What laptop, GPS hardware, and GPS software to buy for motorcycle trip planning?
First off, thanks Marvin H. for the email. I'm a newbie here, I don't own a laptop, I don't own a GPS. have a few computers and consider myself a intermediate user. I run Windows driven PC's and not a Mac. So here goes!!
I'm retired and own a few motorcylces and am considering buying a laptop (PC or Mac) with GPS software installed or I will install software myself to use on a extended motorcyle trip next summer. I of course do not expect to install the laptop on the cylce itself, but to pack along with me. I'd like to be able to stop anywhere along the road, fire it up and use the GPS. I have had a few cell phones but I will not own another one as to me they are a pain in the a...
Wondering what hardware to buy when I purchase a laptop?? I'm pretty sold on Dell but will take all suggestions. Also when I do end up in a motel and have free wi-fi, do all laptops come with a internet card in them or is that a special option?
Also, after looking at your forum, is all the GPS applications software?? Or is there any hardware I have to order when I purchase the laptop to be GPS compatible. Like I said, I'm new at this game but would like to purchase this unit in the winter months so I can become familiar with the unit "before" I would go out and about the country.
Thanks in advance for any advice and info that you can provide. McGruder
Ken in Regina
Hi McGruder,

My old riding buddy and I were having that discussion this morning. We both have fullsize laptops and we both have Garmin's eTrex Legend HCx handheld GPS. He still rides lots (BMW GS). He bought his eTrex to use on the bike (handlebar mounted). (I use mine on my mountain bike.)

We both use the laptops when travelling by automobile. He does not use take his laptop on bike trips, primarily because of the size. But because of the size of the screen on the eTrex (tiny) he would like to be able to take along something with a bigger screen for checking out things along the way more easily than squinting and scrolling all over on the handheld.

Our thinking is that the ideal would be something that has an 8" - 10" (diagonal) screen. Anything bigger is just too large to haul around on a bike trip.

I haven't researched what products might fit the bill. It could range from something like a Palm T|X with Garmin's Mobile XT on it combined with a Bluetooth GPS receiver to a widescreen portable navigation device like one of Garmin's Nuvi products (up to 5.2" diagonal screen) to a UMPC (5"-7" diagonal screen) to a tablet or netbook (8"-12" diagonal screen).

Some of these devices now come with a built-in GPS receiver but most don't. And the ones that do are reported to not have as good reception of the GPS signal as those that use a seperate (USB or Bluetooth) receiver.

If you want the feature strengths to be in planning before or during a trip, MS Streets&Trips, Delorme Street Atlas and Garmin's Mapsource all have good features there.

If you want more strength on road navigation, iNav's iGuidance, Mapfactor's Navigator and Garmin Mobile PC are examples of products that will turn your laptop into something that looks and works very much like the Garmin or Magellan or TomTom portable navigation devices. They support touchscreen use, too.

That's just a very high level overview to get the discussion started.

For wifi use (email, web browsing) while travelling, the portable navigation devices are out. The Palm T|X has wifi. It's great for email, not so much for web browsing (pretty awful, actually). The rest .. UMPCs, tablets and netbooks are all good for internet use. Most come with wifi receivers built in, but it's always buyer beware out there. You need to be sure before you buy. When you get your list narrowed down it's easy to verify the wifi abilities of specific models.

A simple summary: something small enough to be convenient to haul around on a bike trip. Built-in wifi mandatory. Built-in GPS receiver may or may not be desirable. GPS software will be required, and there are many choices depending upon what you really want to do with it. A seperate GPS receiver connecting to the portable via USB (cord) or Bluetooth (cordless) is probably more desirable than one built in. If you want a cordless Bluetooth GPS receiver then you need to add built-in Bluetooth radio as a requirement for the laptop.

Have I confused you enough yet?

Thanks Ken for your reply. I guess I am a little confused as this is all new to me. I do want a laptop with a larger screen (15-17") preferably. This will also be used in my truck and in my home so I do want it to be used in other situations also. When I travel on my road bike (1800 Goldwing) I have enough room if going solo or pulling a trailer at times also. Last summer I pulled the trailer but prefer not doing so if I'm going solo. Either way, room is not a problem. You mentioned:

If you want more strength on road navigation, iNav's iGuidance, Mapfactor's Navigator and Garmin Mobile PC are examples of products that will turn your laptop into something that looks and works very much like the Garmin or Magellan or TomTom portable navigation devices. They support touchscreen use, too
Are these 3 programs that you mentioned all "software" programs? I don't mind spending the dollars if I get a good product. Are a lot of these programs user friendly? Also, what is a GPS Bluetooth receiver? Is it something built into the laptop or is it a add/on option that is purchased separately? I guess I have a lot of questions, sorry. Thanks again Ken for you help. McGruder
Ken in Regina
Hi McGruder.

I think it will be a good idea for you to pop over to Garmin's website and read their page about "What is GPS?" Please do that before reading further.

Okay, now that you've read that, you might find it useful to go back and re-read my previous note to see if it's any less murky.

Now some basics about what you need in order to do what you want.

The laptop: You already have an idea what you want. Since space is no object you won't need to make any specific compromises for either motorcycle use or GPS use.

There are lots of forums to help you choose a laptop computer. So the only thing we need to add is, make sure it will do wifi if you want to be able to do internet when you are stopped somewhere that has wifi access. And to make sure that it does Bluetooth if you want to use any Bluetooth accessories, like a Bluetooth mouse or Bluetooth GPS receiver. If you don't know what Bluetooth is, look it up on Wikipedia.

When I say to make sure it will DO wifi and Bluetooth, don't get suckered by stickers and promotion that say "Bluetooth Capable" or "Bluetooth Ready". That is an almost certain sign that it will not actually DO Bluetooth without you purchasing and adding something else on. Same thing applies to wifi. You need to ask specifically if you can take it home, turn it on and it will make wifi and Bluetooth connections without having to buy anything more for the laptop.

Adding GPS capability to the laptop: You will need a GPS software program. You will see lots of them listed on the forum home page here, with reviews and dedicated discussion sections for each of them. These aren't all of them but they are the most popular and readily available for the average consumer.

You can use all of these products, to a greater or lesser degree, for travel planning, similar to the way you would use paper maps. Except that these products will calculate routes for you and display them on the map. They will also let you do searches for city names, intersections of streets and/or highways and for street addresses. They will also let you search for points of interest (POI). These are things like stores, gas stations, movie theatres, restaurants, hospitals, police stations, malls and so on. Most of these software programs come with maps that include millions of POIs in North America.

Some are much better at this than others. Probably the leading ones for trip planning, both before and during the trip, are DeLorme Street Atlas, Microsoft Streets & Trips and Garmin Mapsource. Street Atlas and Streets&Trips are incredibly cheap for what they do. Mapsource comes free on every DVD of maps that you buy from Garmin.

None of these need a GPS receiver to be useful, as long as you just want trip planning with no navigation capabilities.

If you want navigation capabilities to help you get guidance from wherever you are to somewhere else, you still need a software program PLUS a GPS receiver .. a device which receives the GPS satellite signals, decodes them and transfers the location data to the laptop for the navigation software to use to display your current location on the map screen.

There are lots of choices for GPS receivers to use with the laptop. Most work very well and are quite inexpensive ($30 - $75). Some software programs also come bundled with them. For instance, Microsoft Streets & Trips, DeLorme Street Atlas and Garmin Mobile PC all have software-only versions as well as versions that are bundled with a GPS receiver for a few dollars more.

The GPS receivers that are designed for use with computers come in two categories: receivers that connect to the computer with a USB cable and receivers that connect to the computer wirelessly, via Bluetooth wireless protocol. All of the software programs I mention in here will work with any consumer GPS receivers on the market.

Street Atlas and Streets & Trips will work for navigation use but there are programs that do navigation better. In particular, the onscreen map and guidance displays are better for realtime navigation guidance in some others than it Streets&Trips and Street Atlas. Garmin Mobile PC, iNav iGuidance, and MapFactor Navigator are three that have excellent map displays when navigating. But these three are not as useful for trip planning, before and during the trip.

Go ahead and browse through the review of the various products reviewed and discussed in these forums. Don't get distracted by the technical stuff for now. Just keep your eyes peeled for features that you think might be useful, or at least interesting to you. Then you can ask more specific questions that we can help you out with.

In summary, for trip planning and navigation you will need to add a software program to your laptop, like the many reviewed and discussed here, and get a GPS receiver to receive and transfer the GPS satellite data to your computer. None of it needs to be expensive.

Finally, I know this will probably get me some flak but none of these programs are particularly easy to learn. Most are fairly easy to get going with the basics, but if you want to get the most out of them you will have to spend some time with them, and probably ask questions here and/or on other forums that support them. The good news is that some of them have free trials for download (eg. Streets&Trips) and/or come with 30-day money-back guarantees (eg. Street Atlas).

Ken in Regina
If the emphasis is on trip planning, you don't even need any GPS capabilies. You can find all the tools you need online.

Start with Google or Ask or Yahoo! or Microsoft or some other search engine to find things you are interested in.

There are lots of online map products that will allow you to create routes from any point in North America to any other, with multiple stops along the way. Google Maps, Yahoo!, Mapquest, Microsoft Live and others. All will allow you to download and/or print out maps and lists of driving directions to take along on the trip.

You can use all of these resource for pretrip planning and also along the way, wherever you find a wifi connection.

If you want to add simple and inexpensive navigation, you can just buy a dedicated personal navigation device like a Garmin Nuvi, or similar devices from manufacturers like Magellan, TomTom, Cobra and others. You can get motorcycle mounts for these or just toss it into the tank bag for use when you need it, either driving or walking around.

These personal navigation devices have built-in GPS receivers and they have the same maps and search features as the stuff I described for the laptop software programs. Many of them are small enough that they don't get in the way when mounted on a bike handlebar or auto dashboard and easy to shove in a pocket or purse and drag along when you are walking about.

Marvin Hlavac
McGruder, while all this may seem to be too complicated at first, it really is very simple.

You want to buy a big laptop (15 - 17 inch) and use it for trip planning while on your motorcycle trip.

1. Buy your laptop (the bigger ones are actually less expensive than the smaller ones)

2. Get some trip planning software (a 60-day free trial version of Microsoft Streets & Trips 2009 can be conveniently downloaded from a link in our review)

3. An inexpensive (~ US$35) USB GPS receiver BU-353 will let your program (e.g. Streets & Trips) know exactly where you are located.
Thank you both. I have some homework to do. One final question before I leave today. You talk about "touch screen" operation. Is that a part of the software or do I have to purchase a laptop that is "touch screen" compatible? Thanks again guys. It's a long winter here in Minnesota so I'll have to get busy. Hope you have a nice Thanksgiving. McGruder
Marvin Hlavac
If you don't plan on using it for actual navigation while driving, then touch screen is not needed (laptops with touch-screens are expensive). For just trip planning, a keyboard and a touch-pad or mouse will do just fine.
I might use this laptop for navigating in my truck but not on the cycle. So you are saying that the "touch screen" is part of the laptop, and I would have to purchase that type of laptop? Thanks
Ken in Regina
Originally Posted by McGruder
Thank you both. I have some homework to do. One final question before I leave today. You talk about "touch screen" operation. Is that a part of the software or do I have to purchase a laptop that is "touch screen" compatible? Thanks again guys. It's a long winter here in Minnesota so I'll have to get busy. Hope you have a nice Thanksgiving. McGruder
Marvin is right. And here are the answers to your specific questions.

1. First, it requires that the laptop/portable have a touchscreen.

2. If it does, then you also must have software that is capable of using it.

Most standard laptops do not have that capability.

The two best planning software programs - Streets&Trips and Street Atlas - are not capable of using a touchscreen.

Unless you plan to use the laptop for realtime in-vehicle navigation, like many drivers of big trucks and large RVs, there is little value to touchscreen-capable GPS software. And, as far as I know, there is little value in a touchscreen for general computer use. Which is why it's only available on tablet computers and some of the small portable computers.

I would be real tempted to nix the idea of a laptop system and rather go to a mounted plotter. On our BMW GS we have had a 5" screen gps on the bar for a long time, first was an Eagle View-now a Lowrance 3500C (I think), and it is essential for what we do. Your bike is big enough to mount a large screen unit and I think it would be perfect for your needs especially if you purchase the preloaded sd mapping cards.

I can guarantee you, with Lowrance anyway, that you will have no issues at all with the marine units standing up to anything you will encounter -bulletproof. Purchase the largest screen you can mount with an external antenna, color is essential.

We have pictures somewhere.
Thanks kft, did some research on the Lowrance 3500C. Alot of info out there on the unit. One thing I noticed is that it is a marine GPS and as a fisherman, I could use it for dual purpose in the summer months. How is it for the cycle trips and quickly removing from the bike in unattended areas? Thanks to all of you here, I'm getting new ideas as to different ways to go. I do know that I will get a laptop for cycle trips just for the wi-fi capability in motels etc., but a bike mounted/fishing GPS isn't ruled out either. Thank you for your input. McGruder
Originally Posted by Ken in Regina
The two best planning software programs - Streets&Trips and Street Atlas - are not capable of using a touchscreen.

Any program that works with a mouse can use a touch screen interface. The problem with S&T, SA and nRoute is they are not optimized for it. You would need small fingers or a stylus to use them.

Marvin Hlavac
That's true. But to the credit of both, DeLorme in its Street Atlas 2009, and also Microsoft in its Streets & Trips 2009, did some small steps in the right direction. S&T 2009 has larger buttons on menu bars, and SA 2009 has a new navigation mode that I quite like.
McGruder, we spend alot of time in very upstate Maine riding the logging roads. There literally are thousands and thousands of miles of dirt roads, which the owners, still allow access for certain vehicles. Cars, trucks and motorcycles -atv's seem to be not welcomed at all-are tolerated with one rule; you must yield-immediately-to the logging trucks; do this and life will be very good indeed. The truckers are highly civilized, see the above rule, and Company people are friendly (keep in mind that we are usually cruising along at the whiteknuckle speed of 15 or so mph) and will often tell you where to see the newborn moose, bear etc. The only problem is that the area is so vast that one can become very lost very, very quickly and it is imperative that you also have paper maps and a compass-we discovered this the hard way some time back. We now travel with the gps, maps, compass and satellite phone-if you have been lost in the deep woods you know what we went through.

Removing the unit is a simple matter of loosening two knobs and disconnecting two cables-5 seconds or so.

With your bike I would think that a 7" display or larger would fit (and look very cool) well and as mentioned, with the optional pre loaded cards both land and water detail are amazing.

I understand that a laptop seems to fit your needs better right now, but in the future keep a plotter in mind.

If you have not done the 'dragon' yet make it a point to get to this area, you won't be sorry- About