How to buy the right GPS navigation device for the holidays

    Consumer Reports News: December 07, 2007 10:39 AM

    The holidays have seen a wave of new portable GPS navigation devices coming to market, with sales fueled by significant discounts. Flip through your Sunday newspaper or do a quick Google Product search, and it becomes clear that prices have plummeted from levels of "personal indulgence" to lower costs that actually make these products affordable this season.

    Before rushing to the store with a sales flyer in hand to make a quick purchase, we suggest doing a little research to ensure you get the right product. With a basic understanding of the available features, and quick checking of our ratings (available to online subscribers), you can make an informed purchase that will get you where you want to go and possibly entertain you on the way.

    We recommend focusing on how well the system works for navigation, using the ratings to prioritize controls, guidance features, and map database coverage, over fun, nonessential extras. It is easy to be drawn in by MP3 playback and Bluetooth abilities, but simple controls, easy interface, clear display, and long battery life are likely more important.

    For gifting, there are basic units, such as the TomTom One, that provide all the basic guidance tools in an appealing, affordable package. But don't assume all low-cost units are created equal. While their features may sound comparable on their packaging, elements like display and control interface may differ significantly.

    Other key considerations:

    Text-to-speech capability. A system that speaks street names rather than says simply "turn left" can reduce the need to take your eyes off the road to scan the on-screen map. This feature is seldom found on the lowest-cost units.

    Avoiding traffic. A system with traffic-reporting capability can be helpful if you travel frequently in congested cities that have good traffic-monitoring coverage. Between the map and detour functions, the system can help you to route around traffic-slowing problems. Most units require a subscription service and some need an external receiver. (The recently evaluated Navigon 5100 provides free traffic service.)

    Infotainment. A full-featured model can effectively upgrade an older car with features like Bluetooth hands-free telephone capability, MP3 player, an iPod connection, and an FM transmitter. Of course, if you have late-model car with Bluetooth and an MP3-compatible stereo, these features may be redundant. Don't pay for something you already have or don't need.

    Travel gear. If you travel outside the United States, consider a premium unit that offers maps for navigating overseas. Be aware, additional maps can add significant cost, upwards of $300. Most will serve the U.S. and Canada right out of the box.

    Screen size matters. Often for just $50 more, you may be able to buy a comparable unit with a wider screen. For frequent use, the larger display can provide broader map views, bigger touch-screen buttons, and easier-to-read street names.

    Mounting. Most models mount to your windshield using a suction cup attached to either a ball-in-socket, rigid, or gooseneck-type arm. We find the rigid arms are better at holding the units in place, especially over bumps. (Note: Windshield mounting is prohibited in California and Minnesota.)

    Price. With the holidays fast approaching, there are deals to be had on many GPS units. We have found prices have dropped $100, $200, and even more on devices we have bought in the past month for testing. Be sure to scan online to ensure you are getting the best price and all available rebates. Also look for price-reduction guarantees, in case the price lowers shortly after you make the purchase.

    Jim Travers and Jeff Bartlett

    For more information on portable GPS navigation systems, see our Ratings and buying advice and watch our video guide. Discuss GPS devices in the forums.

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