Introduction to GPS navigation


Dominic Devito

Dominic J. DeVito has been a member of the Crutchfield A/V writing squad since 2006. He was born and raised in Staunton, Virginia, and attended the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a degree in chemical engineering. During that time he developed a passionate obsession with experiencing music, both live and recorded, which he parlayed into a 15-year stint in record retail (much to the chagrin of his very patient parents) and a long-running tenure as a rock DJ at WTJU. His expositions can be found in back issues of Plan 9's 9X Magazine as well as Schools That Rock: The Rolling Stone College Guide. He's been to more concerts than he can remember.

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Just a few years ago, adding a navigation system to your vehicle meant purchasing bulky components that required complex installation and the use of multiple CD-ROMs or DVD-ROMs to download the appropriate maps. Nowadays, many navigation systems come pre-loaded with maps and features designed to suit just about any budget and level of use.

Use this introduction to determine whether you want an in-dash setup that preserves your car's factory look, a portable GPS that is easy to use and install, or a handheld GPS that you can use in the mountains, on the water, and in your car. Then use our shopping guides to learn how to choose the right model for you.

Types of in-car navigation systems

In-dash Navigation

The Alpine INE-W940 navigation receiver boasts accurate navigation, DVD playback, and a 6.1" touchscreen.

In-dash Navigation

If you want to maintain the factory look of your dash and add the convenience of a large touchscreen monitor, look for an in-dash navigation system. A typical in-dash navigation system consists of a car stereo with a built-in monitor (ranging from 6-1/2" to 7"), an external GPS antenna, and sometimes a hideaway connection box that contains the A/V inputs and outputs. The stereo mounts in the factory stereo slot in your dash. The hideaway box is usually mounted behind the dash or under a front seat.

In addition to CD playback and AM/FM reception, most in-dash systems include DVD playback, so you can watch a movie on the built-in screen when the car is parked. Installation of an in-dash system can be complex, as they require connection to power, ground, the vehicle speed sensor, and the parking brake.

Warning: removing your seat could deactivate your vehicle's SRS system.

Read our In-dash Navigation Shopping Guide for more tips on how to choose an in-dash system. For more detailed information on how to install an in-dash navigation system, see our Navigation Installation Guide.

Remote-mount Navigation

A remote-mount navigation system consists of a self-contained GPS receiver that must be connected to a compatible in-dash stereo. Most of the time, this is the solution for someone who already has a touchscreen stereo and wants to add navigation capability. See the Navigation Installation Guide for more information on installation.

Remote-mount Navigation

The Pioneer AVIC-U250 navigation module connects to select Pioneer DVD receivers to provide fast, reliable guidance.

Portable Navigation

Garmin’s nüvi 3597LMTHD portable navigator offers a 5” display and easily moves between vehicles for convenient guidance.

Portable Navigation

Compact and easy to use, portable GPS navigators are ideal for anyone who wants the convenience of in-car navigation without the hassle of a permanent installation. These portable units attach quickly to the windshield or dash and use a simple cigarette lighter adapter to draw power. This makes them easy to transfer from vehicle to vehicle. Featuring bright color screens that range from 3.5" to 7", most portable GPS receivers also include touchscreen controls, voice prompts, a built-in speaker, and an integrated GPS antenna.

Newer portable navigators are making navigation easier and driving a bit safer. GPS receivers with Bluetooth® connectivity offer hands-free phone calls and voice-command recognition. GPS devices with 2-way Internet connectivity make it possible to find a specific destination not listed in the Points of Interest. Best of all, touchscreen user interfaces have evolved to the point where many people find they can start using a portable GPS receiver without first reading the owner's manual (although you'll always get more out of your purchase by reading the manual). For tips on how to choose the right model for you, see our Portable Navigation Shopping Guide.

Handheld GPS

Handheld GPS receivers include models designed for hiking, boating, off-road driving, geocaching, and even for use on the golf course. These are all great options for the outdoors, but are not optimized for driving. If you plan to use a GPS receiver primarily in your car, look for either an in-dash, remote-mount, or portable system, as these include special features designed specifically for use while operating a vehicle, such as voice prompts, large, bright screens, and built-in speakers.

Handheld GPS

Garmin’s Approach S3 golf watch can give you precise distances to the next hole and help improve your game.

Find what fits your car