GPS Buying Guide

If we had a nickel for every time we’ve gotten lost on the back roads of some semi-rural state, we’d have enough money for a few beers. But if we had a good GPS with us every time, we’d never have gotten lost in the first place, saving hours of aggravation, not to mention gas money.

Portable GPS devices offer an excellent and easily self-installed solution, ranging in price from about $150 to $1200 USD. Models specific to activities like hiking, geocaching, biking, boating, and running are also available, and a handful of smartphones have built-in GPS hardware, with service for around $10 USD a month on top of voice and data plans.

Garmin and Magellan currently dominate the GPS market; behind them are TomTom and a host of smaller companies like Pharos and DeLorme. Broader outfits like Harman Kardon and Sony also make solid systems with some useful extras.

FOUR WHEELS

For $200 USD and under, you can expect a 3.5-inch touchscreen, preloaded 2D and 3D maps, windshield mounts, and voice-guided turn-by-turn directions. They tend to be small enough to slip easily into a pocket or purse. Spending $250 to $500 USD gets you extras like Bluetooth and text-to-speech capabilities (the device reads out street and highway names), as well as AV playback and a 4 or 4.3-inch screen.

Beyond that, high-end models have 4.8-inch to 5.2-inch screens and conveniences like FM transmitters. Most recent models can either accept an external receiver or have one built-in for real-time traffic and other local data, though you’ll usually have to pay extra for that service.

The TomTom ONE 3rd Edition ($199.95 USD) adds a Map Share feature that lets you customize your maps on the go, and you can use the company’s desktop software to share updates with other TomTom users. You can hook up an optional RDS-TMC receiver ($129.95 USD) to it for real-time traffic reports, which are sent to the GPS for automatic re-routing.

TomTom ONE 3rd Edition
TomTom ONE 3rd Edition

The Garmin nuvi 205 ($213.32 USD, available this spring) differentiates itself with a microSD slot for loading maps of different countries. It’s slightly slimmer than the TomTom ONE, and its internal rechargeable battery lasts up to 4 hours, making it fairly versatile. Like the TomTom ONE, it lets you customize points of interest, though it lacks a sharing feature. Built-in hardware supports optional enhanced MSN Direct services ($129.95 USD one-time payment or $49.95/year) like real-time traffic, weather, gas prices, and other handy local info. A 4.3-inch widescreen version ($266.66 USD) is also available.

In the midrange, the Magellan Maestro 4250 ($499 USD) offers a 4.3-inch touchscreen, voice command support (though not for entering addresses), and built-in Bluetooth for using the device as a hands-free speakerphone. Other highlights include text-to-speech and a split-screen interface that lets you see current and next turns, as well as real-time traffic support with a free 3-month subscription to Navteq’s traffic service.

Sony’s nav-u NV-U83T ($499.99) has a 4.8-inch screen and offers a unique extra: It supports gesture-based commands, so you can simply swipe a finger across the screen instead of relying on tapping or voice commands, which can be tricky in difficult driving situations or in a noisy car. It also has built-in Bluetooth, a dual-view interface, and Sony’s Position Plus system, which uses multiple sensors for more accurate tracking when the satellite signal is interrupted.

The Harman Kardon Guide+Play GPS 810 ($599 USD) has all the midrange features like Bluetooth, text to speech, and traffic support (via a 3-month trial subscription to Clear Channel’s Total Traffic Network). It also sports multimedia extras like an FM transmitter for sending music to your car stereo, WMV and MPEG-4 video playback, and an SDHC slot for adding media, as well as a wireless controller for easy media playback control.

At the luxury end, the Garmin nuvi 5000 ($857.13 USD) has an enormous 5.2-inch touchscreen that supports video playback and has a video input for rear camera-equipped vehicles. It also does music playback and has an FM transmitter and SD slot. Like other Garmin models, it offers MSN Direct compatibility for real-time traffic and other local data. Our favorite features are the trip logging (called “breadcrumbs”) and local speed limit info.

As its name implies, Magellan’s Maestro Elite 5340+GPRS ($1299.99 USD) is one of the most expensive portables out there, thanks in part to its ability to lets you surf the web over a cellular GPRS connection. Tight integration with Google Local Search gives you access to tons of local data, and its 5-inch screen can render buildings and landmarks in 3D. Another handy plus: wireless contact and address sync with your PC.

TWO LEGS

Handheld GPS devices are small enough to fit easily into your pocket, and they tend to have smaller screens (and thus far longer battery lives) than automotive portables. Most are ruggedized, and many are waterproof, making them excellent companions on hikes. They’re also indispensable for geocaching (a GPS-based treasure hunt activity).

Budget-minded hikers’ short list should include the bare-bones Garmin eTrex H ($99.99 USD), which has a 2.2-inch grayscale screen and a 17-hour battery life (using two AA’s). The unit doesn’t use maps; instead it tells you which direction you need to go to get back to where you started. If you’re looking for a bigger screen for double duty as a vehicle GPS, the Magellan eXplorist XL ($399.99 USD) fits the bill with a 3.5-inch color LCD and plenty of detailed preloaded maps, and it runs on 4 AA batteries for up to 19 hours. The high-end Garmin Colorado 400t ($599.99 USD) has a 3-inch color screen and tacks on even more features like 3D elevation maps, a compass, a barometric altimeter, and wireless data sharing, plus it gives users access to a new GPS-based game called Wherigo. Two AA’s give it 15 hours of battery life.

For runners, there’s the Garmin Forerunner 405 ($299 USD), which has a wrist-watch form factor. Aside from tracking speed, distance, heart rate, and location, it wirelessly syncs with your PC so you can keep track of your workouts, share them on Garmin Connect (connect.garmin.com), and send new routes to the device.

Garmin Colorado 400t
Garmin Colorado 400t

TWO WHEELS

The TomTom Rider 2nd Edition ($649.95 USD) is designed specifically for motorcycle use, with a 3.5-inch touchscreen set in a waterproof casing. Bluetooth is critical when you’re cruising on your chopper, as is the on-bike drive mode, which pares the interface down to four icons and basic features. Bicycle-friendly models like the Garmin Edge 305 ($379.15 USD) are easily mountable on handlebars; this one also has a barometric altimeter so you can track your elevation, as well as tons of fitness-oriented features. It’s also water-resistant and weighs just 3 ounces.

Garmin Edge 305
Garmin Edge 305

SMARTPHONES

We’ve used the GPS apps on the AT&T Tilt ($399.99 USD with contract) and the Nokia N95 ($750 USD unlocked), and both are accurate and nearly as quick on signal acquisition as dedicated devices. The touchscreen-equipped Tilt works with lots of different navigation software including TeleNav GPS Navigator ($9.99 a month), Google Maps, and Windows Live Search, and is compatible with real-time traffic services. The N95 comes with free maps and more can be added via WiFi, though turn-by-turn directions will cost you $11.81 a month. Verizon customers can use the LG Voyager ($349.99 USD with contract) as a GPS via VZ Navigator ($9.99 USD a month), which we found accurate and easy to use.

Nokia N95
Nokia N95

A WORD ABOUT SAFETY

Whichever model or type of GPS you use, be aware that maps can become outdated and road or trail conditions can change drastically very quickly. If you think you’ll be heading somewhere potentially dangerous, consider a model with emergency features like TomTom’s “Help Me” button, which can call for help or show you where to get it should the need arise. And it should go without saying that you must be extremely careful operating any GPS while driving, cycling, or riding a motorcycle — they tell you where to go, but they don’t drive for you!

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