Educate me on GPS units

This could have gone in GQ, I suppose, but I also want opinions.

So: I’m thinking of getting a GPS for my car/motorhome. My biggest question, which I can’t seem to find an answer for on product websites, is: Do these things need a cell-phone-like contract in order for them to function? If so, then this is a non-starter, as I don’t want any more contracts.

The opinion part:
In your experience, which is the better unit: Tom-Tom or Garmin? Is the 5" screen version worth the extra money (I wear glasses)? Has anybody had both? What are the hidden costs, if any (such as upgrades to data, etc.)? Are the voice options and touch-screen options worth the extra cost?

Anything else you can think up as far as plus/minus information appreciated.

Hey Chef,

GPS is generally an outright purchase. The service itself, sattelite navigation, is provided by the US Military. The only thing you can pay for on a monthly-bill type basis is traffic data. If you commute into the city, that might be for you. Some units include lifetime traffic with no bill, so that would be good to look for.

Garmin is the prestige company, they make good stuff that’s well built. TomTom is also so good, and IMHO is a little bit more user friendly, I like they way their maps render. They also charge the least to update their maps with new road dat, should you decide to do that.

Most of the cost is based on screen size… you’ll see subtle differences in the area mapped (i.e., does it include AK, HI, Puerto Rico, Canada?), number of points of interest, bluetooth speakerphone/text message connectivity to your cell phone, etc. Virtually all now have text to speech that says street names. Is 5" worth it? How far away from you will the unit be in your car?

Last, get a donut mount with a non-skid base. Leaving your unit in plain view or leaving the telltale circular mark on your windshield will get your window smashed and unit stolen.

We have a Garmin Nuvi (one of the flat/wide screen ones) that we purchased roughly three years ago. It gives directions by street name (“Turn right on Main Street in 0.2 miles” rather than just “Turn Right in 0.2 miles”) but does not include current traffic reports.

Stand-alone GPS units like this one in general do not require contracts (ours doesn’t), but the ones that include current traffic reports may.

If by “voice options” you’re referring to voice recognition on the part of the GPS unit, we don’t have that and I can’t comment on it. I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean by “touch-screen options” either.

Having said the above about no contracts, after a year of use our Garmin started nattering at us each time it powers up that its internal maps may be out of date and that we should download updates from their web site. Those updates cost money (around $40, as I recall), so we’ve never downloaded one - we just press the screen at the “OK” button to proceed.

We loved our Garmin, but now that we have new smartphones that include driving direction apps I doubt that we’ll ever use our Garmin again. (We now have Android-based cellphones and use the freeware Google Android navigational app.) Those smartphones require contracts, of course, but there’s no additional cost to downloading and using the Google navigational app.

Good information on the windshield mark. I hadn’t considered that. I rarely drive into Portland, but for the motorhome, it may be necessary for other cities. The newer units have some sort of touch-screen technology, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the extra bucks. A comparable Tom-Tom (XXL) and Garmin Nuvi are about $20 apart in price (Garmin is higher), which is only about a 5% differential. I could probably shop around and eliminate that, so personal experience will likely be the deciding factor.

IMHO, paying for map updates at least every couple of years is worth it. Yes, it’s expensive (maybe a ripoff), but it’s annoying to have your GPS not know about new streets, changes, closed businesses, etc.

A lot of my friends have gone the smartphone-only route. I personally don’t find that very practical, but I have a horrible sense of direction so I use my GPS all the time even around home. With smartphones (my main phone is an iPhone 4; I’ve had two iPhones and two Android phones and I’ve tried this with all of them), I find the screen is too small, the interface isn’t quite as easy to deal with (making it harder to quickly adjust at a stoplight or something) and the speakers aren’t as good (making it harder to hear the directions).

Honestly, even though it’s FAR more expensive (definitely a ripoff), I vastly prefer the factory built-in GPS in our car that has it over the standalone GPS in our other car. The integration makes it much more usable. For example, when it needs to speak, it temporarily turns down the radio and speaks through all of the speakers in the car. The main UI and map shows in the center of the dash, and there’s also a display in the middle of the instrument cluster showing the key data (next turn, arrival time, etc.), which makes it a lot easier to glance at without taking my eyes off the road for long. My personal order of preference would be: factory GPS, then standalone (I like the Garmins), then smartphone as a very distant last resort (and I am saying this as a dedicated smartphone user). YMMV.

Forgot to mention, for my Garmin I just paid for the “lifetime” map updates. I forget the exact cost, but I recall that it cost less than two normal updates, so it seemed like a good deal. Worth looking into.

I doubt that I will ever own an iPhone or the like, as I have no need for something with all of those aps and features. I have a basic cellphone that runs me $19.95/month and rarely ever use it. If it wasn’t for my wife’s insistence, I’d get rid of it. My car has On-Star (something else that I’m going to cancel at first opportunity), which has an optional navigation feature, but there is no screen (unless it somehow magically appears on my radio/CD player display when used). But On-Star is an expensive service.

I’m really wavering on whether this is something that I really need. There’s always Mapquest, which has worked fine for us so far, and regular paper maps that we use all the time. Decisions, decisions.

At the time I bought my car, the integrated GPS unit was very expensive (though some other options were included). I figured it would cost me less to call tow truck and have them tow me to my destination :slight_smile:

Garmin (named after the founders Gary and Min) is probably the biggest GPS company and has been around a while. But other brands are just fine.


To me, the biggest improvement in having a GPS over Google Maps or Mapquest is that it constantly adjusts the route. If you get off course for some reason (stop for a meal, construction detour, wrong turn, etc.), the GPS will instantly re-route to give you correct directions from where you are. With a printed Google map, you need to find your way back to the route you mapped out. Usually not a big deal, but if you have as bad of a sense of direction as I do, the extra help is really great. The GPS also makes me a lot more confident about trying shortcuts and alternate routes in my daily life – I know that if I get lost, I can just plug in my destination and the GPS will get me to where I need to go.

Good point. We deliver Meals on Wheels once or twice a week. Portland east/west streets have zero logic to them. They’re not alphabetical, and few areas even have the convenience of something like tree names to go by. On top of that, they zig and zag in a most inconvenient manner, stopping in the middle of a neighborhood and picking up in another. Add to this the fact that there is always work going on with the sewage system because of tree root problems, so you’re often re-routed. When that happens, ol’ Mr. Direction Challenged gets wrapped around the axle and an argument breaks out in the cockpit.

My best suggestion is to look for maps of the areas you would like to go and pick the unit based on how easy the maps are to get and what the reviews of the maps are like.

I am just starting hiking and grabbed a great deal on an older Magellan but soon found that the topographical maps are hard to come by in my area. I did some research, found the Garmin maps are all over and returned the Magellan for the Garmin. I just wish I had researched the maps first.

I’m assuming from the parts of your comments that I didn’t quote that you’re comparing the size of a smartphone screen to that of a built-in GPS and not to that of a standalone GPS.

I just checked the two, and my brand-new Motorola Droid X has a** larger** screen than the Garmin Nuvi that we purchased about three years ago - and at the time we purchased that Garmin it had the largest stand-alone GPS screen on the market. The touchscreen on the Motorola Droid X is big - using it as a phone kind of makes me feel like I’m holding a plate to the side of my head. :smiley:

I’m comparing to both standalone and built-in. But I’m comparing against the iPhones and Android phones I have (which from a size perspective match pretty much any I’d be willing to own). The Droid X isn’t something I’d ever consider buying – it’s a small laptop, not a phone. So yes, if you’re willing to carry a ridiculously large smartphone (or if you’re looking at a very small standalone GPS), that part of the argument doesn’t apply.

My husband has borrowed my Garmin on occasion for this very thing and has found it quite useful.

I have the most basic Garmin model. I wear glasses, too, and don’t have any problem seeing the screen, but then I put it on the left rather than in the center, because I’m left handed and it’s easier for me to handle the touch screen that way.

I think it would be very useful to have a model that speaks the street names.

If you just want advice, just pick the best Garmin Nuvi you can afford and meets your needs and be done with it. All of the Garmin products are excellent. They started out making them for airliners so you get to benefit from the same technology at a cheap price. In my experience, a GPS unit is one of the most useful things you can own especially if you drive to unfamiliar places a lot. There isn’t much to it. You just pick your model, plug it in and tell it where you want to go and it tells you how to get there with maps. You can subscribe to things like live traffic updates but it is mainly a just plug it in kind of deal. You can usually update your maps once a year with a media card but don’t worry about that now.

This, and finding just about anything you want. Looking for a restaurant in a town 100 miles away? Or say a hotel along your destination? They are also great for finding businesses.
I have a Garmin that is more o

f a hiking unit, but it works well in the car too. But I usually use the GPS on my BB Storm. I like having it in my cell phone. One less thing to carry, take care of. And, it’s nice if you are in say your hotel room or out walking and need to locate some sort of business.

I should be clearer. Say you are looking for oh, Italian food. Punch it in and it will list the Italian restaruants near by. With the phone number.

Thanks all. Looks like they’re all about the same, but really a matter of which screen size to get and how much money to spend on extra features.

I’ve had Garmin, Tomtom and Magellan. The Magellan was very annoying in many ways, and couldn’t determine that I was on the freeway express lanes rather than the main line, and tried to send me to the wrong exits. The Garmin and TomTom were fine. The Garmin was annoying in that everytime I plugged it in or unplugged it it would turn itself off and on again, making me click past the main “I agree” screen each time. Also, it wouldn’t charge off a house power outlet, it would only charge in the car outlet. Sometimes I like to plan a route in the house, but couldn’t if it wasn’t charged already. The way around this seems to be to use an adapter that plugs into the wall with a big hole in the middle for a car charger to fit into.

Some have a voice recognition feature. I haven’t tried it, but the salesman said that it doesn’t work that reliably yet.

Actually one of the best GPS services I ever used was VZ Navigator, which came on one of my Verizon phones. The only problem with it was my phone didn’t have a touch screen, and in fact had a tiny screen (not great for reading a map while driving).

One thing I did like though, that would apply to some of the nicer GPS units, is Bluetooth connectivity, if you happen to own a bluetooth headset. Keep the headset in your ear (assuming good AC in your car so it doesn’t get all sweaty), and the GPS will just say the directions into your ear so you can hear it over road noise, the stereo, etc. If the GPS happens to be in your phone, you can of course also answer phone calls but all the usual warnings about distracted driving apply there.

Currently, I use a TomTom GPS, which seems to work pretty well, though the maps are a bit out of date in some places (like our relatively new apartment complex). I’m about go head overseas for a few years, but when I get back, I might drop $40 for a map update and keep going with it, or just use whatever comes on whatever phone I have at the time.

Our Garmin charges off our computer with a mini-USB cable. Or off the car. Or off the mini-USB-compatible wall charger I got for my digital Walkman. And it only turns itself off if you have it plugged into the car and turn the car off.

Chefguy, a lot of times you can get a lot of extra features for next to no extra money if you shop the sales at Amazon. Our unit retails for something like $250, but we got it for $120, which was only $20 more than the cheapest model in Garmin’s Nuvi line.

Which model do you have?