GPS – Buying Guide

GPS-Buyers-Guide2Which GPS to Buy? Whether you’re looking to buy your very first GPS navigation system or ready to upgrade to a newer unit, you’ve come to the right place.

The good news is that GPS systems have evolved dramatically over the past few years and now offer powerful features that are easier than ever to use. Prices for GPS systems have also dropped during this time, meaning that today your dollar will buy you more GPS value than ever before.

Our GPS Buyers Guide provides you with the basic information for choosing the right model for your specific needs. Don’t worry, we won’t overload you with technical details like many other buying guides. Our aim is to provide you with the basic information you need to make the right decision about your purchase…in plain English. Once you decide what kind of system and features you’re looking for, we’ve already done the homework for you in researching features, performance, reviews and ratings for many of the models on the market today, and we’ve distilled that down to a short list of the “best of the best” in our GPS Reviews section. As with all the products featured at Rated4Stars, all of the GPS navigation systems we feature are rated 4 stars or more. Learn more about our ratings.

nuvi-200-w160Finally, you can purchase with confidence through our web site. In addition to doing your shopping homework for you on the products we feature, we also choose from hundreds of merchants to match each product with the merchant that provides both a highly competitive price and a track record for reliable and responsive customer service. We strongly believe our customers need both of these qualities from a merchant. Our affiliate merchants include Amazon and other reputable companies with exemplary customer service records. You can buy through our site with confidence, knowing you’ll get a great price and quality customer service should you have any problems or need to return or exchange your merchandise. Amazon received the highest marks for price, selection and service for electronics according to a consumer advocacy group survey, outranking all “brick and mortar” stores, including Best Buy. Read the CNN-Money article.

After consulting our GPS Buyers Guide, you’ll also want to take a look at our GPS Reviews, our Feature Comparison Chart of major GPS models, and our GPS FAQ (frequently asked questions) page.

 

What is GPS?
What is GPS? GPS stands for Global Positioning System, a satellite navigation system initiated by the U.S. government in 1978 and today made up of a network of 24 satellites orbiting at 12,000 miles above. GPS was originally intended for U.S. military applications, but in the 1980s, the U.S. government made the system available for civilian use. Other than the cost of purchasing your GPS and accessories, use of a GPS is free — there are no monthly subscription fees or setup charges.

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There are no monthly fees, setup charges, or licenses required for use of a GPS.

Nor do you need a license to operate a GPS. Your GPS will work anywhere you travel in the world, under any weather conditions, every day of the year, 24 hours a day.Your GPS unit (also called receiver, system, navigation system, sat nav or device) receives signals from the satellite to calculate your precise position on the earth’s surface. With signals from three satellites, the GPS can calculate your latitude and longitude. With four or more satellites, it can also calculate your altitude. Your GPS can also calculate your speed, direction of travel, distance traveled, local sunrise/sunset, and even predict local tides. Under normal conditions, a GPS can calculate your position accurately within about 15 meters. Newer GPS receivers can take advantage of WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System), a series of ground-based signals that improve GPS accuracy to within 3 to 5 meters. Under good conditions, this can improve substantially. A GPS must have a direct line of site with the satellites above, meaning that tall buildings, steep hills/rock faces and dense vegetation can block the signal. Newer generation GPS chips, such as the SiRF III chipset, can dramatically improve a GPS unit’s sensitivity, making it possible to maintain a lock on satellite signals even with dense vegetation cover or among tall city buildings.

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A handheld GPS showing this hiker’s current position on a map, along with his heading toward, distance to, and estimated arrival time at camp

GPS units are available for cars, motorcycles, trucks, boats and airplanes. You can also purchase a handheld unit to take hiking or mount on the handlebars of your bicycle. (Handheld units also work in cars and boats.) There are also specialty GPS units for fitness (some with integrated heart rate monitors); GPS built into cell phones and walkie-talkies; GPS tracking/logging units to record vehicle’s route; and GPS units to keep tabs on your pet or your golf game. Some inexpensive handheld GPS units display only the latitude/longitude coordinates of your position. However, most GPS units today (and all of those featured here at Rated4Stars) also include a map so you can see your position visually. Most in-vehicle GPS units are pre-loaded with detailed maps containing for example, every street and address in North America. It is also possible to purchase additional maps of other regions, such as Europe or Australia, and load them on to your GPS by plugging in an SD memory card or by loading them from a CD or DVD via your home computer. Similarly, nautical charts and topographic maps can be loaded onto marine and/or handheld GPS units.

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GPS has rapidly moved beyond the military and science applications into the world of the consumer. GPS systems have evolved dramatically in the past few years and now offer powerful features that are easier than ever to use. To get from Point A to Point B, you can enter a specific street address or choose from a list of pre-loaded Points of Interest (POI), such as attractions, restaurants and gas stations. You can also add your own POIs to your GPS. Fully-featured GPS units allow you to specify many options when navigating, such as specifying that you want to find a restaurant along your route or close to your destination. You can also specify whether you want to avoid highways or if you’re driving a car, truck, or on foot.

Once you’ve used a GPS, you’ll realize what a critical piece of safety equipment it is. A GPS can prevent you from getting lost, help you find the nearest hospital or gas station (see right). And if you do have an emergency, your GPS makes it much easier to report your precise location. Newer vehicle GPS units include special emergency functions, such as TomTom’s “Help Me!” and Garmin’s “Where Am I?” features, which quickly guide you to the nearest hospital, veterinarian, etc. and make it easy to report your location to authorities.

Today’s vehicle GPS units are packed with features that go beyond simple navigation, such as Bluetooth connectivity for your mobile phone, built-in MP3 and audiobook players, photo viewers, and much more. We cover the GPS features to look for below.

Vehicle GPS Features

General Features

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Ready Out of the Box? Today, most in-vehicle GPS units are pre-loaded with detailed maps and ready to use “out of the box” without the need to transfer maps from a CD or DVD via your home computer. The bulk of handheld GPS units, however, require topographic and other maps to be transferred from CD/DVD using your computer. Periodic map updates for both in-vehicle and handheld GPS units either require connecting your GPS to a computer or, for some GPS models, obtaining updated maps on an SD memory card that simply plugs into a compatible slot on the GPS.

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Portability. Today’s trend for in-vehicle GPS navigation systems is toward smaller and more portable units. Slim in-vehicle GPS units with an internal battery, such as Garmin’s nüvi series and TomTom’s ONE series, can also be used as a handheld GPS. (Note that such units are not for use in the backcountry as they typically do not include topographic map coverage for offroad use.) Portability is very convenient for frequent travelers needing to use their GPS in rental cars. Portability also allows you to plan routes and find local restaurants and attractions from the comfort of your home or hotel room. Finally, a portable GPS that you can toss in your purse or slide into your pocket keeps your GPS with you and out of view in your car, an important deterrence to theft. 

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Wide Screen. An increasing number of GPS models are being offered with a wide screen option. Not only does this make navigation easier, allowing you to see more of what is around your present location, it also makes route planning easier for the same reason. Though you’ll sacrifice some portability, wide screen units are still impressively compact.

Waterproof

Waterproof. You’ll want a waterproof GPS for use on a motorcycle or outdoor use in the backcountry or aboard a boat. Most newer units that are waterproof adhere to the IEC 60529 IPX7 standard. IEC 60529 is a European system of test specification standards for classifying the degrees of protection provided by the enclosures of electrical equipment. An IPX7 designation means the GPS case can withstand accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes. Show me vehicle GPS units with this feature / Show me handheld GPS units with this feature

Navigation Features

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Next-Generation Navigation Chip. Newer chips used in navigation systems, such as the SiRF Star III chipset,represent a significant advance in GPS technology. These chips allow a GPS to get its satellite fix (i.e., figure out its location) much faster than before. Next-generation chips are much more sensitive than other chips, allowing the GPS a much better ability to lock onto weak satellite signals while navigating under dense foliage or in urban settings under a canopy of tall buildings. And these chips accomplish all of this while using much less power, providing longer battery life.

Provides Turn-by-Turn Directions

Turn-by-Turn Directions. Although a typical handheld GPS can help guide you toward your destination by showing you its distance and bearing, GPS navigation systems designed for the car, truck and motorcycle get you from point A to point B by calculating every maneuver you’ll need to make along the way and providing you with turn-by-turn directions as you drive. Simply enter a street address, intersection or point of interest (POI) and the GPS will guide you there, turn by turn.

Spoken Directions

Voice-Guided Turns. In addition to visually showing you each turn along your route on the GPS screen, virtually all high-end in-vehicle GPS units also provide spoken directions to guide you along your way so you can keep your eyes on the road, an important safety feature. The unit may make up to three announcements before a turn, giving you plenty of time to prepare, and without ever taking your eyes off the road ahead:

      • “Drive 4.8 miles, then turn right.”
      • “In 0.5 miles, turn right.”
      • “Turn right.”
Announces Street Names (Text-to-Speech)

Text-to-Speech. Higher end in-vehicle GPS Navigation Systems include “text-to-speech” capabilities, and will “read” street names to you while providing spoken turn-by-turn directions. So instead of “In 1 mile, turn right,” you’ll hear, “In 1 mile, turn right on Main Street.” This feature eliminates another reason for you to look at the GPS screen, allowing you to focus your eyes on the road ahead. Show me GPS units with this feature

Voice Recognition. With nüvi’s innovative speech recognition, you safely control nüvi’s interface with your voice — allowing you to keep both hands on the wheel. Simply press the button on the remote (which attaches to the steering wheel) to activate speech recognition and begin speaking menu options. nüvi even recognizes shortcut phrases for popular functions. Tell nüvi "Find Address" and speak an address to start navigating. Show me GPS units with this feature

Multi-Destination Routing

Multi-Destination Routing. If you’re a realtor, sales or delivery professional with many destinations to cover through the day, then multi-destination routing will appeal to you. At the beginning of the day, enter the addresses of all the stops you need to make, and the GPS will automatically calculate the optimal route to get you to all your locations most efficiently and provide you with turn-by-turn directions to all of them, a real time- (and gas-) saving feature. Show me GPS units with this feature

Reroutes Around Slow Traffic

Live Traffic. Many vehicle GPS units are designed to keep you moving around slow traffic. While some older units automatically offer to reroute you when they detect your speed has dropped while on the highway, newer units tap into FM radio signals or XM satellite radio signals to provide you with live traffic updates. When slow traffic lies ahead on your route, traffic-equipped GPS systems will automatically notify you of traffic delays, allow you to see congested areas on a color-coded map, and allow you to avoid traffic by pushing a button to find a new route. Live traffic updates are available in major metropolitan areas throughout the United States and Europe. Three major traffic services are available (by subscription for an additional fee): FM TMC (Clear Channel), MSN Direct, and XM Navtraffic. Show me GPS units with this feature

Recommended for Off-Road Use

Offroad Use. In-vehicle GPS Navigation Systems are designed to guide you along the roadways. If you steer offroad, the database used by your GPS may not include the dirt road you’re using. Fortunately, the GPS will still keep track of where you are relative to the roads and points of interest it does know, but that may not be enough to help you find your way in the backcountry. Many in-vehicle GPS units allow you to load your own points of interest (POI) into your unit. While that won’t help you with roads, it can help guide you toward key points and milestones along the way. Some units allow you to access latitude and longitude information, helpful if you need to navigate toward specific coordinates. However, if heading into the backcountry, it’s best to take along a handheld unit loaded with topographic maps for the area you’re visiting. There are only a small number of GPS units that can provide both onroad and offroad capabilities, but we expect this number to grow over the next few years as demand increases.

Additional Features

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Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows mobile phones, computers, GPS units, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and many other devices to be easily interconnected using a short-range wireless connection.Some GPS units can double as a speakerphone, connecting wirelessly to your Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone. This can provide enhanced safety and convenience. For example, if you are navigating along the highway and use the GPS to find a hotel along your route, your GPS can automatically call the hotel at the push of a button. Show me GPS units with this feature

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MP3 Audio Player/Audiobook Player: A popular feature on in-vehicle GPS units is the ability to play MP3 or other audio files through your GPS. Some units also include a special player for audiobooks.

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FM Transmitter. An FM transmitter is built in to higher-end GPS units to allow you to transmit the audio from your GPS through your car’s stereo system. This includes your GPS unit’s spoken directions, audio from MP3 or audiobooks (if your GPS is so-equipped), or audio for your telephone calls if your GPS provides Bluetooth handsfree capabilities. To use the FM transmitter, you must find an open frequency on your car’s radio, then set the frequency of the transmitter on the GPS to match.

Speed Limit Indicator. With the Speed Limit Indicator feature, the GPS unit displays the current speed limit on the map (55 MPH in the above example.) It can be difficult to keep track of changing speed limits, especially when driving on unfamiliar roads. GPS units equipped with a speed limit indicator will display the current road’s speed limit for most major roads in the U.S. and Europe. The speed limit is superimposed upon the map display.

Lane Guidance.Though GPS systems are terrific at guiding you down the highway, when it comes time to exit, it’s not always clear what lane you should be in. In addition to alerting you to upcoming turns, Lane Guidance-equipped GPS units show you what lane you should be in for upcoming turns, eliminating stressful, last-minute lane confusion.Some GPS units also include a photo-realistic driver-level view of the intersection ahead, termed by Garmin as "Junction View," to further help you stay in the correct lane. The unit displays the road as you see it, including the highway signs as you’ll see them. Thoughtfully, the irrelevant signs are visible, but faded, so the signs you need to pay attention to stand out.With the Speed Limit Indicator feature, the GPS unit displays the current speed limit on the map (55 MPH in the above example.) It can be difficult to keep track of changing speed limits, especially when driving on unfamiliar roads. GPS units equipped with a speed limit indicator will display the current road’s speed limit for most major roads in the U.S. and Europe. The speed limit is superimposed upon the map display.

 

Compare Vehicle GPS Models

 

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The Best of the Best: Our Top Picks

 

If you don’t have the time to invest reading reviews and comparisons, consult our Top Picks for our top recommendations in each of four categories. Since all of the GPS units we feature are rated 4 stars or higher, our Top Picks truly are the "best of the best." And remember, all of the GPS units we feature are rated 4 stars or better. We’ve done the homework for you.

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