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.
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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built-in systems costing several times as much, and are typically easier (and cheaper) to upgrade once the maps are out of date.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,.

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.
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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.

Tips For Using And Keeping Your GPS Safe

A good GPS is so intuitive you may never need to read the manual. One way to avoid this painful process and still learn about what your GPS can do, is to simply go through each of the menu screens and check out the various options. Some models are easier to learn than others though. Both Garmin and TomTom have a reputation for an intuitive interface. Generally speaking, Garmin devices are the simplest to use while TomTom offers more flexibility.

Keeping Your GPS Safe From Theft

GPS receivers are very attractive to crooks. It takes less than a minute for a "smash and grab" thief to break your window and steal your GPS. Hiding or taking your unit with you aren't the only precautions you should take. Suction cup mounts leave telltale marks on the windshield. Wipe these down with a microfiber cloth or consider purchasing a different type of mounting system, like the popular friction mounts.

Should You Update? Your GPS should come with the most recent maps available. Most manufacturers make new maps available annually, for a fee. Should you update or not? If you're in a fast growing metropolitan area, probably so. Otherwise, you'll probably be OK skipping a year. And if you like to upgrade devices to get the latest technology, you can always just buy a new unit.

Future Directions In Auto GPS

The technologies that drive personal navigation devices are moving forward quickly, and vendors keep making these devices more powerful and harder to resist. Let's take a brief look and see what's coming down the road for GPS receivers. In the next few months, expect to see devices that include the following:

Internet Search: The Dash Express, reviewed here, and here is said to feature Yahoo! Local search, while the Magellan Maestro Elite 5340+GPRS will utilize Google Local search. Instead of just finding the nearest ethnic restaurant, you'll be able to see reviews and ratings too. Expect to pay a premium for these units, along with a monthly fee for the data, which is typically provided over a cellular connection. At this writing Amazon is taking pre-orders for the Dash Express. The price is $399.99.

The Dash Express offers Internet search and "crowd-sourced" traffic data.
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Historical Average Speeds: Most GPS receivers currently estimate your transit time (and best route) based on the posted speed limit. The new TomTom 730 and 930 will use historical average speed data, routing you different ways depending upon the day of the week or time of day.

Crowd-sourcing Traffic: The Dash Express takes traffic intelligence even further, by also using live, anonymous cell phone data from other Dash users to calculate the best route based on current conditions. Of course, it will take a certain critical mass of Dash users for this to work.

Before You Buy

Now is a great time to buy a GPS. Prices are still dropping, though not as fast as in the past. One current trend has high-end features migrating down to entry-level units, so shoppers are now getting more bang for their buck. One special tip for buying a GPS -- be sure to read reviews, including those written by actual consumers. These can be found at Amazon, CNet and other locations online. Navigate your browser to my own site, GPS Tracklog, where I've posted reviews of more than 100 GPS models, and I'm always willing to answer questions posted by readers.

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