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The best GPS for me, and you

Consumer Reports News: April 30, 2008 05:03 PM

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With cars, we have become quite accustomed to the 4-5 year product cycle. This pattern sees a new model introduced,  a midlife update after 2-3 years, then the model is phased out or  replaced by a new, larger, more powerful, and pricier car.

But like other electronics, the fast-paced portable GPS navigation world is much different. There are now about 2-3 model cycles occurring each year, and the new models are typically sleeker, more feature packed, and sometimes less expensive than the models they replace.

Since we have accelerated our test program during the past 18 months, we’ve seen new abilities and features continually emerging. Many of these features truly improve the breed, or at least show great promise with further development. We have rated some excellent units, noting attractive Best Buys for their combination of features and price. But even recognizing how good today’s best units are, for my personal taste, there is not yet a single, do-it-all navigation device that hits all my hot buttons and sells for an attainable price. But I believe it is coming.

That hope brings excitement to testing each new product. Will this one be better than its predecessors? Just like with cars, I find myself often thinking, "The next generation will be perfect." I am still waiting.

As we have just added new units to Dash and Sony to our GPS ratings (available to online subscribers), and are now evaluating the next test group, I realize that GPS perfection may be  a never-ending quest. For now, if I could assemble a fantasy device from current units, my electronic platypus would include:

Ease of useGarmin. From the moment you turn on any Garmin Nuvi, the interface is simple as can be. "Where to?" it asks. Being able to quickly find the destination you seek saves time and frustration. This is particularly valued if you have a passenger program the unit who may not be familiar with it or if you are a tech-averse, first-time GPS owner.

Wide screen—The larger screen width not only make the maps easier to read, but it can simplify address entry with larger on-screen buttons. Plus, I like using a split-screen with a large arrow indicating the next turn.

Spoken street names—Also known as "text to speech." Knowing exactly what street to turn on can reduce confusion, especially in urban settings. Driving through a major city, like New York, being told "Turn right" just isn’t specific enough.

Free trafficNavigon 5100. Living in the greater NYC metropolitan area, traffic info is important to me. After all, the right information can mean the difference between domestic tranquility and a cold, lonely dinner. The MSN Direct service and Dash Driver Network both have proven to be useful services, with the Dash promising even more future potential. But, my life is overflowing with fees for other devices and I just can’t stomach one more. The free traffic information with the Navigon is similar to the data received from some other for-pay services. While not perfect, it is helpful and the price is right.

Historic traffic—TomTom, Dash. In my experience, so-called real-time traffic isn’t always up to the minute and still doesn’t adequately contend with rush-hour congestion. The increasing trend for units to tap historic traffic information means the route suggested at 8 a.m. may be different than the one proffered at noon, even if there isn’t a major accident. This is helpful for commuting to find better routes, and even more welcomed when traveling, where you simply don’t have local knowledge to predict likely traffic flow.

Reality viewSony NV-U83T, NV-U73T, and TomTom 930, 730. Like latest Navigon units, these newer devices provide a so-called “reality view” that presents a simple graphic of an upcoming, major intersection, though their graphics are a touch more pleasing. I have found this feature to be very helpful in navigating complex highway interchanges, with clear guidance on the proper lanes to occupy.

Speed alerts—Integrated speed alerts can display the current speed limit and alert when it has been exceeded by a user-set amount. This can be a real help in unfamiliar areas where the speed limits rise and fall unexpectedly.

Processing speed—It can be frustrating to delay leaving on a road trip while a device seemingly flips endlessly through a card catalog to find and route to a POI, rather than whisking quickly through its electronic database.

Design—Give me a clean design that maximizes screen size, with a thin, non-reflective case. And place a hard-key button on the exterior for muting.

Best for you
As the innovation continues, more and more consumers will find the multi-function GPS devices to be an important tool in their mobile electronics inventory. However, it is the core navigation features that I want to see refined and gathered in a single, affordable model. To me, stuff like a video player or currency converters don’t contribute to the main purpose of a GPS device—just efficiently get me where I want to go.

So while the perfect GPS device (by my standards) may not yet exist, any online subscriber can quickly find the best GPS device available for their needs and budget using our dynamic ratings chart. Links from each product name will take you to a detailed product page, with our testers’ notes on the highs, lows, and bottom line.

If you buy a device, please return to the product pages once you’ve had some experience to share your insights with others via the user reviews. And rest assured, the GPS team will continue to rate models on our never-ending search for the perfect device.

In the meantime, what features matter most to you? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

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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