What's the best way to navigate?
Car GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers are designed for in-car navigation. You can spend anywhere from $100 to more than $350 on a GPS navigator -- and they'll all get you from point A to point B reliably. Pricey models add some extras that can really make navigation easier, though.
For example, you can get a GPS system that understands voice commands (so you never have to take your hands off the wheel), boasts an enormous 7-inch screen (no more squinting) or gives you directions using landmarks (e.g., "Turn right at Starbucks" instead of "Turn right on Elm Street"). Those little luxuries can make getting from place to place less stressful -- but they'll cost you. At the lower end of the price spectrum you get a car GPS with few niceties, but one that can still help you reliably find your way. But if you've got a smartphone with a free navigation app, do you really need a separate GPS navigator at all?
Should you skip the GPS unit and just navigate with your smartphone?
For years, car GPS sales have dropped as more and more people get smartphones, which offer spoken turn-by-turn directions for free. Put it this way: When Google offered a new version of its free Google Maps Navigation app for iPhone in December, "10 million people downloaded it in just two days -- almost as many as buy a Garmin GPS in a year," MIT Technology Review noted.
Android phones come preloaded with free Google Maps Navigation. This app delivers "all the features you expect from stand-alone GPS units," ConsumerReports.org blogger Dirk Klingner says, plus two big-deal features that usually cost hundreds more on Garmin and TomTom units: voice commands, so you don't have to take your hands off the steering wheel or your eyes off the road, and -- naturally -- the ability to search Google to find your destination, rather than relying on a finite (and possibly outdated) points-of-interest database.
Smartphone navigation used to conk out every time you lost your data signal. But now, you can use Google Maps Navigation offline. That means you can always navigate with your smartphone, even if you lose your signal (or don't have a data plan at all). Several other free or reasonably priced navigation apps -- like CoPilot GPS, Navfree, Navigon and Sygic -- work offline, too. That erases one of stand-alone GPS units' major traditional advantages. Still, stand-alone GPS navigators do have their benefits:
No ongoing charges. If you already have a smartphone, you're already paying a monthly bill for voice, data, etc. But if not, the one-time cost of a stand-alone GPS system can be a better bargain. Don't forget about extra costs, too: If you plan to navigate with your phone, you'll probably want to buy a car charger and windshield or dashboard mount. Navigating sucks the battery dry, and holding your phone while driving is a no-no in many states (in fact, a California judge ruled this year that navigating with a handheld phone while driving is illegal).
Bigger screens. Sure, you could use a tablet with a free app to navigate -- but not everybody has a tablet or wants to haul one back and forth to their car. If you tend to squint at your phone's little screen, you can buy a big-screen GPS navigator (a basic 7-inch model will cost you a little over $200) and just leave it in the car if you want. (Beware of hot/freezing weather and thieves, though.)
Louder speakers. Stand-alone GPS navigators have beefier speakers than smartphones, so it's easier to hear the directions.
Smoother navigation. "Smartphone navigation apps are pretty great," CNET's Antuan Goodwin says. But with a stand-alone GPS navigator, "the mapping and routing experiences are bulletproof" -- unlike apps, which "may crash or stutter depending on your phone's background processes." Once you've used a stand-alone GPS navigator, you'll notice the difference.
Once you've decided a stand-alone car GPS is right for you, it's time to narrow down the choices. To find the best car GPS systems, we consulted dozens of expert reviews and hundreds of user reports. Our choices are based on reports of how well the GPS navigator works, of course. We also consider how easy it is to use, extra features -- including their usefulness and usability -- and if what you get is worth the price you pay. The best car GPS devices are named Best Reviewed choices. We also name a few auto GPS systems that are nearly as good and could be better choices for some buyers under certain circumstances. We highlight top-of-the-line models and also some worthwhile cheap GPS systems that get the job done at a more wallet-friendly price.