Rand McNally GPS receiver with the StreetFinder Deluxe 2000 - Review by John Galvin. (revised Jan 24, 2000)
I have acquired a Rand Mcnally GPS receiver along with the StreetFinder Deluxe 2000 map program, all for the princely sum of $60. It was purchased from the Rand Mcnally travel store. List price is $99, but they offered a 20% discount for filling out a survey and the unit came with a $20 mail-in rebate. This has to be the lowest cost notebook computer based moving map combination there is.
The GPS receiver is shaped something like a computer mouse, but a little smaller. It has no batteries of any kind and draws power from a notebook computer via the external "keyboard" port. I measured the current draw at ~125 ma @ 5 Volts and varying in inverse proportion to supplied voltage (constant power of ~0.6 watt). Not too impressive, but OK. Lowest usable voltage was ~4.3 Volts. On the high side, I went as high as 16 Volts with no problem. Communication with computer is NMEA 2.0 at 4800 baud via combination power/data cable. NMEA sentences sent are, $GPGGA, $GPGSA, $GPGSV, $GPRMC and $PRWIZCH. $PRWIZCH identifies it as a Rockwell (ehr Connexant) Zodiac chipset based GPS receiver. It responds to the Rockwell proprietary $PRWIIPRO command by switching into Rockwell binary mode where raw pseudoranges including carrier phase messages can be enable for logging purposes. It will also accept realtime DGPS corrections via message 1351 while in Rockwell Binary mode. On the NMEA side, in addition to all the usual Rockwell proprietary commands, it also responds to $LCGPQ,yyy where yyy is a standard sentence such as GGA, GSV etc, by sending the sentence one time only. It will not accept RTCM DGPS while in NMEA mode. It does accept the $PRWIINIT command, which allows initializing the unit with lat/lon and UTC, in order to improve lockon time. Position pinning defaults to "on" but can be disabled and that state is saved to internal eeprom. One most interesting thing is that it outputs TRUE BIPOLAR RS232 levels. That is, plus and minus 6 Volts, all from a single +5 Volt supply. Technically impressive, but of no importance to most users. On the bottom of the unit is a sticker that says "Made in New Zealand" and FCC and CE logos but no reference numbers needed to track down the original maker. Further investigation reveals that the manufacturer is Talon Technology http://www.talon.co.nz .
At the $60 price point, I couldn't resist disassembling the GPS receiver, just to see what was inside. After removing the "decoy" screw, I then discovered that the case was plastic riveted together beneath the 4 rubber feet. Judicious application of a drill bit circumvented the rivets. Separating the baseplate from the cover revealed that the unit is not even slightly weather resistant. That and the lack of magnetic base leads one to believe that it's not intended for outdoor (out of car) use. The innards consist of a single pc board and a small "patch" antenna mounted to the underside of the cover. The pc board has components mounted on both sides and surprisingly, all traces on the board are gold plated. This is not something to be expected at this pricepoint. The 3 chip Zodiac chipset is easily seen, with paper stickers identifying ZOD1 Ver: 1.83.
(Click on the picture to view the original size /resolution)
The back side of the board is where the RF section is and the switching power supply. A 10.949 Mhz crystal is in evidence. No surprise there. There is an interesting looking device near the RF front end. Looking from directly above it's just a rectangle about .2" x .3". From an end view, it resembles the back end view of a MIG29's engines. Some sort of waveguide witchcraft thingamajig. The switching power supply is an all discrete, no IC, design. Centrally placed is a 6 terminal ferrite transformer along with a nicely sized schottky diode and a smattering of SOT23 sized transistors, for generating +3.3 Volts and + and - 6 Volts (for the RS232). This is a bit sophisticated for such a low budget receiver. A big fat 3 Amp diode sits, reverse biased across the supply input. The cathode end of the diode is attached to a significant heat sinking copper area on the pc board. This diode is there to prevent any damage to the unit from inductive spikes caused by turning the ignition switch off in automotive use, as Rand Mcnally does have a cigarette lighter power adapter cable available as an accessory. The "front" side of the board has the digital ASIC and DSP portion of the Zodiac chipset along with 2 ram chips. 32k x 16 bits, it would appear. There is also a small 8 pin SO packaged ATMEL serial EEPROM or Flashrom. Not sure which. Notably absent, is any RFI suppression in the form of ferrite beads on the wires exiting the unit. Nor is there any cable bloating "goiter" for RFI suppression. There are pads and traces on the board for a real-time clock IC, 32.768 Khz crystal and backup battery. These components were not installed. The pads appear to be configured for a Dallas Semiconductor DS1302 RTC chip. Had these components been installed, initial lockon time would have been significantly improved from the 2-3 minute range, down to the 1-2 minute range.
I poked around a bit with a 'scope to see if I could locate a 1 PPS signal. No luck, although I did find something that appeared to be 50 PPS. I did locate the RS232 transceiver circuitry. Once again, all discrete components. That's about it for the hardware.
The StreetFinder Deluxe 2000 software manages to be impressive and underwhelming at the same time. The maps are supplied on two CD roms. The installation software is on a third CD. The maps are from ETAK/SONY and as such are the best of the best. Even better than the previous best I've seen, the Thomas Brother's CD rom guides. Delorme's Street Atlas just isn't in the same league in terms of accuracy, detail and completeness. That said, Streetfinder Deluxe doesn't hold a candle to Delorme's Street Atlas in terms of GPS support. That is, uploading and downloading tracks, routes and waypoints from a GPS. StreetFinder's routing support requires a connection (via internet) to Rand Mcnally's web site. There is absolutely no way to upload routes, tracks or waypoints to a Lowrance, Magellan, Garmin or any other GPS for that matter. Routes, tracks and waypoints are simply shown on the notebook computer's screen. I should mention here, if it isn't already obvious, that Streetfinder supports any NMEA compliant GPS receiver. Unfortunately, that is as far as GPS support goes. As I said, no upload/download of routes, tracks or waypoints. Mind you, all these things exist, but only courtesy of an attached notebook computer. A special note here. Streetfinder supports the ETAK/SONY SkyMap Pro GPS receiver (PCMCIA version only).
So, other than the, to die for maps, what features does Streetfinder have, as a moving map software? The map display automatically switches to a night-time display pallette at sunset. That is, white areas of the map are shown in black and light colors shown in dark colors so as to not blind a driver at night. The GPS support includes 3 options for tracks: monitor, record/monitor and playback. Monitor, just shows your present position centered on the map and your prior positions as a breadcrumb trail. Record/monitor, saves the raw NMEA data whilst it is displaying present/past positions. The saved raw NMEA can later be played back at up to 10x claimed speed. A 20 minute saved track took more like 4 to 5 minutes to "playback" at 10x speed. One curious anomaly was observed. Playing back a track that was recorded after sunset, the next day (in daylight) resulted in the night-time pallette. Most likely the portion of the software that controls the night-time pallette is blind to the fact that this was a "playback" and so could not revert to daytime pallette.
Streetfinder has extensive coverage of restaurants, theaters, banks, amusement parks, hotels etc, all displayable on screen, as various symbols. The address finder feature, unlike routing, does not require an internet connection. There is an "install local maps" feature that allows you to use Streetfinder without a CDrom drive. The Northern half of California fits in less than 30 megabytes. Turn by turn directions for routes are available in text form or for xfer to WinCE computer. Map images are NOT available for xfer to WinCE. Rand Mcnally does supply a Palm Pilot moving map application that is superior to Delorme's Solus pro (uses vector maps instead of raster). It also has a points of interest database as well as route directions uploaded from the PC side.
Streetfinder does have an address import function that can read CSV files and save them in it's own address book, that it can then use to find a particular contact's location on the map. There is also an extensive list of airport diagrams available to help guide air travelers. In addition there is a walking guide available. It seems to be a manual routing function that generates text directions that are placed as a "note" on the map along with the visible route. There is a Concierge feature that provides City info, restaurants, nightlife and business locator. There is also a max speed exceeded feature in moving map mode. That is, you can set a "warn me if this speed is exceeded" alarm. And lastly, there is a "yellow pages" find feature.
I did try Streetfinder out using a Lowrance GM100. No surprises there. I had position pinning turned off on the GM100 and I did not notice much difference in "wander" compared to the Rand Mcnally receiver with it's default position pinning. Turnabout is fair. So I also tried the Rand Mcnally GPS with Microsoft Streets 98. It worked just fine except that "satellite status" was greyed out for some reason. Probably some NMEA sentence it wasn't getting from the Rand Mcnally.
All in all, a nice package if all you need is a notebook computer based moving map program. Those with a need for more extensive stand-alone GPS support of upload/download of tracks, waypoints and routes will be disappointed. If you demand the most accurate and uptodate maps available in a moving map program, bundled with a GPS receiver, then Streetfinder Deluxe GPS is clearly the best and the price can't be beat either. It's closest competition is the SONY/ETAK SkyMap 2000 GPS. Same accurate maps but double the price (~$130 street price after rebate). Delorme's StreetAtlas/Earthmate combo is about the same price as the SONY/ETAK, but lags somewhat in map accuracy compared to Streetfinder or SkyMap 2000. On the other hand, StreetAtlas has much better support for stand-alone GPS use. If that is your need, buy StreetAtlas without the Earthmate.
(Additional screenshots provided by John. Again, Click on the picture to view the original size /resolution)
Rand McNally website http://www.randmcnally.com/