Whether your dubious sense of direction leads you to JCPenney instead of Whole Foods, or you're just interested in a back-road route to avoid the rush-hour mambo, a global positioning system (GPS) might be the best next purchase to get you to where you want to go and quickly. There are numerous nav systems to choose from, ranging from pricey electronic extravaganzas that require professional installation, to the quirky handheld systems perfect for hiking, biking or driving.
AFFORDABLE GPS DEVICES ($200 and below)
Type of Driver: Drivers interested in basic travel assistance from a navigation system.
What to Expect: 3.5-inch displays, turn-by-turn navigation, preloaded street-level maps, 2D/3D perspective.
MID-RANGE GPS DEVICES ($200 to $700)
Type of Driver: Business travelers will find these GPS useful for their extra amenities related to getting to the right place fast.
What to Expect: 3.5 or 4.3-inch displays, Text-to-speech capability, Bluetooth connectivity. Also look out for FM transmitters, real-traffic support, a built-in camera and voice commands.
TOP END GPS DEVICES ($700 and higher)
Type of Driver: Think Knight Rider. You're looking for KITT.
What to Expect: 4.3 to 5.8-inch displays, real-traffic support, MP3 Connectivity, photo and video input. Also look out for Internet access.
Reviewer Favorites: Garmin Nuvi 880
With so many options, your wallet's the only limit on what type of navigation system to choose. Portable car navigation systems can be divided into one of three categories -- affordable GPS that cost no more than $200, mid-range navs with prices that range from $200 to $700, or the upscale units that start around $700 and don't max out until they've reached the low thousands. But even after you decide how much you're willing to spend, there are a few additional things to consider as you shop.
GPS Shopping Tips
1. GPS Size
For both convenience as well as safety, a GPS screen should be as easy-to-use and read as possible. An affordable GPS will mostly likely have a 3.5-inch screen, the mid-range GPS will be 3.5 or 4.3 inches, and the more upscale navigation systems will range from 4.8 to 5.2 inches. Although size can be a significant factor in how well you can see the screen, the key is really the clarity of your display, so look for a model like the HP iPaq rx5900 Travel Companion with antiglare coating to cut down the sun's rays. Also notable are the Mio C520, which can display up to 65,000 colors, and holds up well under sunlight, or the Garmin Nuvi 660's day- and night- colored maps.
Included in the packaging for most navs is a warning to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. But the temptation to play with your GPS while driving is undeniably strong. If you think you'll have sticky fingers, you should consider investing in one of the Garmin models with the option to lock the display while your vehicle is in motion. Voice command is a relatively new GPS feature that's now available with the Magellan Maestro 4250 or Garmin Nuvi 880, and will allow you to operate certain functions with the sound of your voice.
If you're more tactile, there are also innovative features that involve touching the navigation screen -- for example the Sony NV U-83T's gesture command feature responds to symbols you've drawn on its touchscreen.
Weight might not seem like an important factor when all GPS are measured in ounces, but the difference between a Garmin Nuvi 200's 5 ounces and a Garmin StreetPilot 7200's 22.4 ounces will become apparent if you have one GPS for a two-car household, or if you just like to do some exploring on foot. Even though the cheaper models tend to also be the lightest, there are several premium units with low weights -- sticking in the Garmin family; the Nuvi 880 is only 6.2 oz, while the Magellan Maestro 4250 weighs 6.9 oz.
There are a variety of ways to display your GPS unit inside your vehicle, but most models provide for a windshield mount using a suction cup. Models like the TomTom One 130S stay secure on the windshield thanks to a twisting lock on the mount's adjustable arm. Before choosing your nav's placement, keep in mind that some states have laws against windshield obstructions. You might need to invest in an air-vent mount or a weighted beanbag to hold your device in place.
2. GPS Features
The latest and greatest navigation systems don't just give directions, they play music, answer your telephone calls and so much more. It's best to invest in a GPS system with street-level mapping, and if you can find it, mapping software that doesn't cost extra to update. Inexpensive GPS units will have basic maps of the United States, which should keep you satisfied for basic traveling. If you're dreaming of taking your nav on the Autobahn, the TomTom GO 910 has maps of Europe preinstalled.
In addition to preloaded maps and voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation, some other features to look out for include text-to-speech capability and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as real-time traffic support, MP3 playback and FM transmitters. Make sure that the features offered also function well. How clear is the pronunciation of street names? Can you use the music and navigation features at the same time? Is the device's Bluetooth connection only compatible with a limited amount of cell phones?
Some devices with notable features include the Garmin Nuvi 5000, which will play video input from a rearview camera, the Dash Express' Wi-Fi or cellular network Internet connectivity, or the TomTom GO 920, which will direct you to the cheapest gasoline in your area.
3. GPS Performance
Forget the bells and whistles; what you really want to know is how well can a portable GPS navigate. Who cares if your system can take pictures if it takes you to point F instead of point B? All navigation systems will sometimes have difficulty keeping their signal when surrounded by tall buildings or dense trees, but you want a unit that maintains its composure as much as possible. Three to four seconds is the gold standard for recovering the signal after driving through a tunnel or leaving a parking garage, as well as for recalculating your route if you miss your turn. And the best units are ready to go following a cold start (when the system is first turned on and trying to orient itself) in less than two minutes.