If you're considering giving the gift of navigation this holiday season, we can point you in the right direction with our test-based advice.
The good news is, there are just three leading brands from which to choose: Garmin, Magellan, and TomTom. In years past, there were numerous companies trying to get a slice of the navigation pie, from brands you never heard of to well-established electronics companies. Competition was fierce, the barriers to entry high, and the margins low. Consequently, the field has since narrowed and the choices are simpler.
And now the bad news: There are still dozens of models and variations to choose from.
Start by identifying your budget. There are deep discounts available, with sale prices starting at less than $90, although these devices tend to bring compromises such as screen size and user friendliness. Plus, they are generally not the latest models. Realistically, you'll spend $100-$120 for a good, contemporary device. Stretch up to $160 or so, and you can get most of the common bells and whistles. Of course, there are several devices priced from $250 and beyond, adding glass screens and voice control, but those are for the rarified few.
Determine the best size. Small, 3.5-inch devices have become the exception, rather than the rule as they were a couple years ago. These are extremely portable, being conducive to removing from the car and storing in a pocket book or briefcase. However, the more common 4.3-inch size provides a larger screen, making it easier to read the maps and enter addresses. Large 5-inch devices may be a good choice for full-sized pickups, SUVs, commercial trucks, and RVs, but they are too big for a conventional car. (If you are buying for a big rig or RV driver, be sure to by a model specifically configured for their routing needs, such as those in the Garmin Dezl or Magellan RoadMate Commercial lines.)
Key features. Today, most devices include spoken street names (for natural-language route instructions) and even traffic services. Know that traffic information is imperfect, especially in the low-cost units, but it can be helpful. Consider buying lifetime traffic and map updates, as these will extend the device's usefulness and are much cheaper to purchase upfront. Model names typically include "M" or "T" to indicate these services.
Entry-level units that provide an easy-to-use interface often lack handy features, such as multi-destination routing, traffic capability, and a pedestrian mode. In the $120-plus devices, lane assist and reality view become common, two types of display that advise on how to take an exit. These can be quite helpful features, especially when traveling in unfamiliar areas.
As prices climb to $160 and beyond, Bluetooth connectivity is readily available, allowing your phone to interface with the device. This can effectively add Bluetooth functionality to an older car that may not have come from the factory with an integrated, hands-free system.
The models below target three types of buyers. They have 4.3-inch screens, unless otherwise noted. To learn the specific features and test scores, see our complete GPS ratings. An interactive tool can help you sort and filter by the factors that matter most to you.
Apps are another option. Smart phones with built-in GPS receivers and free software have proven to be true competitors to standalone devices. While our tests favor the ease of use of a dedicated device, a smart phone can effectively get you from Point A to Point B with the included Apple or Google map software. Applications from major navigation companies, such as Garmin, Navigon, and TomTom, can mimic a portable device, giving the best of both worlds. Smart phone users will want to have a dedicated mount, ideally a special-purpose one that has a built-in receiver and more-powerful speaker. A phone charger is also key, as navigation can significantly drain the battery.
Around the holidays, the nav app companies typically have special discounts. Definitely don't buy at full price. After doing the research, you might consider giving an iTunes gift card to the Apple iPhone user on your shopping list.
Wrap it up. If you do give a GPS device this holiday season, go the extra mile and preprogram it with the person's home address and some favorite locations. You can even customize it with holiday graphics, personal photos, special icons, or novelty voices, depending on the company and device.
Choose carefully, as you will hopefully be buying a welcomed traveling companion that can be a digital passenger for years to come.