Introduction to GPS navigation
I've written about car audio and navigation at Crutchfield since 2006. During that time, I've driven to a lot of concerts in many different cities, so portable navigators have come in quite handy. I've also worked at several record stores and volunteered as a DJ at a community radio station, so I've applied the lessons of listening to music from several sources and in various environments to my own evaluations and writing.
More from Dominic DeVito
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.
Navigation systems for the road
The Alpine INE-W957HD in-dash navigation receiver boasts accurate navigation, DVD playback, and a 7" touchscreen.
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" to 7", although some screens can go up to 9"), an external GPS antenna, and sometimes (though not often) 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 (though this is rarely the case), 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.
The Pioneer AVIC-U280 navigation module connects to select Pioneer DVD receivers to provide fast, reliable guidance.
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.
Garmin’s Drive 51 LM portable navigator offers a 5” display and easily moves between vehicles for convenient guidance.
Portable car navigators
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. Built-in Bluetooth® connectivity enables hands-free calling through a compatible phone, and some devices can even work with select smartphone apps to pull over real-time data from an Internet-connected phone. Devices with built-in camera inputs can give drivers a great view of what's behind them if they've got a rear-view camera installed. 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.
Pros and cons of in-dash and portable navigators for everyday driving
Before you decide between an in-dash and portable navigator, you need to determine if you just want better, easier-to-follow directions or if you’re going the distance with improved sound, smartphone app interactivity, and other features. This distinction is importan because the top-of-the-line portable navigators can cost nearly as much as some entry-level in-dash units.
In-dash navigation receivers can improve your entire driving experience with better sound and other extras, including video playback (when parked). Most of them also offer smartphone app control, in addition to Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free calling and audio streaming. The baseline screen size is just over 6 inches, with some displays measuring a whopping 9 inches, for easy viewing from the driver’s seat. You also never have to worry about them running out of juice halfway through your journey, thanks to a constant power supply.
The big advantages for portable navigators are price, flexibility, and convenience. They can move from car to car, making them ideal for business trips or other occasions when a rental vehicle is needed. But if you forget the cable, you might only have a couple hours of power available. Since they’re dedicated to only one function, they tend to respond very rapidly when mapping a new route. Of course, they don’t need a permanent installation, which means they’re ready pretty much right out of the box. And their map updates are easier to install, since they typically can plug right into your laptop.
Why even bother when you can just use your smartphone for directions?
Smartphones are great for a lot of things, but you’re taking a few chances if you’re using them to find your way. The most glaring problem is distracted driving. With a portable or in-dash navigator announcing directions and showing you maps on a large screen, you’re much less likely to take your eyes off the road while driving. You’re also at the mercy of your smartphone’s battery, which can go down after not much time spent mapping.
If you find yourself either in a remote area or near a stadium full of people, you’ll notice that when your cell signal disappears, so do those directions you’re relying on. A dedicated portable or in-dash system works just about everywhere, regardless of cellular coverage. Even if you have a strong signal, the data might not flow quickly enough to keep up with your driving, so you might be frustrated by missing a turn or trying to pull up details quickly. And if you're using your phone for navigation, you can't really use it to do other things — and if you try, you might find your directions interrupted by an incoming phone call or text.
Truck and motorcycle navigation
If you're a big rig driver or RV enthusiast, you'll want to make sure your GPS navigator doesn't lead you down a restricted road or under an overpass that's too low for your vehicle. We carry specialized portable navigators that allow you to build vehicle profiles to ensure you're routed safely to your destination. Those routes might not always be the shortest, but they'll help you avoid potential issues with sharp curves, narrow lanes, steep hills, cargo or weight restrictions, and other hazards.
Are you into touring on your motorcycle? Check out specially designed portable navigators that can mount on your bike's handlebars and feature rugged construction to protect them against the elements. These navigators typically offer Bluetooth connectivity so they can transmit spoken directions directly to your compatible headset or helmet, instead of competing with road noise. And they'll usually offer buttons or glove-friendly touchscreens which allow easy operation.
Handheld GPS receivers include models designed for hiking, 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.
Garmin’s Approach S20 GPS golf watch can give you precise distances to the next hole and help improve your game.
Marine GPS receivers feature waterproof casings and marine chartplotter maps, and even fishing tables and celestial schedules to give you an idea of the best times to drop your line. Most can also store highway map information, so you can use your marine GPS to get you to the marina and then out to the fish.
GPS fishfinders give you a clear, accurate picture of what's below using sonar, and their display screens really bring the murky depths to life. Once you've found a favorite spot on the lake, you can make your way back to it again and again.
Garmin's echoMAP CHIRP 73sv chartplotter gives you a clear view of the action beneath your boat on its 7" touchscreen display.