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Next-level GPS helps you avoid traffic snarls

Some of today's GPS systems are much more than mere maps-in-a-box. Companies have realized that the service is actually more important than the hardware, and have concentrated on improving the information people receive from their systems.

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Running a small business can mean you're constantly on the road for meetings, sales calls or deliveries. Getting stuck in traffic or getting lost is the last thing you need – and that's when the latest technology comes in handy.

Most people who drive for a living have a standalone GPS system stuck on their windshield. At its most basic, a GPS simply maps a route from one point to another, based on satellite location information and maps stored in the device.

But as many of us have found, to our chagrin, that means we can be misled. Maps can be less than accurate (people who blindly follow them have been known to end up in lakes) and the devices don't take temporary conditions into account. I once almost missed a flight because a cab driver was so fixated on his GPS that he didn't see the signs about a road closure, and then had trouble re-plotting his route.

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However, some of today's GPS systems are more than mere maps-in-a-box. Companies have realized that the service is more important than the hardware, and have concentrated on improving the information people receive from their systems.

Consider the TomTom Go Live 1535M, for example. Yes, it has maps. Yes, it knows where you are. It has voice recognition, so you can just tell it where you want to go, and it displays your route on a generous five-inch screen, as well as providing directions in a range of voices – instructions from Yosemite Sam, Kim Cattrall, Darth Vader or even Pepé Le Pew are just a download away.

But the cleverest tricks don't reside in the device itself; they live in TomTom's HD Traffic service. The company receives traffic information from all devices (with user permission, of course) and uses it to deduce traffic patterns and flag slowdowns on both major and secondary routes. Depending on the time of day, it will offer different routes to compensate for those patterns. It receives updates every two minutes.

If you don't want to buy a standalone device, most smartphones offer some sort of navigation tools. For iPhone, iPad 3G, Android and Windows Mobile 5 or 6 (but not Windows Phone 7), for example, there's CoPilot Live.

The service is available for more than 50 countries worldwide, and it also offers a walking mode to keep you from getting lost when you're hoofing it. The professional version includes multi-stop trip optimization and a detour button that searches for alternate routes. As long as you're connected to the Internet, live services (by subscription) pick up on local traffic conditions and modify the route accordingly.

BlackBerry users can download the free BlackBerry Maps app for turn-by-turn directions, route planning and location updates. Add BlackBerry Traffic (also free) and you have not only a route, but also a sense of what the traffic will be like.

Windows Phone users aren't left out, either. For example, Navigon, owned by GPS behemoth Garmin, has announced several apps for Windows Phone 7 that should work on the updated Mango OS. They offer all of the usual amenities, including route suggestions, lane maps and real-time traffic alerts, as well as an augmented reality function called Reality Scanner.

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Finally, Intelligent Mechatronics Systems (IMS), the company behind the in-car voice recognition app iLane, have come up with an interesting way to help relieve gridlock.

IMS Traffic Intelligence uses signals from cellphones to build maps of traffic conditions. Each phone continually makes itself known to cell towers in its vicinity, and the system tracks the changes to calculate traffic speed. This information, aggregated and refreshed every five minutes, can be used to synchronize traffic lights, or in planning infrastructure improvements. The Region of York, north of Toronto, plans to introduce a smartphone app based on the technology to assist commuters on their daily trek.

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