People of means used to live by a few simple rules: Don't spend the principal, don't pay retail and don't be indiscreet. The list just got longer: now it's a major faux pas to get lost.

Modern navigation systems have turned getting lost into the ultimate expression of bad form.

You used to have an excuse when you couldn't find your way -- navigation is complex. It requires understanding thorny concepts like longitude and latitude, universal time, bearings and, oh yes, basic algebra.

It makes sense that normal people's eyes would glaze over when it came to Mercator projections, logarithmic speeds and the ins and outs of dead reckoning.

Of course, I love it all. Even my friends call me The Navigeek. To my face.

Are We There Yet?

But my wayward friends don't need me so much these days. Intelligent electronic navigations systems, which can do all the work for you, are now ubiquitous.

There are handheld units from the traditional global positioning system makers, such as Garmin ( GRMN) and Magellan.

There are in-car units from electronics companies, such as Pioneer and Alpine built into pricier vehicles.

There are live traffic feeds from satellite and terrestrial radio companies, such as XM ( XMSR). Even cell-phone operators offer excellent navigation products in their phones.

With today's nav systems, there are no excuses. If you're lost, late, bickering about being lost or late, or even unaware of your down-to-the-second ETA, it is your own dang fault.

Though technoilliterate dramas like "24," "Alias" and "Lost" like to lie to us about what a GPS can do, navigation systems are simple once you understand what they need to have to work.

Listen up JJ Abrams, I love you, baby, but if I have to put up with another Sydney Bristow or John Lock doing completely unrealistic things with their nav systems on "Alias" or "Lost," I am going to dress up in a cheap pink wig and run away to a metaphorical jungle island paradise.

GPS systems need a clear shot at the sky and time to acquire sufficient satellite signals to work up a location. Invariably, when there are problems with GPS, it's because users rush the system or forget that they are working indoors, under some trees or next to a row of tall buildings.

The best advice for GPS users: be patient and be outside.

The Pioneer Avic-Z1

A Pioneering Entry

To test the current crop of GPS nav units, I picked two of the latest integrated systems, the in-car, in-dash Avic-Z1 from Pioneer ($2,500) and the ultrasleek, ultraportable Garmin Nuvi 360 ($965).

First, the Pioneer. Avics are integrated entertainment navigation systems that come hardwired and installed into a car's dashboard. (I tested the Z-1 mounted on a late-model Scion.)

The unit combines entertainment and route-finding systems in one centrally controlled system. AM, FM, XM, Sirius, digital video disc, compact disc, rear-screen controls, rear back-up camera -- all of it passes through the Avic.

It even comes with 10-gigabyte hard drive for digital content.

The Z-1 is all controlled by a decently executed touch-screen panel.

It does work, but with all due respect to "Star Trek," touch screens are not my thing. The screen gets grimy; I miss the positive response of a physical control. And after a while, looking at all those fingerprints grosses me out.

Screens notwithstanding, the Z-1's navigation system is excellent. It's easy to read. It boots instantly. It comes stocked with complete maps of North America and, count 'em, 11 million points of interest: banks, restaurants, hotels, you name it.

Simply type in your destination -- in my case the Larchmont Yacht Club -- and up comes several routes to get there. The Z-1 matches the possible routes with live traffic data supplied by XM and picks the quickest way.

And if that weren't enough, a kindly yet authoritative voice, dubbed "Vicki," tells you where to go turn by turn. Just listen to Vicki, and you'll be fine.

One in the Hand

The Garmin Nuvi takes a more portable approach to navigation. At about the size of a good set of French playing cards, the Nuvi seeks to be nimble rather than bombproof.

The Nuvi is part of a new generation of handheld GPS's: part nav system, part portable entertainment device.

The Nuvi comes with a picture viewer, a calculator, a secure digital-media slot, an MP3 player and an Audible book reader, as well as optional travel guides, translation software and, get this, mobile coupons.

So you don't get lost and you save money. My wife would love this one.

As great as these functions sound, let's be real: The Nuvi is not an iPod.

The multimedia features were rugged. The audio player was closer to a Flash drive than a real media device, the picture viewer was basic -- although I must admit, I got a kick using a nav device to listen to Dr. John.

But navigationally, the Nuvi was impressive for a small unit. It comes similarly equipped as the larger Pioneer unit with points of interest and maps of North America. It is easy to use, easy to read and easy to carry. It even had its own girl: the authoritatively voiced "Diane."

The Garmin Nuvi

I found the library of locations a bit thinner than that of the Pioneer. It did not know where the Larchmont Yacht Club was by name. (Shocker.) I had to enter the address by hand (the things I do for this job).

The major drawback of handheld portable units like the Nuvi is that they do not integrate with the other media devices in the vehicle.

Voice instructions from the Nuvi can be drowned out by a blasting radio or CD player. In-dash units, like the Pioneer, control everything, so they know to mute music in order to let instructions be heard.

Modern navigation systems are marvels. They are simple, work well and keep you from committing today's ultimate faux pas: getting lost.

Remember -- only losers lose their way.



Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.