First of all, do you even need a stand-alone GPS at all? Well, as we argued in a past feature, a GPS bundled into your smartphone is more convenient than having a separate device for navigation. We stand by that decision; if you have an Android phone, it comes pre-installed with a full-featured navigation program, and there are myriad apps for iPhone.
But GPS navigation via smartphone isn't perfect. If you drive into a dead zone, you'll have to deal with only partially loaded maps, and several of the top-of-the-line apps for iPhone can cost just as much as one of the cheaper GPS units. So despite the convenience of a smartphone, you may still be considering buying a physical GPS. And so, we thought you might need a guide that would help you navigate (pun!) the choices available to you.
After all, GPSs have grown from mere "maps on a screen" type devices to feature-rich bundles of computational (and navigational) wonder. But sometimes companies like to overload their offerings with too many technical marvels. To that end, here's a list (in descending order) of what we think are the essential features on a modern GPS device and why you should consider buying a unit that offers them:
Lifetime Map Updates
This is probably the most necessary feature to look for in a stand-alone GPS system. After all, what's the point in having a device to help you navigate when it doesn't know its own way around the streets? Paying a little more for a system that includes updates will, in the long run, save you money from having to either buy map upgrades later or buy a whole new GPS all together. It'll be doubly worth it when you realize your out-of-date device just reccommended you make a left turn into someone's living room.
Of note, sometimes "lifetime" means "for life — but only a limited number of times a year," like this TomTom XXL 550M 5" Portable GPS Navigation System ($96 with free shipping, a low by $28). That's OK. Maps that are a couple of months out of date are not as agravating as maps that are years out of date.
Your GPS chirps, "Keep right" ... but how far right? Does it mean all the way right, so you're in the turning lane, or just far enough right so you're not in the left-turn-only lane? With this feature, a quick glance at the system's screen will show you exactly where you need to position yourself to avoid going off the navigation path. (It also helps you avoid the horriflying prospect of a last-minute lane-change at 75 mph before you hit a dividing wall on the freeway.) This feature can be found on the TomTom XXL 550M 5" Portable GPS Navigation System (again).
At first it might seem like an unnecessary add-on. After all, all GPS systems will tell you to make a right or left turn. But after you've turned onto the wrong side-street for the ump-teenth time because there were two options and you invariably chose the wrong one, you'll wish your GPS, like the Garmin nüvi 2350 4.3" Portable GPS Navigation System ($119.99 vis "3A825" with free shipping, a low by $28), would be more specific and say "Turn right onto OAK STREET" and not just "turn right."
Unless you're determined to have a marathon "I Spy" session with your kids, no one wants to be stuck in traffic. Look for a GPS, like the Garmin nüvi 2370LT 4.3" Widescreen Portable GPS Navigation System ($209.99 via "3A825" with free shipping, a low by $26), that will route you around it to save yourself time ... and sanity.
A Big Screen
Since you shouldn't really be staring at the screen of your GPS while driving, we left this must-have until last. But why is it necessary at all? Because the bigger the screen is, the easier it is for your eyes to take in the information that the GPS is displaying. A large screen facilitates quick glances rather than a long stare that ends in a collision. This is also an area where a stand-alone GPS system might have the edge over smartphones (which tend to have smaller screens, as they are meant to fit in your pocket).
What to Skip
There are some add-ons which you can definitely avoid paying a premium for. Bluetooth connectivity might sound cool, in a "tech buzz-word" way, but think about how you'll be using that feature. Exactly, you won't be. The same goes for voice activation. When using a GPS, 99% of the time you are (to misquote Ron Popeil), "Setting it and forgetting it" before you start driving. So voice activation isn't really worth paying more for.
After all that's been said, we still strongly suggest you consider a smartphone, bundled with an in-car phone charger, instead of a stand-alone GPS. We think it's the smarter way to go.
All items mentioned are available at the lowest total price we could find from a reputable seller at the time the story was published.
I also disagree with the Bluetooth point. For a long time, I used my GPS as my media player in my car (it has an FM transmitter). I loaded up my MP3s on an SD card and was good to go. The Bluetooth functionality came in when I would receive a phone call. Since the GPS was tethered to my phone via Bluetooth, the music was paused and the caller's voice came over my car's audio system. A high-sensitivity microphone allowed me to speak hands-free, as well. (The callers always said they could hear me perfectly, too.) So I must disagree that Bluetooth is a useless inclusion. Some people may never use it, this is true. But it can serve a very useful purpose in some cases.
I had at one time or another 6 stand alone GPS units. Together, they includes just about every feature you mentioned in the post. But the unit I use the most is the one with the voice activation feature. It is simply an easier interface then typing things in manually.
Granted, there will be variations in regards to sensitivity, accuracy of the speech recognition from maker to maker. But the Garmin unit I am currently using is simply amazing. For one thing. You can start a query for say a near by bank or restaurant while you are driving. Without taking your eyes off the road or stopping. Or cancel annoying voice prompt/ traffic alert ... use just about every feature again without taking your eyes off the road ... that to me is a good design.
Another way to use it is say if you only know the pronunciation of a certain street without the proper spelling. Speech recognition will most likely be able to find that street.
Just my 2 cents.
i cant tell you how many times ive traveled the GWB and the GPS automatically rerouted my main route only to find that theres actually no traffic at all. i typically use either google maps or inrix on the iphone for traffic updates which are far better than the GPS'. if you have a smart phone, its best that you drive slow (or stop if you can't multi task) and check to see if there really is traffic ahead of you 10-20 minutes before you head to that direction.
For convenience of a single unit, I'll concede your point. However, unless you can tell me the purchased GPS apps (which as you point out, "can cost just as much as one of the cheaper GPS units") are as accurate and fast as a stand-alone GPS (not), I'm going to argue your point on a smartphone vs a stand-alone GPS.
1. You still don't have a high sensitivity SIRF GPS chip and can only get a location when you're in range of a cell system.
2. A stand-alone GPS will get reception (with sky visibility), AND a location, ANYWHERE in the world, regardless of cell phone tower availability.
3. I bought a UK/Europe map on micro-SD and dropped it in my Nuvi for a trip to England. Having that GPS saved a LOT of frustration. Sold the SD on eBay when I got back.
4.I can't tell you how many times I've fired up the native iPhone 'Map' app and found myself indicated as being a block, or more, from where I'm really at. Looking at it right now, it thinks I'm a 1/2 mile south of my physical location; oh, wait, after about 10 minutes, it correctly located me. You're going to miss a turn.
Love my smartphone; I'll stick to traveling with my Garmin!