If you often travel to new places, have trouble reading maps, or simply hate to ask for directions, you might want to consider a portable GPS navigation system. Once you give it a destination, the system can plot out a route, deliver spoken directions, and display each turn as you drive, or in some cases, walk. Most units let you choose guidance options that include plotting the shortest, fastest, and even a toll-free route. An internal database also includes common points of interest such as gas stations and ATMs, and the nav system can route you to the nearest one. You can even choose a nearby restaurant by the type of food.
Although not always as easy to use as the in-dash systems available on many new vehicles, portable systems are catching up. Features like internal, rechargeable batteries and pre-loaded North America map databases are now commonly included on budget systems. More premium features such as real-time traffic reporting are becoming available on more affordable units, although those often require additional hardware.
Portables have the distinct advantage of being easy to move from car to car, enabling a family to share a unit or lend it to others. Their low weight and small size are well suited to long-distance business travel and vacations by plane (for use in a rental car when you arrive), or for walking and biking tours (for use as a handheld device).
And with prices from about $200 to $650, portable units are much less expensive than the typical price tag of up to $2,000 for an integrated, in-dash factory system.
As sales of portable GPS navigation devices continue to skyrocket, more manufacturers are entering the market, giving shoppers many products from which to choose. With our recent ratings updates, we have added new units from Archos, Garmin, Magellan, and TomTom. In the weeks ahead, we plan to purchase and evaluate devices from Garmin, Magellan, Mio, and Uniden.
Units have decreased in size since the first portables came on the market, but that is not always good. If a device is too small, it can be hard to read or operate. We find that the common 3.5-inch screen, measured diagonally, is a good compromise between portability and usability. If you plan to use the device frequently, consider a compact unit with a wide screen, giving a larger map view, easier-to-read information, and bigger touch-screen buttons.
Special features like photo viewing, a video player, hands-free calling, and traffic information are available in an increasing number of units.
HOW TO CHOOSE
None of the navigation systems we've tested is perfect. They don't substitute for local knowledge, and all databases had minor errors. But a portable system will usually get you there, guiding you on the way and providing you with peace of mind when you are traveling to unfamiliar areas. The highest-rated models make it especially easy to enter destinations and they give the most helpful directions.
Navigation is the priority.
We recommend focusing first on how well the system works for navigation, using the ratings to prioritize nav features and map database coverage, over entertaining, nonessential extras.
Ease of use.
Look for a unit that scored well for entering a destination. Some interfaces are more intuitive than others, and low-scoring units can be awkward, slow, or both.
Built-in battery convenience.
Look for a unit with good battery life, especially if you want to use it for walking. While all systems include a plug for your car's 12-volt outlet, a built-in battery leaves you the option to use the power port for another device, such as a cell phone, and it eliminates cord clutter. A battery also enables you to preload a route before you enter the vehicle. Some models are also packaged with a traditional AC plug for in-home use and recharging.
Spoken street names.
A system that speaks street names rather than says simply "turn left" can help you negotiate an unfamiliar area and is especially useful in urban driving, where streets can be close together. It is a handy feature that reduces the need to take your eyes off the road to scan the on-screen map.
A system with traffic-information capability can be helpful if you travel a lot in cities that have good traffic-monitoring coverage. Between the map and detour functions, the system can help you route around traffic congestion and alert you to accidents and road construction. But as with traditional radio traffic reports, there are some weaknesses in the nav-system-based services, specifically related to available data and the timeliness of the report. Unless specifically stated that a unit has an internal receiver, many devices need an external receiver or a cell phone to obtain traffic data and most will require a subscription fee for the information. (Typically, only the premium-priced units have a built-in receiver and that is noted on the product pages, accessed through the Ratings chart.)
A full-featured model can effectively upgrade an older car with features like Bluetooth hands-free telephone capability, MP3 player, an iPod connection, and an FM transmitter.
If you travel outside the United States, look for a unit that offers maps for navigating overseas. Most will function in the U.S. and Canada, but some models, such as the Garmin 770 and TomTom Go 920t, will also work in Europe and other countries.
The more portable the unit, the better-especially if you frequently pack it in a suitcase. Some are no bigger than a wallet and weigh less than 7 ounces, while others are as large as a paperback book and weigh considerably more-two pounds or more.
Most models mount to your windshield using a suction cup attached to either a ball-in-socket, rigid, or gooseneck-type arm. We find the rigid arms are better at holding the units in place, especially over bumps. (Note: Windshield mounting is prohibited in California and Minnesota.)
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