Portable GPS navigator buying 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.

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Portable GPS on the dash

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.

Portable navigation shopping guide

The Garmin nuvi 2599LMTHD combines a number of great portable features, including traffic and map updates, Bluetooth, lane guidance, junction view, and voice-activated navigation.

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. There are models that even feature built-in maps of Mexico and/or most European countries. 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 3.5" 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 3.5" display from two-and-a-half feet away can be a challenge to read for anybody.

  • 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.

    Portable navigator shopping guide

    The Garmin dezl 770LMTHD features a generous 7" color display, which makes it ideal for the large dashboards of most tractor trailers and RVs.

Which voice?

  • Voice control: Voice-activated navigation is becoming increasingly more common, allowing you to initiate a search without touching the device. In most cases, you just say a keyword aloud and the navigator "wakes up" to ask you where you want to go. You may have to tell it what state, city, and street address in separate steps, or you might be able to say something like "find nearest Starbucks" in order to get directions to the next place you'll get your caffeine fix. Either way, it's a lot smarter (and safer) than trying to type a search in while driving.

  • 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 navigators now feature voice directions that use landmarks and buildings to indicate the next turn, rather than street names and numbers — this is supposed to make the direction sound more natural and like how you'd get them from another person. 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.

Do you want more than just navigation?

  • Extra features: Some portable navigators include additional user functions. You might find a built-in dash camera or MP3/WMA playback capability.  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.

  • Map updates: Each year there are thousands of changes to America's geography, from new buildings going up to businesses moving locations to roads changing directions. If your navigator's maps go out of date, you might get just as lost as you would have without a device. Many maps are now updatable with a download from the manufacturer's website, but in most cases you'll have to pay a little extra for the navigator up front to obtain free map updates over the life of the device.

  • 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 or HD 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.

  • Bluetooth®: 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.

  • App compatibility: Some navigators with built-in Bluetooth can pair with your phone for more than just phone conversations. There are a number of smartphone apps that can convey information to your navigator via Bluetooth. These apps can 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. You'll be able to find out-of-the-ordinary spots along the way quickly, plus consumer ratings and other useful applications, all without touching your phone. In some cases, you'll even be able to "check in" to locations via social media apps like Foursquare®.

  •  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 2D representation.

  • Warnings for school zones and speed limits: If you miss a sign indicating a speed limit change or a school zone while driving, you might be speeding without even realizing it. Some navigators can let you know when there's a school zone up ahead or if you're driving over the posted speed limit, to help keep you safe and legal.

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.
  • 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.
  • Asphalt-free activities: 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.
Portable navigator shopping guide

Garmin's eTrex 20 handheld GPS for outdoor enthusiasts gives accurate directions on the trail as well as along major roads.

How are you going to mount it?

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, so be sure to check your local regulations. 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. Many of the in-car mounting and holding solutions available for handheld devices can be also repurposed for portable navigators.

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.

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