Get There With Portable GPS
Imagine you just took a wrong turn on a road trip and lost half an hour finding your way back to the right highway. You'd be castigating yourself for skipping a built-in navigation system when you bought your last car. If that scene sounds familiar, cheer up. You now can buy global positioning system (GPS) units with as many features as manufacturers' new-car systems for less than half the price. And since they're portable, you can use them in more than one car.
These GPS units fix your location using satellites. Then, with the maps stored in their system, they give you voice directions to your destination. The newest GPS units have added a service beyond finding your way. They can provide instant updates about traffic information with warnings of traffic backups and give you alternate routes to avoid them.
That means a GPS unit could help you even if most of your driving is a daily commute. "With the latest technology, almost anyone can use a GPS unit—commuters, families, and people who travel a lot for business," says Bonnie Cha, senior editor at CNET.com, a San Francisco-based online service that reviews consumer technology products.
This traffic update option is not for everyone. Good data are limited chiefly to large cities and major highways. And, to get the traffic information, you need to buy a high-end unit usually costing $500 or more plus pay a data fee of about $60 a year. That fee covers a subscription to a service that broadcasts current traffic information to your unit over an FM channel. Unlike traffic bulletins you get on the radio, these updates show conditions exactly where you are and the best alternate routes if your road is jammed.
Even the costs of expensive units plus the data subscription pale beside optional manufacturers' built-in units. For example, it costs $1,750 to add navigation on a Honda Civic EX and $1,300 on the Chrysler Town and Country minivan, where the GPS unit is packaged with other options. The high-end portable units give you other features as well—such as hands-free calling if you have a Bluetooth-equipped phone. And, like built-in units, they have databases that can help you find the nearest gas station, ATM, or restaurant.
The directions you get from your GPS are only as good as the maps in its system.
Among these state-of-the-art units, Consumer Reports gives the Garmin Nuvi 660 and 760 and the TomTom 920T—costing $500 to $650—its top rankings. If you're an online or magazine subscriber, you can see those full rankings online.
For those who just want to find their way and don't care about live traffic updates, portable GPS prices start around $200. And some very well-rated units sell in the $300 to $400 range. Almost all units have preloaded maps for the U.S. and Canada, rechargeable batteries, and suction-cup devices to attach the unit to your windshield. But, as with any product, capabilities vary widely. Here are some key features to look for:
What is the screen size and clarity?Screens on portable GPS units are smaller than the dashboard screens of built-in units, which typically are seven inches diagonally. Most portables have 3.5 inch- to 4.5-inch screens, measured diagonally. But that's not the only issue. "Try to see how easy the screen is to read," advises CNET's Cha. "Look at it from different angles, because some screens tend to wash out in certain kinds of light." Sometimes you can get that perspective from looking at display models in electronics stores; other times it's more difficult because the units often cannot get satellite signals within the store. Most reviews deal with screen clarity. This full list of CNET reviews and videos, which include some lower-priced units, cover many details and will give you a feel for how the screen looks.
Screens on portable GPS units are smaller than the dashboard screens of built-in units.
Does it have long-lived battery power?All units will plug in to the power source in your car. But rechargeable batteries that last for four hours or more usually give you the option to use your unit without the plug or to take it out of the car and use it as you walk around. That can be especially helpful if you are using it to find an ATM, coffee shop, or other destination; or just to find your way on foot in an unfamiliar location. Look at the unit's specifications for its battery life rating; reviews often discuss battery life as well. Another good source for GPS reviews is About.com.
How specific are the directions it gives?It's great to have a voice telling you where to turn, but it can get confusing at times—let's say at an intersection with streets leading out in several directions. So you need a unit that names the streets for your turn. You want it to say not just "Turn right in 100 feet" but instead "Turn right on Oak Street in 100 feet." In industry jargon, this feature is known as "text to speech," which may be mentioned that way in specifications or reviews.
How long does it take to give directions?
The units need to make a satellite connection for your location and then process the instructions for your destination. This always matters, but can be especially vexing if you miss a directed turn or otherwise go astray. You then are sitting or driving slowly while the unit calculates a new route. Most reviews give details on such response time. Among the units well-rated on this score are the LG LN790 and the Pioneer AVIC-S2.
Of course, the directions you get from your GPS are only as good as the maps in its system. And maps can change quickly with detours for long-term construction projects, changes in street names, or bridges that are closed, to name a few. Most manufacturers offer frequent updates, which you can download on your computer, then load into your GPS unit. Make sure to keep those maps up-to-date. You don't want to get lost because of out-of date maps. But if you buy a good unit and keep it up-to-date, when somebody in the family asks, "Are we there yet?" you won't have to answer, "No, we're lost."
Good traffic update data is limited chiefly to large cities and major highways.
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
Home & Family Finance® Resource Center