When is the last time you found yourself digging underneath your car seat searching for a crumpled-up paper map? Chances are good it has been a while, thanks to the popularity of GPS apps on smartphones. In fact, GPS apps are so ubiquitous nowadays that you may wonder why you even need a standalone car GPS. Portable GPS devices do offer many benefits, however, and for those who love to travel and explore, they can be indispensable.
Thinking about purchasing a car GPS, but not sure where to begin in your search for the right portable GPS device? Check out the table below to compare features and pricing on top products.
|Garmin Nuvi 55LM|
|TomTom VIA 1535TM|
If you still are not ready to choose the best car GPS for your needs, read on to learn more about these handy navigation aids.
- 1 What is a Car GPS?
- 2 How Does a Car GPS Work?
- 3 Questions to Ask When Shopping for a Car GPS
- 4 Features and Add-Ons to Look For When Shopping for a Car GPS
What is a Car GPS?
A car GPS is precisely what it sounds like—an electronic navigational system you keep in your car to help you find your way from point A to point B. While there are in-dash systems built into some cars, it is more common these days to purchase a small portable GPS. Sometimes a portable GPS is also known as a portable navigation device (PND).
How Does a Car GPS Work?
All GPS technology works by checking in with a network of orbiting satellites. These satellites continuously transmit radio signals broadcasting the time and their positions. The GPS checks its location with reference to several satellites simultaneously, and then uses this information to extrapolate your exact coordinates on earth.
Questions to Ask When Shopping for a Car GPS
Do you really need a GPS?
A lot of people actually can get by with a GPS app on their smartphone. But a portable standalone GPS device offers some benefits a smartphone doesn’t: a larger screen, a focused function (no multi-tasking), a more streamlined interface, and extra features which your smartphone might lack. Plus, you do not necessarily want to share your phone with family members, but a GPS contains no private data. So if you do a lot of exploring or you want something you can share with other users, it makes sense to buy a car GPS.
What size do you need?
A larger screen is much easier to use, but you do not want the screen to be too large or it could occlude your windshield view. Think about where you will mount the device and then calculate the screen size that will be an ideal fit for your vehicle. If the device will be used in more than one vehicle, be sure to take that into account.
Do you need a traffic feature?
Some GPS devices offer free traffic data for the lifetime of your device; others do not, and you have to purchase a premium subscription service to get that data. The quality of the premium data is usually higher, but it can add significantly to your price. Then again, if you live in a rural setting, you may not need traffic data at all.
Features and Add-Ons to Look For When Shopping for a Car GPS
Every portable GPS device can be plugged into the 12-volt socket in your car, and every car GPS should also have an onboard battery. Two to four hours of battery life is typical. How much you need depends on how much you expect to take the GPS out of the car and use it while hiking, cycling, geocaching, or so on.
See roadwork up ahead, or perhaps a traffic jam you want to avoid? Some GPS devices have a quick detour button which you can push (or say “detour”) to prompt the device to offer up an alternative route. This allows you to navigate around roadblocks on the fly.
Written driving directions are usually clear—but not always. When you are merging in or out of a highway and there are eight lanes of traffic and multiple exit lanes which take you in wildly different directions, it can be next to impossible to know if you are really taking the right lane. Street view, sometimes called junction view, shows you a realistic 3D rendering of the upcoming junction, highlighting the appropriate lane.
Before you buy a car GPS, check your local laws to make sure you understand mounting rules. Then pick a unit which will be easy to mount and un-mount. Those which have the cord plugging into the mount itself rather than the actual GPS unit tend to be the most convenient. This configuration makes it easier to take the GPS in and out of your car (as you do not need to keeping plugging in and unplugging the device).
GPS maps can quickly go out of date. Lifetime maps is a fantastic feature as it allows you to update your maps for the lifetime of the device. You may be limited to doing this just once or several times a year with some devices; others may let you update anytime. If you do not get a GPS with free lifetime maps, you will have to buy updated maps in the future if you want your data to stay current.
Voice technology, cameras, and more
There are a number of other cool features that many car GPS devices include. Some can read directions to you aloud and may be voice-operated as well. Others may include cameras—very helpful in a situation involving a traffic violation or accident. Some GPS devices may alert you when you are approaching a school zone, or might allow you to set custom alerts for restaurants, gas stations, and shops up ahead.
Now you are familiar with why you need a car GPS and what types of features are important to look for when you are shopping. Ready to find the perfect GPS for your automobile? Scroll back up to the top of the page to take a closer look at our comparison chart!