September 27, 2007

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An update on updates
Look before you turn right in 300 yards
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Allow me to whine a bit.

A couple weeks ago, I learned that there was a firmware and content update for my GPS navigation system. (For the detail-oriented among you, it’s a Mio DigiWalker C310x that I picked up for $150 last Black Friday.) Great, I thought. Surely, this update will not only make the maps and directions I receive from my device more accurate, it will introduce new heights of awesomeness to all my journeys by the sheer power of its newness!

As I hope you suspect by now, my hopes could not have been farther from the truth.

The thing was working fine, really. Sure, it had a pathological fear of Route 3A, diverting me across the river to Route 3 whenever I got too close, but I could adapt to that; and it had no clue how the roads around Manchester-Boston Regional Airport were arranged, but seriously, do you? Does anybody? You probably shouldn’t, it’s a national security issue.

But my curiosity got the better of me. It even got the better of my stingy nature, since this was no free download, but a DVD I actually had to buy. Updated maps, you see, take work to compile, and with nearly a gigabyte of information, the update couldn’t be easily transferred over the Internet. It’s actually fairly standard for GPS updates to be non-free; other manufacturers like Garmin and TomTom do the same thing. Unlike Web services like Google Maps and the like, all the map data is stored locally; all the device does is match up coordinates from GPS satellites with its own internal database and calculate directions from that.

The update was at a “discounted” price, with the promise of a steep hike come November. I can’t help but wonder if maybe they’re using early adopters as beta testers, and those who pay the full price will get the benefit of our complaints.

First off, the update was not a simple connect-and-load operation. It should’ve been, since my computer recognizes the GPS device just fine. But the update disc insisted upon communicating directly with some chip inside it, and was there a driver on the disc for that, or at least mention of the problem on Mio’s Web site? Of course not. I had to Google the exact name of it (with the Firefox search bar suggesting the full name after I typed half of it — now that’s software).

Once I’d found the driver, the firmware and map update went fairly smoothly. At which point my GPS went loony.

Oh, it likes 3A now, and the airport, well, it’s less of a mystery. But it now thinks the whole of the Everett Turnpike is I-293, all the way down through Merrimack and Nashua. And it’s all toll. And to get onto Route 101A going west from it, you take Exit 7E and make an illegal left turn. Combine that with zig-zag turns through suburban Manchester roads that are blocked off in undocumented places and I’m left with a machine that’s clearly trying to do me bodily harm.

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from all this, it’s that no upgrade should be performed without due research. Had I sought other users’ opinions of the update, I could have used their pain and suffering as a learning tool instead of having to turn my own into one. Had I really thought about it, I might’ve realized that a map update after less than a year of ownership really shouldn’t be necessary, and is unlikely to be all that revelatory.

But life’s a journey, right?.