In a world where app-enabled smartphones have seemingly limitless capabilities, one must ask whether the once-innovative GPS device has lost its relevance. Turn-by-turn navigation, real-time traffic reporting, satellite-tracked speed, voice guidance, and crowd-sourced alerts are all part of popular apps like Google Maps and Waze, so dishing out $300 for redundant features can seem foolish. Fortunately, the best in-car GPS devices can do far more than tell you how to get from A to B.
GPS manufacturers with years of experience and millions of real-world test miles now offer advanced driver assistance features, Bluetooth connectivity, geo-based recommendations, voice commands, and much more on large HD displays. For many smartphone users, day-to-day life includes watching their monthly data allotment dwindle, but modern GPS units can operate independently of Wi-Fi and your data plan.
Whether you’re upgrading your older car with new technology or simply looking for a high-quality navigation partner, our list of the best in-car GPS devices is sure to have something to meet your needs.
Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT
Why should you buy this: Garmin’s DriveAssist can guide you to your destination safely, every time
Who’s it for: Those who want to seriously upgrade their ride without breaking the bank
How much will it cost: $218
Why we picked the Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT:
The new Garmin DriveAssist is packed with features to navigate the road ahead, alert you of a potential collision, and record your drive. The user interface and voice search function make finding wherever you need to go a breeze, and intuitive turn-by-turn instructions take the guesswork out of guidance.
The bright 5.0-inch TFT navigation screen shows free lifetime traffic information, points of interest (like gas stations or restaurants), and the names of each exit on your route via the “Up Ahead” feature. A high-resolution dash camera is built into the rear of the unit to record video to an included 4GB micro-SD card. The dash cam is great for insurance purposes, but it also lends itself to camera-based driver assistance features. Even mounted in the corner of the windshield, the device will detect if a driver strays from their lane and alert you via visual and audio cues. A forward collision alert feature will also give a warning when it detects a driver is approaching a car too fast, giving them a chance to brake. Perhaps most relevant in this age of driver distraction is an audible alert when traffic ahead has started moving. That way, if you’ve spaced out, you can get back on the gas without being honked at.
Even as smartphones continue to invade GPS device turf, Garmin knows the right features to add to make their product worth the price tag. If you are looking for a great all-in-one device to help navigate, keep you alert on the road, and record your drive, the Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT is an easy choice.
The best dash cam/GPS mix
Garmin Nüvicam LMTHD
Why should you buy this: The Nüvicam is a veritable Swiss army knife of GPS devices
Who’s it for: Those with the budget for some awesome features
How much will it cost: $349.99
Why we picked the Garmin Nüvicam LMTHD:
At its core, the NuviCam is a solid navigation unit with a bunch of extras tacked on. Its HD dash cam is always recording, and it saves footage automatically in the event of an accident. When traveling over 30 mph, the device’s camera can sense if you’re following too close to the vehicle in front of you, and it uses visual and audible warnings to get you to back off. If you exceed 40 mph, the NuviCam recognizes when you’re drifting out of lane. It really can do it all.
The 6.0-inch screen’s high-resolution, pinch-to-zoom display works quickly and accurately. Garmin’s ‘points of interest’ feature is a standout as well, listing nearby restaurants, gas stations, shopping centers and the like with handy pull out menus. Addresses can be typed in manually or dictated via voice command. If you’re traversing an unfamiliar area, Garmin’s ‘Real Directions’ really comes in handy. Using local landmarks and traffic lights as reference points, the feature will guide you with phrases like, “In 500 feet, use either of the two right lanes and turn right at the stoplight” instead of simply, “Turn right in 500 feet.”
The Garmin NuviCam is an ambitious product that does everything it sets out to do, and does it quite well. It could also turn out to be a huge trendsetter for dash-mounted devices. It isn’t cheap, but it’s hard to argue with its robust feature set.
The best versatile GPS
Garmin DriveLuxe 50 LMTHD
Why should you buy this: Garmin’s DriveLuxe can complement your smartphone or replace it
Who’s it for: Those who don’t want to drain their monthly data on navigation
How much will it cost: $195
Why we picked the Garmin DriveLuxe 50 LMTHD:
While many GPS manufacturers seem terrified that smartphones will make their devices obsolete, Garmin has designed the perfect companion for your smartphone.
The Garmin DriveLuxe 50 LMTHD has a 5.1-inch TFT display with 800 x 480 pixel resolution. The device feels extremely solid at just over 8.0 ounces, and attaches easily to the magnetic front of the suction mount. Via Bluetooth, you can connect your phone with the free Smartlink application for Android and iOS. This enables the DriveLuxe to take Bluetooth calls through the device, get local weather information, and even read your phone notifications aloud. This feature instantly upgrades old cars that lack Bluetooth calling and goes a step further to read Facebook or Instagram notifications aloud. This should go a long way to cut down on driver distractions.
When it comes to navigation, there are few better systems on the market. DriveLuxe has all the latest map updates and can get lifetime locations updates using the Garmin Express program. Voice or text entry will let you quickly and easily search for specific destinations or points of interest. The touch interface is smooth and zooming in on the screen is easy with “pinch-to-zoom” features in addition to the “+” and “-” icons.
If you just want basic guidance with the most up-to-date mapping and traffic info, the DriveLuxe won’t waste a single megabit of data, but if you want advanced features, Garmin’s system is ready to pair with your smartphone at a moment’s notice.
The best value GPS device
TomTom Go 50 S
Why should you buy this: The TomTom Go 50 S is a superb navigator at an affordable price.
Who’s it for: Those who want intuitive navigation from a simple, easy-to-use device
How much will it cost: $141
Why we picked the TomTom Go 50 S:
It’s easy to get caught up in robust feature sets, but sometimes the essentials are all you need. For that, we recommend TomTom’s Go 50 S. It doesn’t feature the dash cams, Bluetooth calling, and driver assistance tech that some of our other entrants have, but with its smart mapping technology and low price, it’s an extremely good value.
Among the TomTom’s highlights are a 5.0-inch touchscreen (you can upgrade to a 6.0-inch screen for $10), 8GB of internal memory, and free lifetime updates for traffic and mapping. The device can guide you through the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and despite its competitive price point, the Go 50 S displays landmarks as 3D renderings that are easy to recognize. Battery life is another high point. The TomTom will run for about 2 hours before you need to plug it in, which isn’t amazing, but quite good for a GPS unit.
There is one catch though. Unlike higher-priced competition, the GO 50 S doesn’t include an integrated traffic receiver, meaning it leverages your smartphone to update traffic conditions. TomTom says the data drain is moderate, but if you live on the edge of your data plan and are concerned about overcharging, you may want to consider another product.
How we test
The Digital Trends automotive team evaluates GPS systems in real-world conditions, such as in-town driving, freeway cruising, backroad excursions, trips to unfamiliar areas, and more. The units are scored based on ease of installation, interface usability, available additional features, demonstrable accuracy, and compatibility with smartphones, but appearance, durability, and pricing are all considerable factors as well.
Would you like a dash cam with that?
If you’re pondering a dedicated GPS system, you may also be considering a dash camera. Some of our best in-car GPS picks include a dash cam, but only a high-end recording unit can offer 360-degrees of visual protection. Using a dash cam means irrefutable proof of fault in the event of an accident, and, while we don’t have quite as many insurance fraud cases in the U.S. as there are abroad, video can shut those cons down, too.
Still not convinced you need a dash cam? Consider all the video gold you’re missing out on. Chances are, you see a moronic maneuver on your way to work every single day. With a little editing, you could turn all those WTF moments into one beautiful YouTube compilation. Believe us, your internet friends will thank you for it.
At this stage, there are numerous options (and price points) for those who are ready to rig up a dash cam. It’s not easy to pick a clear winner, but our tests have elevated a few cams above the rest. Head on over to our list of the best dash cams you can buy for help picking your new video companion.