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Best GPS navigators for summer road trips

Consumer Reports News: June 28, 2011 12:53 PM

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Summer is here, and it 'tis the season for road trips. If you're braving the high fuel prices for adventure, considering bringing along a portable navigation device (PND) as an electronic copilot. While all GPS navigators can get you from Point A to Point B, there are a few that excel at road tripping.

If you're traveling a long distance, having a good dashtop navigator can ease some traveling stress and even bring a measure of entertainment.

There are many features that can come in handy on the road, though finding them all in a single device can prove elusive.

Tops on my list are speed warnings and an exit guide. Speed warnings are fairly common on the latest devices. As the name suggests, the device will show the current speed limit and indicate if you exceed it. When traversing unfamiliar territory, this can help keep you legal and safe.

An exit guide indicates what restaurants, gas stations, and major services are at upcoming exits. It can be a great help if you have an urgent need, or just a hankering for a certain cuisine. All navigators can search a points-of-interest (POI) database by name or browse by category, but that is not the most efficient way to find a place to eat when traveling at highway speeds. Many units allow you to search POIs along route, but the results typically are provided based on distance, which can be ahead, behind, or to the side. Even if you can search along the route, the device may think a few miles to the side is a better choice than driving another 10 minutes for the same franchise right off the highway. The one-touch exit guide, such as is offered on most Magellan units in our ratings, is truly a road tripper's secret weapon.

Traffic information can be invaluable for commuters in major metropolitan areas, but it can also be a real help on a busy travel weekend. Being able to avoid congestion and toll-booth backups means a happier family and shorter drive.

Should tragedy strike on the road, from a flat tire to a health problem, quick access to nearby emergency services can be a real convenience. Popularized on Garmin units, "Where am I?" or emergency service feature is found on most major-brand devices, this type of function typically shows the nearest fire department, police station, hospital, and towing service, with complete contact information and one-touch routing. (Learn more about common GPS features.)

While a navigator is a tool, it can also add a measure of infotainment to the ride.

Connected devices can provide the latest weather reports and help find the lowest-price gas along the route. Many mid-level and premium devices offer Bluetooth for hands-free phone operation.

Less common now, some devices have MP3 playback handy for a long set list, or given the fidelity limitations of the built-in speaker, this feature provides a means for playing audio books.

For added fun, TomTom devices make it easy to download a custom voice, including Homer Simpson, Star Wars characters, and even a few celebrities. (However, we have experienced difficulty installing voices on the newest TomToms.) All units typically include some basic voice choices, including gender and language. British is a common option, allowing directions to be issued in the Queen's English.

Clearly, there are many facets to consider in choosing the best GPS navigator for a summer road trips, including how you might use it on your regular commute. Below, we highlight several models that stand out to our GPS Team for road tripping. To find the unit that's best for you, check out our interactive GPS Selector that allows you to sort and filter the ratings by the factors that matter most to you.

Our picks for the best GPS navigators for summer road trips
Garmin Nuvi 3790T: Impressive, premium navigator with a glass touch screen, vivid graphics, and sleek design. Voice recognition, Bluetooth, and 3D buildings. Can enhance with additional maps, such as CityXplorer Maps for major cities (typically $12 - $14) and MAD Maps ($12) that provide scenic routes.

Garmin Nuvi 550: If road tripping leads to adventures off the beaten path, the Nuvi 550 provides a unique combination of good road routing and trail guidance, with topographic maps. It is water resistant and Geocaching friendly. We tested the previous 500, and it performed well, but we have not used this specific model.

Magellan RoadMate 3055: A road trip champ, the RoadMate 3055 has a large 4.7-inch screen, a friendly interface, free lifetime traffic, Bluetooth connectivity, helpful exit guide, and AAA TourBook information.

TomTom 740 Live: Full-featured, upscale GPS with almost every feature available. TomTom 740 Live is equipped with a cellular modem, making it a "connected" device ready for traffic, weather, fuel prices, and a Google search right out of the box. It also includes features such as Bluetooth hands-free calling, iPod interface, photo viewer, and voice recognition. It has reality view, lane assist, "Help" for emergency services, and "IQ routes" that can provide intelligent routes using historical traffic-flow data. Requires a monthly subscription to realize its full potential.

Remember, as valuable an aid as a GPS navigator can be, it is important to have a rough idea where you are going, and it is even wise to bring printed directions as a back up. (Read: "Don't let a GPS navigator steer you wrong.")

Jeff Bartlett

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