Jan. 22, 2010 -- You're probably familiar with portable navigation devices like those sold by companies such as Garmin and TomTom, or perhaps you've even used Google Maps to find a local restaurant on your iPhone or other smartphone. But there are other uses for those location-pinpointing satellites that together make up the Global Positioning System.
Last year, a number of companies launched small devices that could report back on their location, on demand, by using GPS and a cellular connection.
You could theoretically keep it in a car to see where your vehicle is, drop it in a child's backpack to track her location, strap one onto a dog's leash should he become lost, or even pack one in your luggage so you can find it if the airline loses it.
But these gadgets come at a price.
One, from a company called Zoombak, starts at $99, but requires a subscription fee of $10 to $15 per month.
Now, a company called TrackStick has produced a product called the TrackStick Mini that ditches the expensive wireless connectivity.
TrackStick Mini Resembles USB Flash Drive
The result is a product that, at $299, has a higher up-front cost than the Zoombak and can't be used to find things at a moment's notice. On the other hand, it requires no monthly fees and can tell you where it's been after it's physically retrieved.
This can be helpful for either recreational recording one's location, say, on a trip, or for tracking the whereabouts of, say, a vehicle over the course of a few days.
The TrackStick Mini comes with a bracket that has two powerful magnets you can attach to the roof of a car. The bracket can also be attached to the springs of a rear door.
The TrackStick Mini, which resembles a double-wide USB flash drive, is itself a very simple device that can be charged using its USB connector.
The company includes a silicone sleeve to protect it from bumps, scratches, and the elements. After it's charged, simply turn it on and optionally affix it via the bracket. And then wait until the activity you want to record (or which you suspect is happening) is done.
TrackStick Data Can Re-Create Travel Path on Google Earth
The Trackstick will record its location until its battery wears out, which is typically several days.
Once you bring the TrackStick back to your PC, the fun begins.
The TrackStick Manager software allows you to see the data it has collected in a spreadsheet or export it to Google Earth, the free software program that lets you virtually travel to practically any place on the globe.
When the TrackStick data is sent to Google Earth, it creates a path on the virtual globe that allows you to track where the device has been.
You can even create a "flight simulator" mode to fly over the area and retrace your path. The time stamps of the location can also be synced up with those on photos so that you know where they were taken; this is called "geotagging."
The TrackStick Mini is a serious tool, one that reliably records where it's been for later scrutiny. The TrackStick software has many advanced features, well-documented by a 50-page digital manual that comes with the product.
While it does not require a monthly fee, its $299 price tag likely puts it out of reach for most casual users.
But for those who are willing to invest to prove where they or others have been, the Trackstick Mini is a strong contender, and one that can be used for some digital globetrotting when the mission is simply recounting a vacation.