Road Trip (San Diego Transcript)

My wife Jane and I just returned from a
3,500-mile driving vacation, traveling north from San Diego to
Vancouver and Victoria, along the coasts of Northern California, Oregon
and Washington, and back through the Willamette Valley and California.
Over the two weeks I tried out a variety of gadgets designed for the
road.

One of the most useful, of course, is a GPS, and
I used three different devices; the built-in GPS in our 2009 Toyota
Highlander, a Garmin 1690 ($250) (garmin.com), and the Google
navigation app built into the new Motorola Droid X cell phone from
Verizon.

While none of these devices were without their
faults, it seemed to be that the less you pay the more you get. The
Toyota unit was the most error prone and fidgety, particularly with its
confusing user interface, older maps, and the difficulty of inputting
your destination and searching for local attractions. For example,
there was no consistency on when to use "3rd Street" or "Third Street,"
and, as a passenger, I couldn't use the GPS while the car was moving.
In one instance when we headed down a highway in the wrong direction,
the Toyota GPS couldn't figure out what to do, since it has no option
to allow u-turns. Searching for businesses was slow and brought up
stores 2,000 miles away near the top of the list.

The Garmin was much easier to use, had more
up-to-date maps, provided local search, traffic, and, unlike older
models, quickly connected to the satellites. It even navigated around
traffic accidents. But its capacitive touch screen often required
multiple key presses to register.

The Droid X navigation (found on most Android
phones) was the easiest of all to find and enter a destination, whether
it was an address, a restaurant, city center or hotel. I simply entered
in the name of the place and city and, before I could finish typing, it
provided a number of choices pulled from the Internet. That success of
quickly and easily finding any destination made it the one I'd usually
use. (Android's spoken turn-by-turn directions offer one of its big
advantages over the iPhone.)

Both the iPhone and Droid X were indispensable
for walking in the cities and looking for specific locations. The
latest version of Google maps on the Android even directed us onto
public transportation, figuring out when the next bus or train was due
to arrive. The sole advantage of the Toyota GPS was its larger screen,
but at $2,000, it needs to offer much more to justify the price.

One gadget that we liked was the Koolatron P20
portable refrigerated cooler. It plugs into the car's 12-volt
receptacle and was able to keep a half-dozen soda cans, sandwiches,
fruit and cheese snacks cool. You can also keep things warm — but
don't make the mistake I made. Depending on which way you plug it in,
it goes into cooling or warming mode. We learned the hard way, as it
was less than obvious. ($129 from koolatron.com.)

We found we had a wide variety of options for
entertainment, a far cry from past trips where you tuned into local
radio stations. We used Sirius/XM but found it didn't work in many
parts of California and Oregon where the roads passed through the tall
redwoods and other wooded and mountainous areas. But we had many
options, such as playing an iPod filled with music and podcasts plugged
into the car's auxiliary port using a connector such as Belkin's AV
mini-stereo audio cable ($15). In other areas, wherever there was good
cellular coverage, I used a Sprint MiFi card and iPhone to stream live
radio from several stations over the Web using the TimeTuner App that
finds Internet radio stations.

We carried an iPhone 4 (AT&T), Droid X
(Verizon) and a Palm Pre (Sprint). Connectivity varied widely among the
carriers, and there were many areas where we had no service from any of
the three. But overall, Verizon worked in many more areas than the
others, while Sprint showed more roaming.

While in Canada we turned off all our phones
except the iPhone, on which I turned data roaming off most of the time,
accessing e-mail over WiFi at coffee shops and our hotels. But on a
couple of occasions I turned the data on briefly to get e-mail, and
that was a mistake. A few days after getting back in the United States
I got a text message from AT&T alerting me I was consuming data at
international rates and requesting that I call them right away. The
agent told me I had used 20mb of data at a cost of about $300.
Fortunately, without even asking, they offered to retroactively switch
me to a plan for $25 per month for 20mb of international data. I will
now need to remember to remove this feature from my account in 30 days.

AT&T should be applauded for alerting me to
this reasonable solution; however, exorbitant data costs such as these
should not exist in the first place. (A representative from Verizon
told me they have the same policy.)

When my wife was driving and listening to her
favorite station, I used a Sennheiser MM450 headphone connected
wirelessly to my iPhone to listen to Internet radio, podcasts and
music.

This high quality on-the-ear headphone produced
some of the best sound of any Bluetooth headset used with my iPhone. It
brings sound to you completely unencumbered with wires. There's also a
noise reduction mode that, while not up to the level of the Bose 15,
reduced background noise. The headphone also has a mic and can be used
to answer a call or for use with a computer to listen to music or make
Skype calls. It all folds up into a tiny package in its included
carrying case. But it's pretty pricey at $450. (sennheiserusa.com)

Lastly, free iPhone apps from Starbucks and
In-n-Out Burger provided information on the nearest stores and enabled
us to plan our breaks in advance.

While having a restful vacation may entail
getting away from technology, I found that the right technology can
also be extremely helpful on a driving trip. Just avoid the computer
and e-mails.