 or later; Windows XP required for full functionality.  Microsoft. $129.

     The biggest problem with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems for trip planning and driving is that you have to have one of the darned things installed to use the technology.  You can have a system retrofitted to your car, but that is expensive and the system may not work properly (or look good).  Or you can buy a car with a system already installed, but then you are at the mercy of the car manufacturer, which may or may not provide a system that is intuitively designed, easy to operate and not overly distracting when in use.  And what if you have more than one car – not all of them equipped with GPS, or equipped with different systems that work differently?  Wouldn’t it be nice if you could simply create your own GPS navigation system and use it anytime you like, in any vehicle you choose?

     With Microsoft Streets & Trips with GPS Locator, you can do just that.  The product has software and hardware components.  The hardware, provided by Pharos Science & Applications, plugs into a laptop’s USB port and picks up the satellite signals that make GPS navigation possible.  The software interprets the signals, shows your route on your laptop’s screen, responds to voice prompts for driving information, and modifies your route if you run into traffic, construction or other unanticipated problems.

     Not all of this is new, but the 2006 version of this software improves significantly on earlier ones.  Maps show buildings as grey outlines, not tiny icons – a big help in metropolitan areas.  Major highways are easier to see then before.  Directions are given by computer-generated voice on a turn-by-turn basis (this requires Windows XP).  And there is a highly useful new feature called “Night Map Style” that relights the laptop screen so you can see your route easily at night (or on dark roads) without having to turn on interior lights.  You see the roads in bright green against a black background – an excellent choice of color scheme.

     This is the best Streets & Trips ever, but if you are going to buy it, pay for the version with the plug-and-play GPS receiver.  You can buy the software without the receiver for only $29.95 ($39.95 minus a $10 rebate), but it is not all that much better than using a free online service such as Google Maps to plot your route in advance.  What really makes Streets & Trips 2006 outstanding is the hardware-plus-software package.

     Do not expect absolute perfection from this program (or any program!).  You cannot type your exact driving speed into the route planner (Microsoft actually had this feature in Streets & Trips 2003, but dropped it) – you can only set your speed as average, slower or faster.  And some information is out of date, notably when there have been changes in the exit numbers of interstate highways, or the names of streets.  These are minor quibbles, though.  Microsoft Streets & Trips 2006 with GPS Locator is a nearly unalloyed success – and is a program with which it is fun to play when you are not actively using it.  For example, try “Dynamic Turn View,” which zooms in to your current position to let you see where you are and what directional changes you will need to make soon.  That is as much fun to use in your own neighborhood as on a family vacation.  The program’s main purpose, though, is not to be fun in itself, but to make traveling more enjoyable and less stressful – even if you don’t have the latest factory-installed GPS system in your car.  For that purpose, this newest Streets & Trips is a big success.  Even if you do have factory-installed GPS, you may find this Microsoft product easier and more pleasant to use.

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