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How to Buy a GPS

Portable GPS navigation systems can guide you through unfamiliar areas, suggest an alternative route around rush hour traffic, and perform an increasing array of infotainment functions. Our buyers guide will help you choose the right GPS device for your budget and needs.

Photo: Garmin

If you often travel to new places for work or pleasure, have trouble reading maps, or simply hate to ask for directions, you might consider a global positioning system (GPS) based navigator for your car. Once you put in a destination, the system will plot a route, give spoken turn-by-turn directions, and display the route as you go. Most let you choose your routing preferences, including the shortest distance, the fastest time, or even routes with no toll roads. Some portable units even offer special routing options for walkers or bicyclists to avoid highways and not limit pedestrians due to one-way traffic.

You can also quickly find a variety of points of interest, including gas stations, ATMs, hotels, tourist attractions, and more. Typically, you can search for a specific point of interest, search for ones that are near your current location, or look up ones in a different area. You can even choose a nearby restaurant by the type of food you wish to eat. Once you've located what you want, the system can calculate a route to get you there.

In today's competitive market, GPS prices are coming down and budget-priced units include features previously available only on more expensive models, such as the ability to speak street names, speed warnings, a music player, or a photo viewer. Higher-priced models can include such features as a wireless FM transmitter and Bluetooth-phone compatibility, which allows you to access phone numbers from your cell phone or call a number displayed on your GPS unit. Bluetooth connectivity can be handy for hands-free phone operation, or even making a reservation at a restaurant while en route based on the GPS points of interest information. Premium services, such as traffic and weather reports, are becoming widely available, although they can require a subscription. An alternative that is becoming more common is free traffic information supported by small, onscreen advertising.

Extra features aside, our testing has shown that all GPS guide devices will typically get you to your destination, but not always by the most efficient route. While there is no substitute for local knowledge of roads and traffic situations, some of the latest devices have features such as historical traffic data and the ability for users to modify maps to add some local intelligence.

How to choose

Before you buy a GPS navigator, think about your typical driving conditions, how often you're in unfamiliar areas, and the features that are most important to you.

Next, focus on how well the system works for navigation. The highest-rated models we've tested make it especially easy to enter destinations and give the most helpful directions. Look for a GPS guide device that scored well for entering a destination. Some interfaces are more intuitive than others, and low scoring units can be awkward, slow, or both. Then consider what, if any, extra features you want. We'll take you through these steps and introduce functions to consider in this GPS guide.

What type of driving do you do?

If most of your driving is spent commuting along the same route or running local errands on familiar roads, you might not get much use from a GPS guide device.

On the other hand, if you often encounter traffic congestion, a nav system can help you get around it by showing surrounding roads and plotting an alternative route. It also may be worth paying extra for real-time traffic information, which can warn you of traffic congestion, accidents, or road construction, and plot a route around it before you even get to the trouble area. But traffic reporting on GPS units is not perfect; like other sources of traffic information, it can be inaccurate or outdated.

Where and how often will you use it?

If you're buying a new car, check to see if a built-in system is available and how much it costs. These are nicely integrated into the car. But they can be more complicated to use and are typically more expensive than portable systems, initially and for subsequent map updates. Still, if most of your driving is done in one car, or if you'd prefer not to have a unit mounted on the dash or windshield, and you're not on a tight budget, you might be happier with a built-in system. If you often fly to new places and rent vehicles, or if you own more than one car, a portable system might be the way to go¿especially with prices for entry-level systems now starting at less than $100. And portables are now available with high-end features once found only on built-in models.

Another increasingly popular option is a cell phone, smart phone, or PDA with navigation capability. With these, you don't have to pay for an expensive in-dash system or worry about carrying around a portable GPS guide unit.

There are two types of phone-based navigation available. One is a subscription-based service from your service provider, which typically costs about $3 dollars a day or $10 dollars a month. Downloadable navigation applications are the other option, which range in price from free to more than $100. Our testing has shown that as is often the case, you get what you pay for. Whichever option you choose, you'll also need to purchase a mount, car charger, and possibly a data plan for your phone.

What about extra features?

A full-featured aftermarket GPS unit can effectively upgrade an older car with features like a trip computer, Bluetooth hands-free telephone capability, an MP3 player, an iPod connection, and an FM transmitter.

Voice command is a feature that enables you to navigate on the run, allowing you to enter an address or ask for a gas station, restaurant, hospital, or location from the POI menu simply by asking for it. However, this feature is only available on a few high-end units now, with more on the way. Performance varies, but we've found that this feature works very well on the Garmin Nuvi 885T.

Extras like live traffic information, weather, and local gas prices can offer an increased measure of safety and convenience. But you may have to take on a subscription fee.

Check the local laws

Minnesota prohibits drivers from installing any device on a windshield, the most common location to mount portable GPS guide units. Check the laws in your area and the mount types available before you buy. Most manufacturers include a plastic disk that sticks to the dashboard to provide an alternative mounting location. Another option is a ¿bean bag" mount, which simply sits on the dashboard and has a rubberized surface to hold it in place.

If you travel outside the United States, look for a portable system that offers maps for navigating in other countries. Most will function in the U.S. and Canada, but some upper-level models from Garmin, TomTom, and others come preloaded with or can be retrofitted with maps of Europe and other regions.

Built-in battery convenience

Almost all new portables now come with a rechargeable battery. If you want to use it for walking or use the multimedia features outside of a car, look for one that will operate for at least three hours on a charge.

While all systems include a plug for your car's 12-volt outlet, a built-in battery also gives you the option of using the power port for another device, such as a cell phone, and it eliminates cord clutter.

AUTOS

A battery also enables you to enter a destination and plot a route before you enter the vehicle. Some models are also packaged with a traditional AC plug for in-home use and recharging. Most also charge through a computer's USB port.

Size matters

If you choose a portable unit, size is important¿especially if you frequently pack it in a suitcase. Some models are no bigger than a wallet, while others are as large as a paperback book. Also, look for a screen that's large enough to read easily without blocking your view. We've found a 3.5-inch diagonal screen is an acceptable compromise, but 4.3-inch wide screens allow more information to be displayed and make it easier to enter addresses, due to larger touch-screen buttons.

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