How to choose the best GPS navigator for back to school

Consumer Reports News: August 01, 2012 09:08 AM

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As families prepare to send their students off to college, most have a mile-long shopping list filled with essentials for independent living. One great gift that may not be on the radar is a GPS navigator to help the student get around campus area and back home safely.

With the proliferation of smart phones, choosing the right nav solution involves determining if a navigation app or a dedicated device is the right way to go. An app on the phone ensures help is within reach at all times, but for regular use, our testers favor a dedicated device.

Plotting a course for the best navigator
In choosing a dashtop device, consider the features that will be used routinely (e.g, text to speech) and skip those that are just added-cost bells and whistles (e.g, MP3 player). For most drivers, we recommend a widescreen unit with a display that measures about 4.3 inches diagonally. This will make it easy to read the screen and enter addresses. Larger screens are best used for large trucks, minivans, and RVs; they are too big for a conventional car.

If your student is an urban commuter, consider a device with free traffic information. Many devices are now available with and without traffic; "lifetime traffic" typically adds $20-$30 to the purchase price, although we have seen recent examples where it costs much less. Avoid traffic coverage that requires a paid subscription, as those can get quite expensive over time. Your student's money is better spent on tuition and books.

When traveling, the added assistance of speed limit warnings, lane assist, and reality view can be much appreciated. But if the student won't stray too far from school and home, skipping these features can mean finding a very affordable, basic unit for $100, or even less with a little online shopping.

Our back to school picks...
Best on a budget
Garmin Nuvi 1350LT
Magellan RoadMate 2145LM
Magellan RoadMate 2136T-LM

For the gadget lover
Garmin Nuvi 3490LMT
Garmin Nuvi 3790LMT
TomTom 2435 TM

These suggested models can steer you in the right direction, but there are dozens of decent devices available. Learn more about these and explore the options using our interactive ratings tool that allows you to sort and filter by the factors that matter most to you. The model pages for all GPS devices provide detailed ratings, specs, and test findings.

If going the app route
Some smart phones, such as the Apple iPhone, have small screens that can make it a challenge to read the map, particularly in larger vehicles where it may be mounted further from the driver. To work safely, a solid mount is necessary. There are affordable universal mounts readily available online, and we have been impressed with the purpose-built iPhone mounts from Magellan and TomTom. These more expensive mounts improve GPS reception and provide a dedicated speaker, making instructions easier to hear and doubling as a hands-free speaker. Given the battery drain from active use, a car charger is practically a necessity.

We have repeatedly sampled applications from a wide range of providers. In general, we favor those apps developed by navigation specialists, such as Garmin, Navigon, and TomTom, rather than the free or low-cost alternatives, such as Waze. The big-name apps are feature rich, with clear instructions and easy-to-use interfaces that mimic the dedicated devices consistently at the top of our Ratings.

For Android, the included free Google Navigation will suffice for most drivers. In the fall, Apple will launch its iOS upgrade with built-in navigation that promises to rival the Google service.

Check out our video below for more tips on choosing the best GPS navigator for your student.

Back-to-school shopping guide
From backpacks to cars and for grade school to grad school, we've got you covered.

Jeff Bartlett

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