10:53 AM

GPS Buyer's Guide To Car Navigation Systems

Find an auto GPS for your car with our expert's tips on buying and using personal navigation devices from TomTom, Garmin, and Magellan.

An evening zip down any highway these days is likely to reveal quite a few cars with a portable Global Position System (GPS) glowing on their dashboards -- small bright lights pointing the way through the night.

The TomTom GO 920T features live traffic and voice commands.
(click for image gallery)

Auto GPS units are hugely popular, and rightfully so. It is the rare gadget that actually simplifies our lives. No more road maps, MapQuest or Google Map printouts, or asking for directions. Simply plug in an address and go. And it's often easier than even that.

Before we delve into the details though, let's clear a few things up.

First, there is no service fee associated with the use of GPS. You'll have to pay extra if you want live traffic information (more on that later). Basic navigation capabilities employed by all GPS systems rely on the U.S. military's Global Positioning System; your tax dollars have already paid for it.

As to who will benefit from these devices, more people than you might think. If you travel much, it's a no-brainer. A GPS is most valuable when you are in an unfamiliar city. It simply takes all the stress out of getting around. But the devices' utility goes far beyond that. Looking for an address at night? Stuck in traffic and wondering if there is a way around it? Want to find the nearest Indian restaurant? Or perhaps you are just "directionally challenged." A GPS handles all these situations with aplomb.

The most popular type of GPS, and the focus of this article, is the personal (or portable) navigation device, or PND. These portable units can move from your car to your spouse's, and on to a rental car with ease. In many cases they are of much better quality than built-in systems costing several times as much, and are typically easier (and cheaper) to upgrade once the maps are out of date.

Cell phone GPS, such as VZ Navigator from Verizon, is a newer option, and can be a good solution for those who require navigation services infrequently. You'll need a cell phone with a GPS receiver, since most phones use cell tower triangulation to determine your position. Accuracy is not as keen as with dedicated PNDs, and given the smaller screens weak speakers on most cell phones, this is not a good choice for anything other than occasional use.

With that out of the way, let's look at the range of personal navigation devices available on the market today.

Basic GPS Navigation Models

You can get a standalone PND for your car for less than $200. Examples are the Garmin nuvi 200, TomTom ONE and Magellan Maestro 3200. Such basic models usually have a 3.5" touch screen and give verbal guidance ("turn right in 500 feet"). Visually, most of these units will show a map, the name of the next street to turn onto, distance to the turn, and your expected time of arrival.

There is one key feature that will vary among entry level models -- the number of points of interest (POIs) along the way. These are attractions, retailers, and service locations that are pre-programmed into each unit. POIs range from Wal-Marts and McDonalds restaurants to the fanciest spas and resorts. It's much easier to find the nearest Starbucks this way than to look up an address and key it in. Some units have more POIs than others. I recommend buying a unit with at least 4.5 million POIs.

Additional files for POIs may be downloaded. Garmin keeps a list of POI providers, as do TomTom, Magellan, and independent sources such as POI Factory,.

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