The Best GPS: Many Ways to Find Your Way

We compared navigation systems to see which ones do the best job of pointing you in the right direction.

You have (at most) three choices for cloud-based navigation: Google, Networks in Motion, and TeleNav. Your cell phone provider may offer only one service for the device you own. Networks in Motion products are available exclusively through carriers, and sometimes carry brand names other than NIM. TeleNav's products may be branded as TeleNav or with the carrier's name. The Verizon VZ Navigator and Sprint AAA Mobile services rely on Networks in Motion's technology, while AT&T Navigator, Sprint Navigation, and T-Mobile TeleNav GPS Navigator work with TeleNav. Google Maps is free to use on supported handsets.

Dedicated GPS Device

Best for: People who regularly need navigation help and want a large screen and an intuitive interface. Hardware tested: Garmin Nuvi 265WTPrice: $170 (street)

You can save money by using a smartphone instead of a dedicated GPS device for navigation, but you may not save much. For less than $200, you can purchase a dedicated device with a 4.3-inch screen--the most common size for such devices, and significantly larger than the screen on any smartphone--treated with an antiglare coating that makes reading text on it easier than reading the material on a phone screen. Even better, you can make a phone call and obtain directions simultaneously. And you may not have to pay for an ongoing subscription (though real-time traffic data may involve a recurring fee).

A dedicated GPS device mounts on your vehicle's dashboard or windshield. All of the maps and points-of-interest data reside on the device--either on an SD Card or in memory that the manufacturer builds in to the device-so you do not have to maintain a data connection. Most GPS devices support text-to-speech for delivering turn-by-turn directions.

Dedicated devices do have a few drawbacks, though. A GPS app on your cell phone may download updates over your data connection; but with a dedicated GPS unit, you must download updates on your PC and then load the data onto your device. Also, whereas updates for phone apps are usually free, manufacturers of dedicated devices often charge for updates.

High-end dedicated GPS devices include premium features such as a Bluetooth speakerphone interface, real-time traffic information, 3D buildings and landmarks, and speech recognition. But the speech recognition on these devices is less accurate than the technology on either the Nexus One platform or the BlackBerry Bold's AT&T Navigator service. The Bluetooth phone interface on a dedicated GPS device may not be able to read contacts from your cell phones, either, in which case you'll have to enter your contacts manually. In contrast, smartphone apps take advantage of the handset's phone book, so you never have to reenter phone numbers.

The $170 Garmin Nuvi 265WT that I tested came equipped with a 4.3-inch, 480-by-272-pixel-resolution touchscreen that I found easy to read, even in direct sunlight. Some entry-level models come with 3.5-inch screens; more-expensive models may have 4.7-inch, 5-inch, or 7-inch screens.

The Nuvi 265WT offers access to a database of 6 million points of interest, searchable by name or category. Many categories have subcategories to help you refine your search. You can search for points of interest in your current location, in a different city, or along your route.

Garmin ships the Nuvi 265WT with complete Navteq maps for the United States and Canada, and as part of the deal you also get free lifetime traffic updates.

The Nuvi 265WT's Bluetooth phone interface--a premium feature--won't read the contacts stored in your cell phone, but it will dial points of interest directly. In my informal tests, both incoming and outgoing calls sounded good on it.

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Magellan's RoadMate 1445T ($160) offers free lifetime traffic information and directs you to the proper lane for the next turn. TomTom's XL 340S (about $150) features IQ Routes, which uses historical traffic and speed data to calculate an optimal route. To receive live traffic on the XL 340S, however, you must purchase an optional traffic receiver.

Each of those products carries a 4.3-inch screen. Similar products with 3.5-inch screens cost less. Garmin's Nuvi 265T ($160) is identical to the 265WT except for a smaller screen; likewise, the TomTom One 140S ($130) is essentially a 3.5-inch version of the XL 340S. Magellan's RoadMate 1340 ($150) closely resembles the 1445T--and also has a 3.5-inch screen-but lacks a traffic feature.

Two-Way Connected Device

Best for: People who don't have a smartphone but want navigation help, live traffic, weather, and search information. Hardware tested: TomTom XL 340S LivePrice: $240 (street)

A two-way connected GPS--known in the technology industry as a portable navigation device, or PND--makes sense only if you need connected services such as weather data, advanced traffic updates, fuel prices, and Google local search, and if you can't use a smartphone to get the information. Connected GPS units are more expensive initially than other dedicated GPS devices, and they require you to pay for a monthly data subscription.

Standard GPS devices, which get traffic information from signals broadcast by commercial FM stations, can only receive data. Connected GPS models can initiate requests for data as well as receive it. Such two-way communication supports real-time traffic updates, weather information, and local fuel prices. Some two-way products can also identify scheduled movie showtimes at nearby theaters, as well as airline flight arrival and de­­parture information. In addition, you can use Google local search to identify and obtain ad­­dresses for restaurants or stores that aren't included in the GPS device's points-of-interest database.

The greatest disadvantage of a connected GPS device is its cost. The price of TomTom's XL 340S Live is $80 higher than that of the similarly featured but unconnected XL 340S; and even so, it covers only three months of data service. Subsequently, you'll pay $10 per month for the accompanying live services--a steep price when you consider that the money could be going toward something significantly more versatile, such as a smartphone data plan.

The XL 340S Live's fuel-prices feature lets you select a fuel grade and then search for the cheapest source nearby or in a wider area. Alternatively, you can search by price area-wide, by distance, or by cheapest price along the planned route. I checked local fuel prices along my route as I drove, and the TomTom-reported prices appeared to be up-to-date.

Google local search supplements the TomTom device's internal database of 7 million points of interest, letting you search near your current location, within a city, or in another location. If you choose ‘another location', you can use any of the Navigate To search options, including home, address, favorites, recent destinations, points of interest, current location, point on a map, GPS coordinates, or the position of the last stop. When you select a point of interest that Google local search suggests, you can add it as a favorite, show the location on the map, or navigate to it.

The Live connection also provides live traffic data. You can browse traffic incidents on a map, show traffic on a planned route, and (if you set locations for home and work) check traffic on your daily commute--more options than most other traffic services offer. The XL 340S Live can read traffic updates aloud, too.

If you aren't already paying for a smartphone with an associated data plan, the XL 340S Live might make sense for you. But consider the long-term cost before you commit to it or to any other two-way connected GPS unit.

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Currently, four connected GPS devices are available: the XL 340S Live that I tested; the larger and more expensive TomTom Go 740 Live ($350); the Garmin Nuvi 1690 ($400); and our Best Buy, the Insignia NS-CNV43 ($200). Like TomTom's devices, the Insignia NS-CNV43 comes with three months of free data. Thereafter, plans for continued coverage range from $5 for three days of service to $99 for a year of service. The unit's two-way connectivity covers movie times and an interface to Twitter--features not found on either Garmin or TomTom products.

In-Dash Car Navigation

If you're considering buying a new car, you may have the option of specifying a factory installed, "in-dash" navigation system. Those big screens are attractive, but they're expensive and they don't age well.Many navigation systems are sold only as part of an option package that may cost between $2000 and $5000. Also, in many systems, all of the maps and points of interest reside on a DVD; upgrading the data typically costs more than buying a good dedicated GPS device would.

GPS technology is advancing so fast that, in four years, today's state-of-the-art navigation system will likely be a dinosaur at trade-in time.

Still, in-dash units have several advantages, including larger screen size, superior reliability, and more-secure installation in your car. They offer tight integration with an in-car Bluetooth speakerphone, storage capacity for your music, and voice-recognition controls. They may also tie in to the car's speed and direction sensors, ensuring that you'll retain basic navigation functions even if you lose your satellite connection.

Another option is to buy an aftermarket in-dash system, though such systems usually require professional installation.

This story, "The Best GPS: Many Ways to Find Your Way" was originally published by PCWorld.

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