First of all, do you even need a stand-alone GPS at all? Well, as we argued in a past feature, a GPS bundled into your smartphone is more convenient than having a separate device for navigation. We stand by that decision; if you have an Android phone, it comes pre-installed with a full-featured navigation program, and there are myriad apps for iPhone.
But GPS navigation via smartphone isn't perfect. If you drive into a dead zone, you'll have to deal with only partially loaded maps, and several of the top-of-the-line apps for iPhone can cost just as much as one of the cheaper GPS units. So despite the convenience of a smartphone, you may still be considering buying a physical GPS. And so, we thought you might need a guide that would help you navigate (pun!) the choices available to you.
After all, GPSs have grown from mere "maps on a screen" type devices to feature-rich bundles of computational (and navigational) wonder. But sometimes companies like to overload their offerings with too many technical marvels. To that end, here's a list (in descending order) of what we think are the essential features on a modern GPS device and why you should consider buying a unit that offers them:
Lifetime Map Updates
This is probably the most necessary feature to look for in a stand-alone GPS system. After all, what's the point in having a device to help you navigate when it doesn't know its own way around the streets? Paying a little more for a system that includes updates will, in the long run, save you money from having to either buy map upgrades later or buy a whole new GPS all together. It'll be doubly worth it when you realize your out-of-date device just reccommended you make a left turn into someone's living room.
Of note, sometimes "lifetime" means "for life — but only a limited number of times a year," like this TomTom XXL 550M 5" Portable GPS Navigation System ($96 with free shipping, a low by $28). That's OK. Maps that are a couple of months out of date are not as agravating as maps that are years out of date.
Your GPS chirps, "Keep right" ... but how far right? Does it mean all the way right, so you're in the turning lane, or just far enough right so you're not in the left-turn-only lane? With this feature, a quick glance at the system's screen will show you exactly where you need to position yourself to avoid going off the navigation path. (It also helps you avoid the horriflying prospect of a last-minute lane-change at 75 mph before you hit a dividing wall on the freeway.) This feature can be found on the TomTom XXL 550M 5" Portable GPS Navigation System (again).
At first it might seem like an unnecessary add-on. After all, all GPS systems will tell you to make a right or left turn. But after you've turned onto the wrong side-street for the ump-teenth time because there were two options and you invariably chose the wrong one, you'll wish your GPS, like the Garmin nüvi 2350 4.3" Portable GPS Navigation System ($119.99 vis "3A825" with free shipping, a low by $28), would be more specific and say "Turn right onto OAK STREET" and not just "turn right."
Unless you're determined to have a marathon "I Spy" session with your kids, no one wants to be stuck in traffic. Look for a GPS, like the Garmin nüvi 2370LT 4.3" Widescreen Portable GPS Navigation System ($209.99 via "3A825" with free shipping, a low by $26), that will route you around it to save yourself time ... and sanity.
A Big Screen
Since you shouldn't really be staring at the screen of your GPS while driving, we left this must-have until last. But why is it necessary at all? Because the bigger the screen is, the easier it is for your eyes to take in the information that the GPS is displaying. A large screen facilitates quick glances rather than a long stare that ends in a collision. This is also an area where a stand-alone GPS system might have the edge over smartphones (which tend to have smaller screens, as they are meant to fit in your pocket).
What to Skip
There are some add-ons which you can definitely avoid paying a premium for. Bluetooth connectivity might sound cool, in a "tech buzz-word" way, but think about how you'll be using that feature. Exactly, you won't be. The same goes for voice activation. When using a GPS, 99% of the time you are (to misquote Ron Popeil), "Setting it and forgetting it" before you start driving. So voice activation isn't really worth paying more for.
After all that's been said, we still strongly suggest you consider a smartphone, bundled with an in-car phone charger, instead of a stand-alone GPS. We think it's the smarter way to go.
All items mentioned are available at the lowest total price we could find from a reputable seller at the time the story was published.