Get the most from your TomTom, Garmin, Magellan, or other GPS device by learning how to speed satellite lock, send maps from your PC, create POIs, and more from our GPS expert.

May 23, 2008

12 Min Read

With global positioning system (GPS) devices more popular and affordable than ever, here are some of the best ways to get more from your personal navigator. What follows are 10 tips and tricks, along with some bonus pointers for owners of the two most popular brands, Garmin and TomTom.


Speed Up Satellite Lock

When you turn on your GPS for the first time, it downloads almanac information from GPS satellites. No, this isn't the Farmer's Almanac, though it does have to do with the position of objects in the sky. In this case, your unit is receiving data about where GPS satellites are located from your current location. Having this information on your unit will speed satellite lock, also known as time-to-first-fix (TTFF).

To download this information efficiently, leave your GPS powered on and under an open sky, motionless, for 20 minutes. Ideally, you will do this the first time you turn the unit on, but it can be done any time after as well. It's an especially good first step to take if you notice satellite acquisition taking longer than normal.

The TomTom GO 920T features live traffic and voice commands.

Another time you can speed satellite lock is when you hop in a rental car following a cross-country flight. Many GPS units have a "new location" option on the satellite screen menu. Use this when you've travelled more than a hundred miles or so to give your unit an idea of what part of the world you're in, speeding up satellite lock in the process.

On some units the new location feature will come up automatically if satellite acquisition is taking too long. For a better understanding of the technology behind GPS, check out Garmin's GPS Guide For Beginners.


Deter GPS Theft

GPS units are some of the hottest gadgets around, and I do mean hottest in every sense of the word. Smash and grab thieves can steal your GPS in less time than even the fastest unit can lock onto satellites, so to keep your GPS off eBay, and your car's windows intact, here are a few simple precautions:

  • Take your unit with you whenever you leave your car.

  • Remove the suction cup mount from the windshield and wipe away any telltale marks (a microfiber cloth works great for this).

  • Better yet, ditch the suction mount altogether and buy a friction mount. These weighted mounts grip nearly any shape dash and are easy to hide under the seat or in the glove compartment. They don't fall off the windshield or leave suction cup marks behind.

    This is my favorite type of GPS mount. I can easily grab the entire mount/GPS assembly and place it on the passenger seat before I pull into a parking lot, ensuring that no one sees me disconnecting and hiding my GPS.


Update Firmware

Firmware is software that is embedded in your GPS. The frequency of firmware releases for a particular model varies according to the manufacturer; some provide ongoing support better than others. Firmware updates can fix system glitches and make your GPS operate more smoothly. And some firmware updates actually add new features and capabilities.

Updates are pretty painless. They typically involve connecting your GPS to a computer (most receivers come with a mini-USB cable) and running the firmware update file. Garmin has simplified the process with its WebUpdater application, which will check for new updates, or you can go to the Web site for a list of the current firmware version for your model. You can find updates for Magellan devices on its support page, while TomTom updates are now handled through the TomTom HOME application.

There is always the possibility that a major bug will make its way into a new firmware release. One way to resolve this is to roll your unit back by installing an older version of firmware. Fortunately, has an archive page of older firmware, for this very reason.


Get Specific With Your Directions

Many mid-range GPS receivers offer text-to-speech, allowing them to call out the street names of upcoming turns. This feature lets you hear "turn left on Oak Street" rather than just "turn left in 200 feet." Yet text-to-speech only works if you select the right voice in the unit's setup menu; it doesn't always default to the proper setting. So be sure you are getting everything you paid for. Look for voice selections that say "TTS" or "computer."


Update Your Maps

If you buy one of the top brands of GPS, you'll be offered the chance to update maps on occasion. These updates are typically rolled out once a year. If you live in a rapidly developing area, this may be worth the expense, which usually runs anywhere from $40 to $100. In addition to being available from the manufacturer, some brands' updates may be purchased at a discount through various online retailers.

Map updates for the leading manufacturers can be found by clicking on the relevant link: Garmin, Magellan, or TomTom. In a move sure to please Navigon owners, the company has announced that owners of most of their units will be eligible for a free map upgrade this spring.

Garmin's nuvi 260W is a wide-screen navigator that also features text-to-speech.


Download More Points Of Interest

Your GPS probably came with anywhere from 750,000 to 6 million points of interest (POIs), but these can be woefully out of date or just lacking in destinations you are interested in. GPS owners often don't realize that they can add custom POIs to most major brands of GPS (Garmin and TomTom seem to be the best supported in this regard).

You can download POI files, usually for free, that include everything from red-light cameras to your favorite chain stores and restaurants. Go to or POI Friend to check them out. You can find more sources on GPS Tracklog's POI resource page.


Create Your Own POIs

Why not go a step further and create your own POI files? It's really not that hard to do. includes tips on creating POIs for Garmin devices. Or you can use POI Editor to create POIs for Garmin or TomTom receivers. More references, how-to's, and format converters can be found on the POI resource page.


Send Custom Maps From Your PC

It's often easier to plan a trip at your computer than it is using the small touch screen on your GPS. Recently, Google Maps and MapQuest both added "Send to GPS" features.

From Google Maps, do a search and then click on the "Send" link with the e-mail icon next to it. You'll be given a choice of which search result you want to send, along with the option to send it to a Garmin or TomTom GPS.

In MapQuest, search for and select a location and click "Map." Then click the drop-down "Send" box for a "Send to GPS" option. The MapQuest transfer process only works with Garmin devices.

The Magellan Maestro Elite 5340+GPRS includes Google Local search.


Use Your Car's Speakers

Why listen to directions (and MP3s and cell phone calls) over the tinny little speaker in your GPS? Many high-end GPS receivers have a built-in FM transmitter to send audio to your car stereo's speakers. This can work well in rural areas where the FM spectrum isn't that crowded, but finding an open frequency will prove challenging in urban locations.

One alternative is to use the headphone / audio-out jack, found on even mid-range GPS units. Simply connect a patch cord to the auxiliary input on your car stereo for static-free sonic bliss.


Hit The Panic Button

If your GPS starts acting a little buggy, and you've already tried installing the latest firmware (see tip 3), you might want to try a hard reset. Save your favorites to your PC first using Garmin MapSource, TomTom HOME, or a similar application from your GPS manufacturer. To find out how to do a hard reset on your device, try doing a Google advanced search for the phrase "hard reset" and your GPS model name and number.


Bonus Tips For Garmin And TomTom Owners

Since Garmin and TomTom represent the overwhelming share of the portable GPS marketplace, I couldn't resist throwing in a couple of extra tips for owners of these devices.


  • Free (and perfectly legal) Garmin-compatible maps of U.S. and international destinations have been posted online. They range from highway to topo maps, and while the former generally do not provide turn-by-turn directions, the topo maps are often of much higher quality than Garmin's own products. Check out this post on my blog for the lowdown on free maps for your Garmin GPS.

  • If you've purchased a Garmin device with pre-loaded highway maps, Garmin will send you a disc of the map software for the cost of shipping and handling. This will give you access to MapSource and allow you to plan trips on your PC and back up your favorite locations. Contact Garmin support to request a disc.


  • Why not have Mr. T call out those turns? With a TomTom, you can download celebrity voices for your GPS. And some TomTom units will allow you to record anyone's voice, so you can let your kids tell you where to go.

  • Control your iPod from the screen of your TomTom GO with an optional iPod control cable. Unfortunately this won't work with TomTom ONE models, just the GO series.

For the latest GPS tips and tricks, as well as product reviews, visit my blog, GPS Tracklog.

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