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Thales navigates to the Palm

Should a Palm handheld be able to tell you where you are and how far you have to go to your destination? Apparently a handful of companies seem to think so.

The latest add-on product from Thales Navigation gives Palm’s m500 series of devices the ability to receive signals from the government-run Global Positioning System constellation of satellites. The idea is to turn the handheld computer into a portable navigational device.

Dubbed the Magellan GPS Companion, the unit is intended to be useful both in city environments and off-road. It comes with mapping software called TomTom CityMaps and TomTom RoutePlanner for in-car navigation and real-time mapping.

It also provides the ability to receive signals from the Wide-Area Augmentation System, a system that corrects GPS data for increased accuracy. But it also can receive signals from the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay System (EGNOS), which uses three satellites and a network of ground stations to broadcast signals intended to supplement GPS signals in Europe. Thales says adding EGNOS capability allows users to know their position with a margin of error of less than 10 feet, but it’s only available in Europe.

The Magellan GPS Companion connects to the Palm device’s serial port, leaving the SD Card slot open for downloadable maps. It uses two AAA batteries, which is sufficient for 12 hours of continuous usage. It also works with an optional 12-bolt power cable that features a built-in charger for the Palm. It will start shipping this spring and sell for about $200.

The concept has been tried several times, with varying levels of success. Nexian has introduced GPS add-ons for Handspring ‘s Visor handhelds, while Utah-based Geodiscovery created an add-on unit called the Geode, also for the Visor.

It’s hard to figure out exactly why companies like Thales are so eager to push GPS capability to PDAs like the Palm, when they already make perfectly good, affordable standalone handheld GPS units. Its Meridian line of handheld GPS units are built specifically for outdoor use, meaning they’ll easily survive being dropped on hard surfaces or immersed in water. Try dropping a Palm m500 or m515 into water, with or without a GPS Companion attached, and the results aren’t likely to be pretty.