3 min read

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.
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.
(click for image gallery)

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.