In advance of Labor Day weekend and its inevitable coast-to-coast traffic jams, Microsoft is releasing Streets & Trips 2008 software. Among the new features in the deluxe edition are live traffic updates, information on nearby gas prices, and estimates of what filling up along the journey will cost for that Hummer, Prius, or whatever else you're driving. It also hooks up to Live Search maps that you can mark up, and which chart businesses including hotels, snack spots and camping areas.
Despite such helpful features, this product seems like an odd fit in the market when you can get a GPS unit for the windshield or the palm of your hand for a few hundred dollars, if not already built into a vehicle. The standard edition of Microsoft's software is a mere $39, but that doesn't include the $99 GPS or the $179 Connected Services for updates about traffic and gasoline costs.
Who wants to drive with a laptop keeping awkward company in the seat next to you? You may have to buckle the passenger seatbelt to stop the car's safety warning beeps, as I did on a drive to Napa from San Francisco in a rented Nissan last weekend. (But due to a fading laptop battery, alas, I barely got to test Streets & Trips 2008.) The Connected Services fob that plugs into your laptop is a bit thicker yet shorter than a folded-up Motorola Razr phone--bigger than last year's tiny nugget, which it houses.
That said, the interface looks simple enough, with arrows pointing out the route and a view that resembles the angle from your dashboard. If you can't see the screen, Streets & Trips will shout out turn-by-turn directions, including what to do to fix a wrong turn. Despite my misgivings, Microsoft says that sales of Streets & Trips rose by about 10 percent last year. It seems ideal for business travelers whose companies would rather plunk down on the software than for a dedicated GPS gadget, or for those who don't want to learn to work a new device. A human passenger who doesn't mind holding a computer in their lap would be a nice add-on.