Portable Navigator Shopping Guide


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.

More from Dominic Devito

Portable navigators are intended for use in your car, but because they're portable and have a ton of features, they are some of the most versatile forms of GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation you can get. The options, of course, can make it difficult to choose which navigation system is right for you. Read below for helpful ways to narrow down your search.

Tom Tom VIA 1535 TM

The TomTom VIA 1535 TM features a convenient EasyPort windshield mount so you can move the navigator in and out of your vehicle easily.

Where do you need to go?

  • Maps: Most portable navigators come with all the maps you'll ever need built right in. In most cases, you'll get maps of the contiguous 48 states, and many models also offer Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and most or all of Canada so you can find your way, even if you're in an out-of-the-way place. Some navigators even allow you to make edits to certain aspects of their built-in maps, in case a street changes direction, your favorite restaurant moves, or there's extended construction along your route to work. Additional maps are usually available as downloads or on separate DVDs or memory cards (see below).

  • Points of interest: One of the more distinguishing features among portable navigators is the number of points of interest, or POI. POI are all the various places along a journey that might make it more fun, more educational, or be of use, such as theaters, museums, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, ATMs, and gas stations. If you want the greatest number of options for places to stop, rest, or explore, look for a device with more POI. Some advanced navigators utilize two-way Internet connectivity to provide unlimited, up-to-date consumer-rated POI for businesses, products, and services.

  • Storage capacity: Some portable navigators also offer additional maps available for download from their brand's website, so if you want a super-detailed map of New York City, or some maps for your upcoming European vacation (for units that work in foreign countries), they're right there for you. If you think you'll be uploading maps frequently, choose a unit with lots of storage space. Some websites offer additional POI as well, in case you wanted to see a more in-depth tour of your destination, or let you add your own. For handheld GPS devices used primarily for outdoor use, you can even download marine and fishery maps.

What about screen size and portability?

  • Screen size: Most portable navigators have touchscreen displays that range in size from 3-1/2" to 7". Smaller units, with smaller screens, are generally easier to mount and are less intrusive on your view of the road. But large displays may offer more control functions on a specific display screen than a smaller device. For instance, you might be able to see the map, as well as six other menu options on a large screen, whereas a small screen might let you view the map and one or two menu options. Larger screens can also be helpful if the ideal mounting location is far enough away to require squinting or neck-craning. A 3-1/2" display from two-and-a-half feet away can be a challenge to read for anybody.

    Magellan RoadMate 9250T-LMB

    The Magellan RoadMate 9250T-LMB features a generous 7" color display.

    • Portability: Most portable navigators now are very thin, measuring from less than an inch to about an inch and a half thick. But this isn't always the case — think about how often you'll be taking your portable navigator out of the car with you, to use it for walking directions, to keep it safe, or to use in a rental after a flight. A larger navigator might be better for in-car use, but a smaller, more compact unit might be more convenient for carrying in your pocket or purse.

    Which voice?

    • Voice guidance: You'd be hard-pressed to find a navigator these days without voice guidance and a built-in speaker — but not all voice-guiding systems are created equal. Most of them will give you a list of accents and languages to choose from. If you're an Anglophile, perhaps you'd like to hear a British accent; if you're trying to learn Spanish, perhaps you'll want to switch it to the Spanish directions. Some brands now include, as part of their subscription services, celebrity voices such as John Cleese. So, if you didn't get enough of him from Monty Python, you can take him along with you on your next road trip. And if you don't like anyone else telling you where to go, some navigators even allow you to record your own voice saying key words and directions, which you can then hear as you drive.

    • Text-to-speech: One of the most exciting developments in voice-guidance technology is called text-to-speech. This means that instead of a general directive like "turn left ahead," you'll hear a reference to the specific street name: "turn left onto Greenbriar Drive." This can remove a lot of confusion at a busy intersection or when streets are close together. A navigator with this technology would be good for you if you know you'll often be driving in areas with confusing traffic patterns, or exploring unfamiliar areas.

      Garmin nüvi 3590LMT

      The Garmin nüvi 3590LMT features 3D building graphics and lane guidance to help keep you on the right path.

    Do you want more than just navigation?

    • Extra features: Some portable navigators include additional user functions. You might find a built-in camera, MP3/WMA playback capability or a digital photo viewer. And some units are expandable, with A/V inputs and outputs available for devices such as your DVD player, rear-view camera, or portable MP3 player.

    • Bluetooth® compatibility: Some navigators offer Bluetooth wireless connectivity, so you can make and receive calls with your compatible cell phone through the navigator. With many areas enacting regulations that require a hands-free device for phones while driving, this feature can come in very handy. Many navigators include a phone number with their POI information, so you can use the unit to find a destination, such as a restaurant or hotel, and then call ahead for a reservation.

    • Traffic updates: Some portable navigators can indicate on the screen where there are congested roads in your area or along your route. These navigators typically use auxiliary receivers — some of which are built into the 12-volt power cable — to receive traffic data reports from FM-based RDS (Radio Data System) signals or other sources, including satellite radio reports. The receiver translates the data into visual cues on the screen, showing which roads are affected and how severe the congestion is. Typically you can attempt to route around the traffic, which may take you on a longer but ultimately faster path. Traffic-info reports are usually available in and around metropolitan areas and sometimes require a paid subscription, but more and more navigators are offering free basic traffic updates. For more on traffic-info services, see our article here.

    • Internet connectivity: The next step for portable GPS, as with many devices, is on-demand access to the Internet. A few high-end navigators feature wireless connection to the Internet to provide real-time search results for destinations as well as access to updated travel information, such as area gas prices, weather forecasts, movie times, local events listings, and much more. These navigators generally won't allow web browsing, but they can connect to powerful search engines to help you find out-of-the-ordinary spots along the way quickly, plus consumer ratings and other useful applications.

    • 3D building graphics: As portable navigators integrate faster processors, they're able to deliver better visual information than in the past. One example of this is 3D building graphics, which depicts important buildings or landmarks realistically on the screen, to help you visualize your surroundings better as you follow the directions either by car or on foot. These graphics are presently limited to buildings in major cities or other major attractions.

    • Junction view and lane guidance: To go along with the graphics mentioned above, many newer navigators feature lane guidance, which indicates on the screen the proper lane to use on a multi-lane road to ensure you won't miss an upcoming turn or maneuver. This is especially helpful in unfamiliar areas or on busy highways with many exits in quick succession. Junction view provides a detailed and realistic look at complicated intersections, including highway signs, to help ease the confusion of "mixing-bowl" scenarios with multiple ramps and levels that would be harder to follow with a simple 2-D representation.

    Do you expect to use the navigator outside of your car?

    • Power: All portable navigators work great in your car, but most of them allow you to use them outside of your car, too. Just about every model comes with built-in rechargeable batteries, so you can sit comfortably on your couch and program in your destination before you go anywhere. You can expect to get at least an hour or two of use out of a navigator with a full battery charge, depending on how it's used. Nearly all portable navigators come with a DC power (cigarette lighter) adapter, and some include an AC power adapter as well, so you can charge and use them at home.

      Garmin Approach G6

      The Garmin Approach G6 handheld golf GPS assistant can improve your game with precision location technology.

    • Traveling without your car: Many portable navigators feature different transportation modes which can route you in ways other than on paved roads. Some can find the shortest path between spots and take you off streets and sidewalks if you prefer to cross terrain, while others will guide you along sidewalks and alleys but disregard certain vehicular regulations, such as one-way streets, which is great for pedestrian travel. Some navigators can provide guidance specifically for bicycles, motorcycles, and even long-distance trucks.

      For recreational activities such as off-road biking, running, hiking, fishing, geocaching, boating, and more, look into specialty handheld GPS devices. Many of these feature smaller screens but can show detailed landscapes and topographic maps. Some can help you find a fishing spot, improve your marathon time, or even help improve your golf game using GPS technology. These handheld navigators are not ideally suited for vehicular navigation, but they usually come with street and highway information and can serve that purpose if necessary.

    How are you going to mount it?

    • Mounting: Most navigators come with a windshield mounting bracket (suction cup mount), which is one of the easiest and most easily viewable ways to install the device. These work very well with the smaller portable devices. However, some areas do not allow devices of any sort to be mounted on the windshield. Another mounting option is a disc which mounts to your dash or console with heavy-duty adhesive backing. Or you can use a portable friction mount, which is a non-slip beanbag with a mount attached to it — perfect for uneven surfaces.

    There are many other features which could mean the difference between you choosing one unit or another, so be sure to read each product description before you decide which system is the best one for you.

    We hope this how-to-choose guide has helped you decide which portable navigator to go with. The more you know, the better choice you can make, and the more you'll get out of your new purchase. Enjoy.

Find what fits your car