When it comes to navigating from point A to point B, I have no idea how I survived so long without a GPS. There’s something comforting about the calm, level-headed voice that comes out of that little black box, telling me how to get wherever I want. Long gone are the days when I have to add an extra 30 minutes to my travel time to make sure that I have time to ask for directions at least once.
Though standalone GPS devices – not an app on your smartphone – may be slowly crawling toward obsolescence, I don’t think they’ll be totally gone for quite some time.
Best GPS Devices
1. TomTom Go Live 1535M – $180
TomTom has long been a leader in the GPS business. One of the first GPS devices I had was a TomTom, though it wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as the TomTom Go Live 1535M. What I like about this particular device is that not only does it have a great nose for direction, but includes a Twitter interface as well that can keep your family and friends updated on your progress in a more road-friendly manner than texting or calling.
The TomTom Go Live 1535M is the first GPS device to incorporate connected apps into its user interface. This means that your points of interest list is as dynamic as the apps the device uses to access them for a particular location. TomTom Go Live updates its points of interest lists using data downloaded from such top sites as Yelp, TripAdvisor, Expedia, and Google Local Search. This means that you always have up-to-date information for the area that you are in.
As previously mentioned, this GPS is also connected to Twitter, and will send out tweets via your account regarding your location and your remaining estimated time until arrival. Your friends, family and other loved ones can keep track of your progress while you keep your hands on the wheel. They can also locate you wherever you are in the event of an emergency.
TomTom has also integrated several useful apps of its own into this particular model. TomTom’s HD Traffic Service will not only advise you of any traffic snares you may encounter along the way, but will suggest alternate routes and even give you a heads up as to what you can expect to pay at the pump if you need to stop for gas. You also receive audible alerts that will notify you when you are approaching an intersection equipped with a red light camera or a stretch of highway that is equipped with radar.
Not only can you control what you see on the screen and hear from the speaker via touch screen commands, but you can also control this TomTom with voice activated controls, which is great for making adjustments to your route while behind the wheel. You can speak the address you wish to go to and add filtering criteria, such as minimizing traffic, avoiding toll roads, and more.
While having a “current points of interest” list is nice, navigating such a feature on this device isn’t quite so nice. Searching by category is a bit of a chore since some points of interest that might be relevant to you may not show on the results list. This can be due to poor categorization, or not having a particular search term in its title. Searching by name is a little better, but if you are in an unfamiliar area you may not know the names of some of the places you are looking for, unless it’s a McDonald’s or a Walmart.
The auto-tweet update feature is wonderful in its own right, but beware of using your main Twitter account to broadcast your whereabouts. The main reason for this is that you simply don’t want to broadcast to the world that you aren’t at home, as your home could be targeted for a break-in. Another annoying reason why you should set up a separate Twitter account for this feature is that your usual Twitter account will be inundated with all sorts of status updates about your coming and going, so be kind to your followers and set up a new account for this service.
I like this GPS. It’s a little pricey for a standalone navigation device, especially in light of all the smartphone GPS apps that are available today. The points of interest search is a little iffy overall, but the hands-free Twitter updates and voice command functionality make this a welcome device in any directionally challenged driver’s vehicle.
2. Garmin nüvi 50 – $110
Garmin is also a well established player in the GPS arena and has been providing great quality GPS devices for many years. The Garmin nüvi 50 is a solid and inexpensive navigation device designed to get you to where you need to go quickly.
The Garmin nüvi 50 has a very large screen, which some may find a little overbearing. But for people with larger fingers or eyesight that leaves a little to be desired, this is a design boon.
The interface is extremely simple to use, making it perfect for drivers new to the GPS world. My grandmother is 87 years old and has never felt the need to use a GPS device until she had to take a long road trip. This was the perfect device for her, as it was not only easy on her eyes, but the spoken directions were clear and loud enough for her to hear. The onscreen directions were also easy for her to understand. This is a great entry-level GPS.
For those of you who like crisp, clear, high-definition maps, this is not the unit for you. The maps are somewhat pixelated, which makes following the onscreen maps tough. And I was less than impressed by the lack of a mounting disc and USB cable in the box. Of course, I have a variety of assorted USB cables in my home thanks to having a gadget-minded family, but my grandmother did not.
The price point on this particular device makes it an attractive alternative to some of the higher-priced devices, but the added cost of purchasing must-have equipment makes it a little less attractive.
The Garmin nüvi 50 does exactly what I expected it to do. It provides easy-to-follow audible directions and a large screen. This is the perfect GPS device to give to a college student headed off to school or to an older, less technologically advanced driver.
3. Magellan Roadmate 5175T-LM Traveler – $275
Magellan is another familiar name in the GPS industry, and is known for producing extremely good consumer GPS devices. One of the coolest features of the Magellan Roadmate 5175T-LM Traveler is the ability to set up itineraries for your trips.
Perhaps the most valuable feature on this particular device is the free lifetime map updates. Anyone who has ever owned a GPS knows that the maps that come with the device can become quickly outdated, turning a trip into an adventure when even your GPS doesn’t know where you are.
Additionally, Magellan has added an extremely helpful app called TourDirector, which you can use to set up a trip itinerary and optimize travel time. I love analytical software, and any app that can save me time behind the wheel is a friend of mine.
You can also browse local attractions and even browse the Internet if you get stuck in traffic. There’s nothing like checking what your friends are doing while you are stuck in a three-hour traffic jam – though the traffic data functionality can help you avoid such snarls for the most part.
TourDirector destinations are based on locality and not on popularity. This means that if you browse some local attractions and want more information on a specific attraction before you commit, you’ll need to pull over somewhere and use the browser to get user feedback.
Speaking of the web browsing capability, having a browser is nice, but if you aren’t in a WiFi zone, you can’t use it. Plus, the browser itself isn’t really optimized for leisurely browsing. Having it available for a quick check is nice, but don’t plan on using it in lieu of your laptop while on the road.
This is a very good GPS device for family vacations thanks to the addition of some useful apps like TourDirector. The lifetime map and traffic data updates are worth their weight in gold, and being able to optimize your drive time is invaluable for people who travel for business. All in all, this is a great little GPS device for the money.
4. TomTom VIA 1535 – $130
The TomTom VIA 1535 is a little less luxurious that the Go Live 1535, and the price difference reflects the diminished functionality. That’s not to say that this is not a completely capable GPS device, but it does lack some of the niceties of the step-up models.
This is a thinner device than many others on the market. And while many people wouldn’t necessarily consider this a selling point, the ability to place it in less obtrusive areas of the car wouldn’t be possible without the more streamlined design.
What I really like about this unit is that its main focus is on driver safety. You can connect your cell phone to the device via Bluetooth technology and talk hands-free, keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. You get the same voice command technology that can be found in the more expensive models, which is also designed to keep your focus on the primary task at hand: driving. The traffic data and intelligent routing applications make quick work to get you around congested areas.
The traffic data and intelligent routing apps are great – so long as you stick to the interstate systems. There is no coverage for secondary routes and surface roads. You’re on your own there.
Furthermore, I am not a fan of the menu system used by TomTom. It is more complex than it needs to be to get the point across.
This is an entry-level GPS in the TomTom lineup, and while the price is a little higher than other manufacturers’ entry-level models, you get a few additional features not found elsewhere, such as Bluetooth connectivity, voice command technology, and intelligent routing.
5. Garmin nüvi 3790T – $285
The Garmin nüvi 3790T is one of the thinnest and lightest GPS devices on the market today. This means that you can put it just about anywhere you want and actually expect it to stay put – this is not something you can say about some of the heftier devices. You also get some of the features that make TomTom models so attractive, like hands-free voice controls and Bluetooth connectivity to your cell phone.
The hands-free voice command feature is truly hands-free. All you have to do is merely speak to the nüvi and it responds. You also get such driver safety-focused features such as cell phone Bluetooth connectivity, which allows you to make and receive calls hands-free.
No consumer electronics device that is regularly exposed to direct sunlight should ever be equipped with a glossy screen. Have you ever been blinded by the reflection of the sun off the face of your watch? It’s the same principle, but you actually have to look at your GPS, so this is definitely a design flaw.
The other weird quirk with this device is that if you choose to take it off-road (in your hand instead of mounted in your car), the traffic data doesn’t work. Of course, this shouldn’t really be an issue, since most are not worried about getting stuck in traffic while walking, but it’s a bit strange. And there are instances where holding your GPS in your hand while you are driving is necessary, so don’t expect to get access to traffic data if the GPS holder is broken.
The reason for this is that Garmin elected to save some internal space in the device and incorporated the FM receiver into the power cord, which ultimately prevents it from receiving traffic updates unless it is docked. The other features work quite well either in or out of the docking station.
The nüvi 3790T is a nice GPS device that includes some useful apps over the entry-level models, and the price point reflects this. The voice command and Bluetooth connectivity features are a great addition and definitely worth the price increase.
Regardless of whether you are finding your way around your own backyard or halfway across the country, having a standalone GPS device will allow you to keep your cell phone battery charged and access some great features not present in your navigation apps. Features designed to help keep you safer behind the wheel, save time and money on your trip, and even find lesser known local attractions are just some of the things a GPS device can do.
What is your experience using a GPS unit? Do you find GPS to be a lifesaver, or more of an annoyance?