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Garmin Nuvi TomTom Go TomTom Start TomTom Via Magellan Roadmate

Many people feel a standalone car GPS device is going out of style. If they have a substantial data plan and a capable smartphone, they figure they can skip getting a navigation device for their car altogether. That’s a mistake.

A standalone car GPS is dedicated to one thing, and one thing only: Getting you safely and efficiently to your destination. Even though smartphones are immensely capable and versatile devices for many daily tech chores, they aren’t designed with navigation in mind. Even the best app for your phone is going to be inferior to a dedicated car GPS.

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A Dedicated Car GPS Offers Accuracy And Safety

Since your car GPS is usually kept inside your car, you’re always going to have it handy when you’re ready to drive. Using a smartphone for everything brings inconveniences that a dedicated car GPS doesn’t. If you’re going to use a smartphone for your car GPS, you’ll need to mount it to your dashboard or windshield, or else you’ll constantly be fumbling for it and taking your eyes off the road while driving. For a device that’s supposed to make driving safer, that’s a big no-no.

Battery life for a cellphone that’s pressed into service as a navigation device is often a problem as well. If you drain your battery while using your smartphone as a car GPS, you may not be able to make or receive an important call or text once you’ve reached your destination. And of course you’ll have to choose between getting directions and using your cellphone during your trip.

Which Brand and Model?

That’s a very good question! And you can read all about the differences, easiness of using the nav device and about all the features in our product model reviews. Popular brands and models are TomTom Start, TomTom Go, TomTom Via, Garmin Nuvi and the Magellan Roadmate.

Navigation Apps Are Data Hogs

Smartphone apps are often data-hungry programs that can drain your data plan before you’re anywhere near your destination, and you could easily be hit with a whopping cellphone bill if you’re not careful. In short, using your smartphone as your car GPS makes you worry about your smartphone all the time instead of relaxing and letting your car GPS take care of everything that has to do with driving. With the high quality and low prices of car GPS units, a dedicated navigation device makes more sense than ever.

How To Shop For A Car GPS

There are dozens of models of car GPS devices on the market, so you’re sure to be able to find one that will suit your driving needs and your budget. While there are a handful of manufacturers to choose from, you’ll find that the overall appearance of the devices doesn’t vary all that much, so as a consumer, you’re in the enviable position of only worrying about functionality and price.

Screen Size Is A Fundamental Choice

One of the few design differences from on car GPS maker to another that really matters to many drivers is screen size. Unlike a desktop computer, bigger isn’t always better when you’re talking about car GPS screens. Most drivers prefer to attach the car GPS directly to the windscreen, and larger screens can block too much of the view out the car windows. If you mount your car GPS directly on the dashboard, once again forward view can be scarce, and you might prefer a smaller car GPS screen.

How Sharp Is Your Screen?

Screen resolution is another factor to keep in mind when choosing a car GPS. Even small, inexpensive car GPS devices have fairly sharp 480 by 272 pixel display resolutions on approximately 4-1/2” by 2-1/2” of screen. The most expensive models offer resolutions as high as 800 x 480 pixels that can compete with any smartphone screens. Car GPS screens display bright, bold colors and simple directional and landmark shapes for the most part, so the higher resolution screens are reserved for more expensive models that offer photo-realistic navigation and 3-D rendering of intersections and waypoints that need crisper images to deliver the full usefulness of the features.

Touch Screens Are Universal, But Functionality Varies

All major brands and models of car GPS devices have touchscreen functionality. There are major differences between the two types:

  • Resistive – Less expensive but still useful. A resistive touch screen is responds to physical pressure on the plastic screen to use buttons or menus displayed on the screen. Some resistive screens aren’t very sensitive and require careful placement and a lot of pressure to register your commands properly.
  • Capacitive – Capacitive screens don’t rely on any pressure to register commands. They read the static electrical charge in your fingertips to operate virtual onscreen buttons and other menus displayed on your car GPS. Unlike resistive screens, capacitive screens not only sense where you place your fingertip, but also motion in your fingertip. Capacitive screens allow you to swipe your fingers to scroll; and like smartphones, the best screens allow you to place more than one finger at a time on the screen to perform commands like pinch and zoom.

Buyers Can Now Choose Landscape Or Portrait Orientations

The manufacturers of car GPS devices have taken a cue from smartphone makers and begun to allow you to mount your unit in either the usual landscape orientation or a vertical orientation if you prefer. Some users will like the vertical (portrait) orientation because it shows more of the road ahead than in a landscape display. For long trips on superhighways a longer view down the road can be invaluable in planning turns and rest stops long before you have to cross multiple lanes of traffic to reach them. If you’re looking for landmarks or points of interest (POI) on your screen, a landscape view will show you more of the area around you, and additional side streets.

Some car GPS units automatically reset the orientation when you turn the unit; others make you do it manually with an onscreen command. Many older models and low-end units can’t manage it at all. If you’re having trouble placing a car GPS device on your dashboard or windshield due to clutter or other space considerations, a portrait orientation could be just the thing to fit it where you want it to go.

Satellites Are Generally More Reliable Than Cell Towers

Unlike smartphone apps, car GPS units rely on satellite information to guide your journey. If you travel to remote locations where cell phone service is spotty, you’ll really appreciate the reliability and stability of a satellite link. Even urban areas can pose problems for cell service due to tall buildings blocking reception. Unlike cellphones, it can take a short period of time for your car GPS to acquire a satellite signal before it’s able to begin guiding your journey. The length of time it takes a GPS device to boot up varies considerably, and should be taken into consideration before purchase if you hate to wait even a minute in your driveway before heading out.

Different Models Come Loaded With Different Data

Car GPS units come preloaded with maps, and the areas the maps cover vary from device to device. In most cases, if you’re traveling on other continents you can purchase map upgrades for your device for a modest fee. In addition to road maps, your device will make varying amounts of other information available to you as you drive, like Points Of Interest (POI) and other landmarks. Really well equipped car GPS units will have lots of POI info and many other landmarks you can view while you’re driving. If you’re a road warrior that is constantly in need of directions to the nearest gas station, rest room, restaurant, coffee shop, or even national park or camping area, look for a unit with a lot of info included.

Free Map Upgrades Are An Important Feature To Consider

While your navigation device will come preloaded with road and POI information, you’ll also need to verify if this information will be updated for you going forward. Roads are changed and added constantly, and destinations like hotels and restaurants change all the time, so you may want to get a device that offers unlimited information updates for the life of the unit.

Directions Based On Landmarks Are Now Available

Not all navigation devices give you directions solely based on road names and numbers and directions. More and more units use easily spotted landmarks in their voice directions, which can be useful if you’re driving at night or in bad weather and have trouble reading road signs. A direction to take a right at the clock tower might be easier to follow than one that tells you the name of a road that doesn’t have a sign visible.

Higher-end models of car GPS devices now feature 3-D and photo-realistic depictions of important intersections, to guide you through messy interchanges without worry. Some also include lane assistance to keep you from having to dart across multiple lanes without enough notice to make a turn.

Hands Free Use Is Your Safest Option

Hands-free use is always handy for devices used while driving, and some car GPS devices now offer voice commands and Bluetooth features that allow you to sync your phone with the GPS and answer phone calls while driving without even reaching for your phone.

Look Into The Website Before Buying

Car GPS devices are very durable, so you should choose wisely because you’re bound to be using your unit for a long time. Warrantees are important, but perhaps more important are good customer support if you’re got a hardware or software question, and an easy to use website to make information updates a breeze.