More GPS

So we were discussing our wobbling office last week, which we discovered with the help of Microsoft MapPoint 2006 with GPS Locator. This curious phenomenon was caused by a continuously changing GPS positional error rather than our office really being physically unstable.

(Before we continue our GPS perambulations, a question: Has Microsoft Word's spell-checker ever just stopped working for you? Ours has. Before you ask, we did check under Tools | Options | Spelling & Grammar, and every choice is correctly set and we've rebooted. Twice. Any ideas?)

Back to MapPoint 2006. Now that we've run it for a bit longer we've noticed a few more problems.

First, if GPS tracking is on, and you select an area on the map and try to zoom in, you can't. The GPS tracking defeats the zoom operation. You have to enlarge the map using the zoom slider control.

Second (and more serious), after several hours of GPS tracking, the map display area wouldn't redraw properly, and just flashed a couple of times each second until the GPS was switched off. Another apparently related issue was the display not showing a complex track that occurred in a small area (actually, our GPS wobble trail) when the display was at maximum zoom.

These aren't real show-stoppers but are peculiar bugs for such an otherwise well-polished product.

We also found two things missing in MapPoint 2006. First, when you tell the GPS feature to generate a trail, it doesn't record when each point was reached or how fast you were going, just the fact that you passed through the point. Second, when you're wearing your propeller beanie and looking at the MapPoint GPS control panel, you start to think, "There's not enough information here! I want to know more about what's going on!" We suspect you'll crave knowledge, such as, "How many satellites are we currently using?" and "Where are they in the great celestial vault?"

We found answers in a free utility called GPSManager from American Outland. We recommend this software with reservations because the company's site says nothing about it, other than a page that promises future on-site verbiage and a link to download it. Add to that the lack of documentation and the software's unfinished state. But on the other hand, it's free.

Configure GPSManager for the COM port of your GPS device (usually COM6 at 4,800bps for the Microsoft GPS device) and the type of data (American Outland's device output formats or the National Marine Electronics Association [NMEA] standard that the Microsoft device uses).

After connecting, press the Navigation option. A screen appears that offers two tabs, the first being Current Fix, a text display that includes your calculated location, number of satellites in view, and accuracy of your position. The second tab, Satellite Data, is a diagram of where the currently visible GPS satellites are in the sky, along with a table of their azimuths and elevations and a graph of their signal strengths. Very cool.

You can also examine raw NMEA data in the form of "sentences," basically blocks of data (note that most sentence types or codes are not used by consumer devices). Excellent.

But you can't use GPSManager and MapPoint at the same time, because they can't share the serial port the GPS is on - or can they? You betcha they can. The solution is called Franson GpsGate.

Available for a mere $30 (Windows XP, 2000, NT, ME, 98, Pocket PC, CE and .Net), GpsGate lets you multiplex data from Garmin and NMEA-compliant GPS receivers (or translate Garmin datastreams into NMEA data streams) to as many as eight serial ports, as well as output to Bluetooth and save the GPS data in a log. This software has a long list of features for testing and analyzing GPS devices and software that uses GPS data. Outstanding. GpsGate Express ($10), allows just two applications to share the GPS data.

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