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Portable GPS navigator buying guide

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 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 DriveSmart 66 combines a number of great portable features, including traffic and map updates, Bluetooth, lane guidance, junction view, a large screen, and voice-activated navigation.

Is dedicated car GPS better than phone navigation?

This is a popular question. Just a few years ago, the answer would easily be yes. But navigation apps and phone processing speeds are now on par with a dedicated GPS unit. The best reasons to choose portable GPS are: 

  • Car GPS won't use up your phone's data: Phone data is typically fairly inexpensive up to a point, and then it can get very costly. If you're the type of phone user who pushes their data limit every month, a dedicated GPS device can help you avoid the anxiety of a road trip pushing your data plan over the edge.

  • Car GPS won't use up your phone's battery:  As phones and apps get more advanced, it's all phone manufacturers can do to keep up with making batteries that last with constant usage. When packing for a trip, wouldn't it be nice to know that if you forget your phone charger you won't run out of juice because you've been using your phone for directions? A portable or dedicated navigator can help alleviate that worry.

  • You're less likely to get interrupted: A dedicated GPS device won't interrupt your maps and spoken directions for incoming texts or calls, which might cause you to miss an important turn. In the heat of the moment a small mistake like this could mean you need to go far out of your way to get back on track. With a navigator at the helm, you don't run this risk.

Really, it comes down to the matter of convenience and practicality. For some people, having a dedicated GPS device is easier. Especially if your vehicle is also your office. If you frequently need to use the phone while on the road, then a separate navigator could easily worth the investment. 

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", with some now offering huge 10" screens. 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 RV 795 features a generous 6.95" color display. Garmin offers a similar model for truckers, too.

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®: Most 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®

  • Smart assistants: Some portable navigators have compatibility with select smart voice assistants, like Amazon Alexa. This means you can ask the navigator any sort of thing you would ask a smart speaker at home and it'll provide an answer or execute a task, like adding something to your shopping list or scheduling an appointment or giving you the weather forecast.  

  •  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.

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.

Need help finding the right portable GPS navigator?

Have questions about GPS navigation and how to get the most out of it? Our expert Advisors know the answers. Call or chat with us today. Free lifetime tech support is included with every Crutchfield purchase.

  • Olivia Thomas from Los Angeles

    Posted on 11/11/2021

    My GPS switched languages (Spanish) I don't know how it happened. But how do I return to English?

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 11/12/2021

    Hi Olivia - thanks for your question. For most portable GPS navigators, you can change the language by using the navigator's "Settings" menu. If the words on the navigator have all switched to Spanish, look for the terms "Ajustes" and/or "Idioma". If you're still having trouble, reach out to the Crutchfield Tech Support team by calling the number provided with your purchase invoice if you ordered your navigator from Crutchfield. Beyond that, I would recommend consulting your navigator's owner's manual or contacting the manufacturer directly. Garmin's product support line (for instance) is 1-800-800=1020.
  • Jim haehl from Lockport, NY

    Posted on 4/26/2021

    where can i get a nextar Q4-03 automotive power cord? the tip broke off mine

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 4/26/2021

    Hi Jim - thanks for checking in. It really speaks to how solidly Nextar built their portable navigators that you're still using one that's about 13 years old now. Unfortunately, the company has been out of business for quite some time. And Crutchfield never carried the Q4-03, so we wouldn't be able to dig one up in a forgotten corner of our warehouse for you.

    However, it appears that the business end of the Q4-03's power cable uses a mini-USB 2.0 connection, which should be easy enough to find online. You might not have a lot of luck finding one with a 12-volt adapter on the other end, but you could probably find one with a regular USB plug, which you could then use with a run-of-the-mill adapter in your car's 12-volt port (something like this for instance).

    A rudimentary web search also turned up some resellers with the cable available, as well as very cheap/busted navigators that may or may not include the cable. Hope this helps!
  • Susan A Huff from Myrtle Point

    Posted on 9/28/2020

    Inquiring about mounting options for the new Garmin RV 890. With the larger screen, it seems mounting options are limited. What are the options for mounting in a pickup?

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 9/28/2020

    Hi Susan - The RV 890 includes an extra-large suction-cup windshield mount, a screw-down mount for dashboards, and a 1" ball adapter for use with a wide variety of RAM-style mounts. One of these should hopefully work in your pickup, but it's easier to find the right solution by having a conversation. One of our Advisors will be in touch regarding your options via email soon, or if you're in a hurry you can give us a call during our business hours.
  • Ted Herr from Dawsonville

    Posted on 12/22/2019

    My reason for going with a dedicated GPS is due to the fact that I'm ok with using my phone data and android auto for maps. But as soon as I lose cell signal that leaves me with nothing. Picked up a used nuvi, Lifetime maps and some kind of traffic data built in.

  • Linda Weller

    Posted on 9/30/2019

    I need a GPS stand-alone device that will give me lifetime map updates and live traffic updates WITHOUT a smartphone. This seems to be hard to clarify with most advertisers. Willing to pay up to $300. Can you recommend a specific model? I would be most grateful! Lost Linda

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 9/30/2019

    Hi Linda - Sorry to hear that you're lost. One of our advisors will be happy to help you find your way to the right portable GPS navigator for your needs. Based on your limited list of demands, I think you'll find either the Garmin DriveSmart 55 & Traffic or the Drive 52 & Traffic should suit you just fine. Feel free to reach out to one of our advisors via chat, email, or phone if you need more guidance!
  • Dave from Tomah

    Posted on 7/30/2019

    Shame you're stuck on Garmin. I personally prefer TomTom, mostly because of the software. Their City Center option for finding places is invaluable!

  • Lin Tate from Clarion

    Posted on 11/17/2018

    I want a dedicated GPS device for grid soil sampling on my farm in Iowa. This requires the exact location of a soil samples taken over 300 acres and later mapped for application of fertilizer. What hand held device would you recommend? Thanks for your help, Lin Tate, Clarion, Iowa

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 11/19/2018

    Hi Lin - Thanks for your question. If you're really only planning on using GPS on your farm and don't need a navigator to provide directions to specific destinations in other areas, you'd probably be better off using a handheld GPS device that can offer higher accuracy than most car GPS devices and has the ability to add detailed topographic maps that you can use to plot your soil samples. You can still use them for some car-based applications, but they're called "handheld" to distinguish them from dedicated devices for in-car use. Crutchfield used to carry items like this from Garmin (GPSMAP and eTrex are two in particular) and DeLorme, but right now we do not. Feel free to reach out to one of our Advisors if you have any more questions.
  • Eric Scott from Schenectady

    Posted on 10/10/2018

    How well do traffic advisory services work? There have been major holdups on the Mass Pike recently, and guidance to avoid them would be valuable.

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 10/15/2018

    Hi Eric - Thanks for your questions. Regarding waypoints, most every recent portable navigator should have no problem with adding waypoints to routes and storing them for future reference. Saving routes is another story - I'd say generally it's possible but I'd check the owner's manual of any portable navigator online first before purchasing to make sure. One of our advisors can help answer questions about particular features or models if you want to talk with one before making a decision. As far as traffic services go, there are always going to be people who are happy with the information they get and others who think the info could be more timely or complete. If you're in an urban area then pretty much any traffic service should be up to speed, and it appears that all three of the traffic info options available through Garmin have strong coverage along the Mass Pike. Keep in mind that many newer navigators with a traffic info option may require a smartphone app, so be sure to do your research, or have one of our advisors give you a hand - it's what they're here for.
  • Eric Scott from Schenectady

    Posted on 10/10/2018

    What about waypoints? Going from Albany NY to Maine I like to go cross country and avoid the Mass Pike. I have to fudge somewhat. Also, having found a nice route it would be good to be able to store it for repeat uses.

  • b summer from Indy

    Posted on 10/29/2017

    If I could a couple of other criteria: 1) SEARCH - I recently had to replace an older but great Garmin unit with a new TomTom device. What I didn't know about the TomTom was that it had no search capability. That's really irritating as I have to look up places on my cell phone and then key in the address on the GPS. I'm ready to chuck the TomTom. 2) ADDRESS ENTRY - The TomTom requires you to have the zip code to start address entry. This really bites as you might know that a location is in a particular town but who knows all of these zipcodes. Again, I have to get out the cell phone to get the full address. 3) ADDRESS ENTRY - The Garmin would allow me to enter in a street name and it would search 5 states for that street name. The TomTom requires me to first set the state, then enter the zip code and then enter the street. What a pain. I sometimes get all of the address loaded only to realize that the TomTom is searching the wrong state. That's when I have to start the entry process all over. Only buy a GPS with a powerful, easy and intuitive search.

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