A Road Map to Portable GPS Systems

You’re in an unfamiliar city on business. En route to your new client’s office, you make a wrong turn. And another. Now you’re stuck in traffic—and you’re going to be horribly late for your meeting.

If you’d had a portable Global Positioning System (GPS) with you, this massive headache may have been avoidable. A typical portable GPS features a color touch screen, on which your current location is mapped and updated as you travel. The device provides spoken, turn-by-turn directions to one or multiple destinations, which are displayed on the on-screen map.

Like many handheld devices, portable GPS systems have dropped in cost while adding features. You can buy some models now for as little as $200—virtually unheard of just a year or two ago.

Garmin Nuvi 770
The Garmin Nuvi 770

Understanding Your Options
A portable GPS device is just one of many GPS choices travelers have today. Most rental car agencies offer optional in-car GPS navigation for about $10 a day. A growing number of cars feature in-dash navigation systems. But you can’t take those systems with you.

Some cell phones offer GPS navigation, too. But they may not work well when you’re out of the cell phone network’s range, and the service often costs $10 a month.

If you’re often in unfamiliar territory—either in a car or on foot—a portable GPS device is the way to go. Here’s what to look for in a portable GPS system, along with a guide to three top-ranked models.

Prices Are All Over the Map
Portable GPS devices start around $200 for basic models and go up to $900 or more for sophisticated units. Here are two examples from Garmin, which offers one of the widest ranges of portable GPS devices:

  • The Garmin Mobile 10 lists for $199. It’s a compact, bare-bones GPS device that works with maps installed on a Bluetooth laptop or handheld, such as a smart phone or PDA.
  • Garmin Nuvi 770, with maps for North America and Europe, is a high-end, full-featured GPS system. The list price is a hefty $964.27—more than some laptops.

Whichever model you choose, it pays to shop around. For example, the Garmin Nuvi 660 lists for $750. But savvy shoppers can find it for around $450 using price-comparison tools such as PriceGrabber.com

Features: Everything Imaginable
Portable GPS systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Even low-end models offer something to dazzle. For example, the Navigon 2100 (list price: $249) features a 3D ‘Reality View,’ in which actual highway signs and exits are illustrated on the screen to guide you through confusing interchanges.

The features you want to look for in a portable GPS device include

Point of Interest (POI) Information: Most include information about gas stations, restaurants, hotels, local sites and businesses, to which you can navigate and view their location on a map. For instance, Magellan’s Maestro series of GPS devices include AAA TourBook information, while the Navigon 5100 and 7100 include Zagat restaurant reviews. Whichever device you choose, make sure the POI database can be updated at least annually. Updates are normally handled via software downloads (which may cost extra).

Bluetooth Connectivity: A growing number of portable GPS systems allow you to pair your Bluetooth phone. Why? One reason is to use the GPS device’s speaker as your phone’s speaker.

Traffic Updates: Many higher-end GPS devices now provide traffic updates. Should there be a bottleneck on your route, the device will offer to reroute you. Traffic updates are usually delivered via a paid subscription service. In 2008, a start-up called Dash will introduce the Dash Express, a new portable GPS system with a cellular modem for two-way Internet connectivity. The Dash Express will be able to reroute drivers around traffic jams, based in part on information the service gathers from other Dash customers.

Spoken Directions: The majority of GPS systems for automotive use feature spoken, turn-by-turn directions, so you can keep your eyes on the road. However, some lower-end models, such as the Garmin Mobile 10, don’t say street names. For instance, the Garmin Mobile 10 will tell you to ‘turn right,’ but not to ‘turn right on Market Street.’ Also, some models from TomTom and Magellan feature voice-command routing, so you can speak an address or point of interest to get directions, rather than inputting the information via the device’s on-screen keyboard.

Fast Fix on GPS Signals: Typically, the GPS receivers in lower-end devices aren’t as powerful as those in high-end systems. The result: It can take a while for a low-end GPS device to initially find a GPS signal, particularly when it’s searching in an area for the first time.In practical terms, this means you may end up waiting 5-10 minutes for a low-end GPS device to find a signal in a rental car parking lot in the city to which you have just flown. Once the device has fixed on a signal in the area, though, it usually finds it again later within seconds after being powered on. The Magellan Maestro 4040 (list: $450) is one portable GPS system that can quickly find a signal in a new location.

Celebrity Voices: Want Mr. T to tell you where to go? If so, a TomTom GPS device that supports celebrity voices is the path for you. The voices must be downloaded from the company’s Web site and cost $13 each. Other voices for the U.S. market include Burt Reynolds, Gary Busey, and Dennis Hopper.

Magellan Maestro 4040
The Magellan Maestro 4040

Top GPS Models
While there are countless portable GPS systems on the market, these three models, — from low- to high-end — have received above-average ratings:

  • Mio DigiWalker C230 GPS (list: $250): The C230’s screen is small and so is its list of features, but it’s a solid choice for the budget-conscious buyer.
  • Magellan Maestro 4040 (list: $450): This mid-price GPS finds a signal quickly and offers a large, 4.3-inch screen and AAA guidebook information.
  • Garmin Nuvi 660 (list: $750): This versatile system offers accurate GPS receiver, text-to-speech functionality, and traffic updates.

Some Advice for the Road
Be aware that portable GPS systems have become highly attractive to thieves, according to USA Today. Leaving one exposed in your car is an invitation to a break-in. Ideally, you should remove any signs of a GPS, such as a car charger or GPS windshield mount, before leaving your vehicle. 

James A. Martin has decades of experience covering technology, and he’s also the author of Traveler 2.0, a blog that provides technology news and views for travelers.

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