GPS Buyer's Guide To Car Navigation Systems - InformationWeek

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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.

Wider Screens, And Text-to-speech Functionality

Going beyond basic navigation, there are a couple of key features on mid-range units to look for. One is a wide-screen. Bumping up to a 4.3" touch screen gives more room for both maps and data, and makes input easier. Another feature to look for is text-to-speech. With this feature you'll hear "turn right on Oak Street" rather than "turn right in 200 feet." Both upgrades are useful and worth the extra cost.

The "dashboard screen" of the Garmin nuvi 260W shows current speed and other data.
(click for image gallery)

Units that combine these features include the Garmin nuvi 260W, the TomTom ONE XL-S, and the Magellan Maestro 4040. These GPS receivers generally run from $200 to $350.

GPS Features Explained

It's easy to be taken for a ride by features that don't live up to their promises -- or their cost. Let's take a closer look at some features you'll find on high end models, and whether they are worth the added expense.

Traffic The holy grail for commuters, live traffic has so far failed to live up to its promise. The idea is that your GPS can give you an indication of delays, accidents, the severity of backups, etc., and allow you to reroute around them. In reality though, you see many reports of incidents which are no longer a problem. And the quality of the service varies from one metropolitan region to the next. Having said that, expect to see significant improvements over the next two to three years. The three main traffic providers in the U.S. are Traffic Message Channel (TMC/FM), MSN Direct and XM NavTraffic. To access their services, you'll need a compatible unit and a traffic receiver that plugs into your GPS. Expect an annual service fee of around $60 per year.

Bluetooth The idea: Pair your phone with your GPS and dial from the touch screen. Search for that fancy restaurant in your database of six million POIs and press a button to call for a reservation. Unfortunately, this is another great idea dealt a severe blow by reality. While the audio quality is good on the driver's end, it can sound like an abysmal echo chamber for the person on the other end of the line.

Multi-media Many units come with MP3 players and picture viewers. Some TomToms can even control your iPod. Personally, I like being able to see the artist name and song title on the screen of my GPS, but many music lovers would rather stick to their beloved iPods.

FM Transmitter Send those MP3s, phone calls and navigation directions over to your car stereo and you'll be able to hear them from every speaker. A couple of cautions: Many cars have the FM antenna located on the rear windshield though, a long way for this FCC-mandated weak signal to reach. And the FM airways can be quite crowded. You're better off running a line out from the GPS receiver's headphone jack to your car stereo if it has an auxiliary input.

Voice Commands A few high-end units are beginning to offer voice commands. TomTom's system is reputed to be better than Magellan's. Look for Garmin's first voice recognition models by the end of the second quarter of 2008.

Multi-destination Routing This feature can be found on most high-end models and a few lower level units. It allows you to plan multi-destination trips in advance, which is a convenience for some travelers. Look for it if you take lots of multi-leg road trips; for the rest of us it's not a necessity.

Emergency Screens These handy screens give your current location and offer buttons that show the location of the nearest hospital, police station, gas stations, etc.

High-end Models There are many choices in this end of the market place, but two currently available and highly rated models to take a look at are the TomTom GO 920T and the Garmin nuvi 780.

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