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GPS Devices

You're harried. You're behind schedule. And you've got to drive your kids somewhere you've never been before. At moments like this, the promise of car GPS technology calls to you like a shining star: never get lost again.

GPS? That's Global Positioning System. Does GPS work? How? And how do you choose the right unit for you?

Yes, GPS works. Unless you're in a tunnel or otherwise well-hidden, GPS systems do indeed link up with satellites orbiting the Earth, and tell you exactly where you are, within yards. Yes, GPS systems do work with maps to tell you the best route to your location, and guide you there one turn at a time. Yes, GPS systems do typically contain databases that can direct you to the nearest gas station, restaurant, hotel, tourist attraction, or other "point of interest."

You can buy your new car with GPS (and your car dealer will love you if you do: they're expensive, high-profit items). Or you can buy after-market GPS units from folks like Garmin or Magellan that install permanently into your dashboard, integrate smoothly with your car's audio system, and are tough to steal. (Good thing, too: they're also not cheap.)

These days, most folks are springing for portable units that run on internal batteries (or plug into your car's charger), and stay in place via windshield suction cups. Portables are great if you switch between cars. And you can pack them for vacation (since not every car rental comes equipped with GPS yet).

How to choose the right device

If you shop around, you can find a low-end GPS unit for $150, or even less. Or you can pay $600-$700 for something that's top of the line. What should you be looking for? Here's our take:

  1. Ease of use. How easy it is to enter your destination, and any other instructions you want your GPS to follow (fastest route vs. shortest route, for example)? Is the screen bright and large enough for you to read? (These days, 3.5" screens are a bare minimum: many units now have more comfortable 4.3" screens.) Tip: Speech recognition is just coming into the market: you speak your directions rather than entering them on a touchscreen. Too bad it's not quite ready for prime time yet.
  2. Map updates. As road atlas companies like to stress, maps do eventually go out of date. Construction happens. Locals convince their towns to transform suburban streets into dead-ends. Bridges get closed. Can you get map updates? What will they cost?
  3. Text-to-speech. Low-end units tell you "Turn right in 100 yards." Better units tell you "Turn right onto Jones Street." Most folks find that a lot more comfortable.
  4. Other features. They're proliferating: maybe you need 'em, maybe you don't. Decide for yourself. Some units have Bluetooth connectivity that lets you use your cellphone hands-free. Some have built-in MP3 players, or cameras, or even video playback. Some offer optional "congestion alert" subscriptions to help you avoid traffic jams. Some connect you to up-to-the-minute Google point-of-interest information. And a few even warn you when you're coming up on one of those pesky stoplight cameras.
By the way, your car's not the only place GPS can come in handy. There are special GPS units for runners, bikers, hikers, "geocachers," fishermen, and even divers!

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