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Portable GPS Navigation Buying Guides

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Consumer Reports has no relationship with advertisers on PriceGrabber

Getting started

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 show your progress along the route. Most personal navigation devices (PNDs) let you choose your routing preferences, including the shortest distance, the fastest time, or even routes with no toll roads. Some portable units offer special routing options for walkers or bicyclists to avoid highways and not limit pedestrians due to one-way traffic. And some devices even offer a choice for the most fuel-efficient route.

A navigator can quickly find a variety of points of interest (POI), including gas stations, ATMs, hotels, tourist attractions, and more. Typically, you can search for a specific point of interest, browse 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 and often provide contact information, should you wish to call ahead.

In today's competitive market, GPS prices have come down to the point where even budget units include features previously available only on more expensive models, such as the ability to speak street names, issue speed warnings, and provide reality view, graphically representing major intersections. Higher-priced models can include such features as an FM receiver for traffic information, a wireless FM transmitter to integrate with the car's audio system, and Bluetooth connectivity, which can be handy for hands-free phone operation. Services such as traffic, weather reports, and Internet searches are widely available, although they can require a subscription. Free traffic information is also increasingly common, though it is sometimes supported by small, onscreen advertising.

Extra features aside, our testing has shown that all GPS navigators 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 devices add intelligence through historical traffic data and the ability for users to modify maps.

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 ease of use. 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 buying 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 navigator.

On the other hand, if you often encounter traffic congestion on your commute, choosing a nav system with real-time traffic information can help you avoid 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. Still, this can be a welcomed feature for many drivers.

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 are typically more expensive than portable systems, both 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 starting at less than $100.

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

There are two types of phone-based navigation available. One is a subscription-based service from your cellular 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 around $60. Our testing has shown that as is often the case, you get what you pay for. A server-based solution can be great in a pinch, say for a vacation or if you get lost. However, an application is a better buy for smart phone users, as the name-brand apps have the features and performance to rival dedicated portable devices, and they have the complete map onboard, so guidance isn't dependent on a cell signal. Whichever option you choose, you'll also need to purchase a mount, car charger, and possibly a data plan for your phone, if you do not already have one.

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, MP3 player, and an FM transmitter.

Voice command is a feature that enables you to navigate on the run, allowing you to enter an address or get directions to 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. Performance varies, but we've found that this feature works very well on the Garmin Nuvi 3790T.

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

Check the laws in your area and the mount types available before you buy. Minnesota, for example, prohibits drivers from installing any device on a windshield, the most common location to mount portable GPS guide units, and California has restrictions on placement. 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 United States 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

All portables come with a rechargeable battery. If you want to use the GPS device for walking or accessing 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.

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. Several models now use 4.7- to 7-inch screens, which can be easier to see in a larger vehicle with the windshield further away from the driver. These are best suited to large commercial trucks, vans, and RVs.

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Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

Getting started

1. Getting started

2. Types

3. Watch the Video

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